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Laptops in class: High tech miracle or classroom curse?

A complaint was recently brought before the ASWSUV senate: A disgruntled WSU Vancouver student, who prefers to have his identity withheld, said a WSU Vancouver professor asked him not to use his laptop in class. The senate’s response? It is up to individual professors to decide whether to allow the use of electronic devices in the classroom.

To get an idea of what students and faculty think about the issue, this reporter conducted an informal survey of approximately 100 WSU Vancouver students and 10 faculty members.

The majority of students surveyed said electronic note-taking devices should be allowed in all college classrooms. Many justified their stance by claiming their tuition pays faculty salaries, therefore they should be free to use computers any way they see fit — including browsing the Internet while in class. A common sentiment was, “If we Facebook, it is our problem, not our teachers’.”

Fred Foster is a WSU Vancouver senior majoring in management information systems who taught vocational industrial training for more than 20 years. Foster believes there is a place for computers in class.

“There is no denying that as technology comes into our lives, we have to adapt to using it and learn how it is useful to learning,” Foster said.

Many educators have embraced technology over the past 10 years for the pedagogical advantages it provides. Although classrooms across the board have not changed, universities like George Fox, Villanova, University of North Carolina, California College San Diego, Seton Hall and others provide a free laptop to incoming freshman for use in class and at home.

At WSU Vancouver, several professors said allowing students to use laptops (or similar devices) in class helps them as instructors. They not only ask students to quickly perform internet searches mid-lecture, but classroom connectivity keeps professors “honest” and on their toes.

The use of a laptop in class can enhance students’ note-taking abilities. Computerized notes are more legible, are easily re-organized, can be cleaned up after class for spelling mistakes or words the student does not understand and can save money and help the environment by saving paper.

Taking notes on a laptop can also be faster than manual note taking. The average person writes at a rate of 31words per minute (wpm). While a two-finger typist averages about 37 wpm, advanced typists can reach speeds of more than 120 wpm.

Not all students and faculty support computers in the classroom. As ASWSUV Vice President Aaron Bruckner, a senior majoring in computer science, said: “Technology is ingrained in our society and is a great tool for good, but like everything else, it can be misused.”

The most common complaint about electronics in the classroom is the potential to distract both user and students nearby. However, Wendy Olson, assistant professor of English and director of composition at WSU Vancouver, said digital devices are not the problem.

“The classroom has never been distraction free — don’t blame technology,” Olson said.

Rory Sage, a junior majoring in history, disagrees.

“It drives me nuts!” he said.

Sage said he noticed some students never use laptops for the intended scholarly purpose, but surf the web instead of taking notes. Sage advocates taking notes the old fashioned way, with pencil and paper. He recognizes the advantages of electronic devices, especially for students with disabilities or learning disorders, but in his experience, many students would rather check Facebook than listen to a lecture or take notes.

Cassandra Gulam, instructor of Spanish language and culture, does not allow the use of any electronic note-taking applications in her classes. Instead, she requires students to engage with one another in conversation.

“Laptops do not enhance learning in my classes, they distract from it. I want students engaged with one another — not with a screen,” Gulam said.
Gulam makes exceptions to her philosophy for students with disabilities. Because she knows computers can augment the learning process, she schedules lab days and uses programs like Moodle.

Laurie Drapela, associate professor of criminal justice, does not prohibit the use of laptops for pedagogical purposes, but, because of her first-hand experience with students checking Facebook or playing online games instead of taking notes, she openly discourages the use of electronic note-taking devices in her classes and clearly states this on her syllabi.

Thabiti Lewis, associate professor of English, believes the fixation on technology is “a reflection of a society with attention problems.”

Lewis said if students get distracted by technology, it is their own fault.

“Students pay to attend classes. If they’re going to distract themselves, they’re only wasting their time and money,” Lewis said. “If students are dumb enough to search the web and become distracted by mundane social networking sites, they will get what’s coming to them.”

We live in the 21st Century, in an era of rapidly advancing technology. The way we perform routine tasks is evolving. With the power of a computer in the palms of our hands, access to the Internet almost everywhere and tablets/netbooks the size and weight of a woman’s purse, we are adapting by using technological tools for everything. GPS navigation is eliminating the need for paper street maps. We can purchase items with a tap on our phones. The average college student owns a smartphone, laptop, tablet or netbook — and some own all of the above.

Today’s students differ from their counterparts of 20 years ago. The ways we learn are changing, too. So why are classrooms, especially at the higher level, not fully adapted to allow the use of electronic devices? The answer lies somewhere between students learning to use technology respectfully and appropriately and instructors learning to trust the digital medium. It is time for classrooms on the WSU Vancouver campus to evolve both in the way teachers teach and students use the tools at their disposal.

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