Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. This post also dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read “Why I ban laptops in my classroom,” “I Don’t Multitask,” “professor vs laptop,” Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“and finally “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This is not a new issue. If Paul Graham and other writers and hackers find the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear friends and other grad students say they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour without poking around the Internet, which hurts their writing time. Laptops in general and Internet connectivity in particular might cause greater problems than those they’re designed to solve.*

While I sympathize with some pro-laptop comments, I will point out that paternalism is not always bad; sometimes it’s a necessary component of developing discipline, fortitude, or tenacity. Banning laptops could help students develop the ability to focus for a sustained period of time and not get lost in class, particularly during discussions about complex material. In classrooms I’ve been in—including graduate classrooms—where virtually everyone had laptops, they were used for taking notes, yes. But they were also used for Facebook, and checking out happy hour, messaging, and messaging about the incompetence of the person speaking, checking the score, and a variety of other things that promote continuous partial attention.

The jokes are coming: you must’ve been a dumb student, gone to a bad school, had bad professors, be weak minded, etc. Maybe: but I think the bigger problem is that letting one’s attention temporarily wander is made so much easier by having a laptop and Internet connection is almost overwhelming. Sure, you can stay on a diet with a chocolate cake in your kitchen. Sure, you’d never lie on that mortgage application about your income—but, you know, you really want that McMansion, and no one is going to check it, and you just have to inflate it a little… The problem is that laptops made distraction so easy. They make it harder to separate the bad professor from the difficult material. And so on.

Students in universities succumb to the Beer and Circus mentality, and if they do, what luck will middle- and high-school students have? I teach freshmen English now at the University of Arizona and ban laptops. I’m aware of the counter-arguments and alluded to them above: if you’re not a compelling enough teacher to keep their attention, they deserve to use laptops to get around you. But what if you can’t get their attention in the first place? What if you’re trying to impart something important but that doesn’t have the immediacy of Perez Hilton? Then give them the Cs they deserve when they write bad papers. And then they whine to you about the grades they got. The Slashdot commenter would be such a strong writer or coder or mathematician that he could get by anyway: congratulations. But the other 24 people in the classroom probably can’t.

All this is to say that laptops can very easily and quickly become more a burden than benefit. For some classes they may be necessary or helpful, like programming classes. Still, not every lesson will call for them and not every teacher will want to use them.

“Here’s the dilemma — how much freedom do you give to students?” you ask. The answer depends too much on the instructor to give a firm answer, but I give the answer above in part because so many of the initial responses tend towards “let them do whatever they want.” Sure: and throw someone into an ocean a mile from shore and see what happens. If the teacher wants them to conduct a textual analysis of a Facebook profile, let them. If the teacher doesn’t want them to have Internet access, let the teacher have a kill switch for the room’s wireless router. That way, you’ll be allowing as much flexibility as the situation calls for.

Outside the school, students’ autonomy should be complete, and schools shouldn’t impinge on students’ rights to conduct themselves how they will. Many students will use computers in ways that seem wasteful, but a few will also hack them, use them for self-expression, and let the computers become assistants rather than crutches for thought.

Did you see what Randy Pausch calls the headfake in this essay? It’s partially about students, yes, but it’s really about how to create and learn. Computers can help those processes, but too often they seem to hinder. And when they hinder, they should be discarded. The real scarce resource in modern life is sustained attention.

EDIT 2015: Vox reports on a study that says “you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop.” The study claims that participants who wrote by hand had better recall, especially of complex concepts. Don’t take one study as definitive but in this case anecdote and research match.

In addition, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World discusses similar topics. I think distraction and defeating it will be an ongoing saga for many decades.

* I haven’t gone as far as Paul Graham, who describes his solution:

I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.

And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

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