In this brave new world of twenty-first century higher education, it is now axiomatic that professors must employ every possible digital device in order to engage their students. This has led to the common practice of allowing students to use their laptops in the classroom. And use them they do. All you have to do is stand at the back of a crowded campus lecture hall to see the screens crowded with multiple windows open to everything from news sites to Facebook to YouTube. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of typed notes underneath the social media bling. When I finally got tired of playing Internet policeman last year, I decided to ban laptops in my Modern Jewish History class.
At first, the students resisted. There was quiet grumbling. Eyes rolled. Some students visibly panicked. I told them that to study distant lands and ages past, you can’t be floating around in cyberspace. To venture afar in your imagination, you have to begin by rooting yourself in the present. Flattening the world into an online babel of competing voices is a poor strategy for improving one’s own ability to listen to and digest complex ideas.
The problem is not just that laptops provide an outlet for boredom. After all, distraction was just as much a problem in Aristotle’s day as in ours. Laptops also have a negative effect on the more attentive students, many of whom compulsively transcribe every utterance out of my mouth onto their keyboards. I’ve even had some students who type notes and use a digital voice recorder to make sure they don’t miss a word. While this flatters the professorial ego, it risks ruining the whole point of the lecture format. Since we can type faster than we write, this completist exercise in documenting lectures simply becomes a mindless form of data acquisition. The essential skill of discernment, of determining what is important and what is not, gets lost in a world of students turned secretaries, dutifully taking dictation.
To be fair, technology is an invaluable teaching aid. Students in my lecture classes have come to expect detailed powerpoints that take full advantage of the web’s digital bounty of maps, images, and sounds. I’ve experimented with alternatives to conventional writing assignments, allowing students to curate their own online exhibitions with documents from digital archives. Course forums add significantly to class participation in courses without dedicated discussion sections. But these online advances are complementary instruments to the main work of student-teacher interaction. In the humanities and social sciences, our goal is not to teach students how to remix the culture or instantly connect classroom content to the world outside. It is to teach them how to think.
I’ve now gone on to ban laptops in several courses. And the result? Many students are relieved. Instead of burying their heads in their screens, they ask more big-picture questions. To be sure, at the beginning of each term, some complain that they’re not sure what to write down as the most important take-away facts from lectures. I tell them that this is precisely the point. In a world of data overload, their job as students is to learn how to determine what is important.
To remain attractive and viable, universities will need to think hard about how to integrate technology into the classroom. But my vote is for less, not more. Today’s students enter college as digital natives, already more literate and fluent than their professors will ever be. What they need from us is not tutelage in information management but intellectual challenge and core knowledge. Laptops may make us better at multitasking, but they undermine the radically simple mission of higher education: learning.
James Loeffler is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia and 2013-2014 Dean’s Visiting Scholar at Georgetown Law School. He is the author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. The views expressed are solely his own.