NYU Professor: Put Away Your Laptops Or “Go Enroll In The University Of Phoenix”

Over the last several years, this campus has become wired: WiFi fills residence halls, parks and classrooms; we use Google’s mail and collaborative tools; the administration has pushed for more online textbooks and lesson plans; computers, projectors and even Blu-Ray players are commonplace in classrooms. We’ve moved registrar resources, course signups and all forms of communication to the Internet. We have classes sharing Tumblr accounts, Twitter handles, Basecamp workflows and YouTube channels. We are surrounded by technology every day. So why are more professors than ever banning students from bringing it into the classroom?

Students’ fears on the first day of class used to be about coursework and attendance policy. But today’s students enter their first lecture anxiously awaiting the professor’s electronic device policy. It’s not uncommon to hear hundreds of laptops clapping shut shortly after syllabi are distributed. It’s the sound of an epidemic.

In 2011, NYU’s required liberal arts program (known as the Morse Academic Plan, or MAP) added a policy statement to its Academic Guidelines about the fate of laptops in MAP classes. Rather than fully restricting use, the statement supports teachers’ individual decisions to prohibit or allow laptops in class. Outside of the MAP program, professors in every department are exercising their right to reduce the learning environment back to pen and paper.

Pen and paper? Have we come nowhere since the clay slab and the wax tablet of ancient education? Well, we’ve added Gutenberg’s magical innovation — you know, the one you can thank for your $200 textbooks — but in some classes, that’s the only technology allowed. That system of text and teacher has been pretty effective throughout history, but if you look around today you might notice things have changed a bit.

Professor Vincent Renzi is the director of the MAP program’s Foundation of Scientific Inquiry (FCC). He oversees the humanities, arts and social sciences classes known as Texts and Ideas, Cultures and Contexts, Societies and the Social Sciences, and Expressive Culture. He, like many other professors, does not allow laptops or tablets in class. What are his reasons?

REASON ONE: Laptops create a physical barrier between the instructor and the student (or, “The Cuisinart argument”)

Renzi wholeheartedly believes that paper is the ideal classroom tool. Anything more complicated — laptops and tablets included — is a barrier between students and teachers, a threat to “immediate interpersonal communication.” He and other educators believe the computer creates distance, and for the same reason these teachers tend to dislike distance learning. (But that’s another topic.)

He argues that if a given technology exists and students show proficiency, it does not mean the tool is useful, necessary or worth adopting. To him, technology outside of the classroom is not necessarily relevant inside the classroom.

“I use a Cuisinart to make my dinner, but I don’t use a Cuisinart to read Plato,” he said. So that settles that: you should not use your laptop in class because if every single innovation can’t contribute to education, then none can.

But if we’re digital natives, the architecture of our education must help us thrive, much like a retirement home is built with wider doors, ramps and elevators to account for wheelchairs. So what about building our classroom on a digital foundation?

Renzi reflected on the potential of a world with electronic worksheet submissions “zapped” to his iPhone, concluding “I could imagine that in some kind of Star Trek fantasy.” How can teachers ever learn to appreciate the role of technology in the classroom if they see it as a sci-fi fantasy?

He questions the idea of digital natives, arguing that today’s students “can make bright pretty pictures on iPads but can’t actually get quality out of what they’re doing” or find good information using online information sources. So if one of the main reasons we’re not allowed to use laptops in class is because our proficiency is mostly superficial, doesn’t that mean the MAP program should be teaching us how to use them properly? Isn’t that what MAP is all about?

In standard 12 of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits NYU as an academic institution, technological competency is listed right beside critical analysis and reasoning, scientific and quantitative reasoning, and oral and written communication skills. But when MAP was founded, NYU faculty decided that it didn’t have a place in the curriculum and voted against it.

We’re punished for (apparently) not knowing how to use technology correctly and denied the opportunity to learn how to do it better. Sure, professors have the option of applying technology to their classrooms. But if they don’t?

Renzi has a solution: “Drop out of NYU and go enroll in the University of Phoenix.”

REASON TWO: It encourages students to think that the point of note-taking is to take transcription rather than taking notes. (or, “The blood sucking argument”)

The argument here is that technology lets us do things (like taking notes) much faster, thereby saving time, and that instead of encouraging students to use that saved time to participate and reflect, we are motivated to become stenographers. To some degree, this does happen. But this is usually only the case in poorly structured classes, where the professor has not made notes or other sources available outside of class. The result is an army of wide-eyed students poised to copy down every utterance, as if to create some scribbled textbook or bible based on the lessons. We’ll call this the “blood sucking argument,” since students greedily suck the information out of class and into their notebooks.

Some teachers have noticed these bloodsuckers. Liel Leibovitz is a professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication whose research primarily focuses on interactive media and video games. He posts his notes online before each session and says that “students often like to plug in” with their laptops tuned to the notes “as class progresses.”

The same can be said of Professor Trace Jordan, Director of the MAP program’s Foundations of Scientific Inquiry division. Jordan encourages students to follow his lessons by downloading or printing slides from the class website. Since all jargon, diagrams and key information are already in plain sight, class discussions are more engaging and in-class notes are only necessary to add supplemental information.

If teachers are creating an environment where content is spilling out but not substantiated in handouts, videos and secondary sources, and in response students are transcribing the classroom, that’s an issue with the learning environment that the professor needs to fix.

REASON THREE: It tempts students to aimlessly browse the internet instead of paying attention (or, “High heels hunting”)

Professor Renzi and other educators are offended by students’ tendencies to shop online, curate social media profiles and catch up on the news during sacred class time. “That’s not a temptation they have when they’re sitting there with a piece of paper in front of them,” he believes. This one’s hard to deny: Students are spending class time browsing NYU Local — keep doing that, by the way! — and selecting high-heels on Zappos. This is breaking news—before the internet, we all know there was nothing else in the classroom to occupy students’ attention.

Oh right, there’s that forgotten world of daydreaming and doodling. Surely you have witnessed entire animated storyboards come to life in rows ahead of you or seen a classmate shade a perfect white-to-gray gradient from the top of his paper to the bottom. And when you look back at your notes from freshman year and see triangles, spirals and missing blocks of text between the transition from dinosaurs to homo-sapiens, surely you’ll think to yourself, “Gee, am I glad I didn’t have the opportunity to use a laptop, or I wouldn’t have produced all of these helpful pictograms!”

The fact is, if we want to be distracted, we will. If the lesson is boring, students dig into whatever does capture their attention and that has never changed. Professor Leibovitz believes the relationship between teacher and student is a contract in which teachers are committed to finding ways to engage students, and in return students come to class with contributions and pay attention. If either side doesn’t do their part, “there’s little that could be done to salvage the relationship.”

But why the hard feelings on iPads but none on sketch pads? Quite simply, because professors are afraid of it: afraid of its potential, frightened it will eclipse academia. Professor Renzi joked that if he were to allow laptops in class, he might as well also host a daily Strawberry Festival outside of his classroom. Like a good jealous boyfriend, educators are always afraid that their lessons will be overshadowed by the outside world. Often, that’s because their lessons are boring.

Digital media scholar and professor Melanie Kohnen, also of the Media, Culture and Communication department, thinks that teachers who enforce a draconian laptop lockdown are “motivated by the fear of losing students’ attention.” She believes that professors must be dynamic and create environments that reinforce the real-world importance of managing digital and physical worlds. Inevitably, students will leave the classroom and engage in any number of media sources. Why should we censor those from the learning environment?

Are there environments where pen and paper work better? Absolutely. Should you take notes in calculus or a chemistry lab using your computer? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean computers don’t have a place in those classes. Literature may be about books and ancient handwritten texts, but it’s also about thoughts which have evolved alongside technology. What technology can contribute to the classroom is an immersive experience. It’s a new, engaging voice in a tired conversation, and it deserves to be heard and used to its fullest. The very first rule of teaching is that you must meet the students where they are; speak the language of your students and they will respond.

People have tried to argue that for $52,000 per year, we should be able to pick the medium we use to absorb and record information. But paying a lot of money doesn’t give us the license to decide how to become educated. It’s an investment in our education — we trust that professors will create a learning  environment that will help us learn and grow, much like how we pay personal trainers to take control of our bodies for the benefit of our health. But if we are to invest in professors, then they must invest in us.

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31 Comments

  • Jon Pucila
    September 13, 2012

    After reading your article twice, I find it to be just as one sided as the professors argument. I’ll be honest, if I am in a class where the professor says we can’t use laptops, I’ll be the first to bitch and complain, but, do I end up paying more attention to the class? I find that I do.

    Technology may make it easier to take notes quickly, but, it also makes is harder to get the detail. If you are taking notes on your laptop and the teacher starts drawing a diagram on the board, it’s not possible to keep up with it in a note taking program. You could try making the argument for a tablet, but I’ve yet to find a good app that lets me take notes and draw in the same file.

    The point also needs to be made that there is a serious gap in technology users. The easy thing to do is blame the professors for “not keeping up with the times” except that really isn’t fair. Just as it isn’t fair for people our age to be expected to know how to operate a traditional film camera. Are there people who can do it? Certainly, but I think those people would be severely outnumbered by those who can’t.

    Taking a class on coding websites would be useless without a computer, plain and simple. At the same time, students took social science classes 20 years ago and got the material then, so there is no reason why students shouldn’t be able to today. If used correctly, the technology could definitely be helpful, but is it necessary? No!

  • Sulayman Rumi
    September 14, 2012

    I agree with the professor. Every time I use my laptop or tablet in class, I find myself drifting off into distraction. Suddenly my GMail alert or my Facebook alert comes up in my menubar and I get completely distracted.

    While there are some classes that require note-taking, a lot of them don’t at all, and those using them or web browsing aimlessly tend to distract people around them.

  • Andrew Olshevski
    September 14, 2012

    When I saw this headline I thought (and hoped) it was going to advocate disallowing laptops in class. And in a weird way it kind of is:

    “We are surrounded by technology every day. So why are more professors than ever banning students from bringing it into the classroom?”

    ^ This is frustrating.

    The argument here falls completely flat. And the whole Cuisinart meme thing is quite distasteful.

    Why pay all that money to spend your time surfing the Web and distracting others?

    The classroom should be a sanctuary from this whole science fiction zombie scenario turned reality where everyone is staring into a screen all the time.

    I don’t get it.

  • Trisha Sales
    September 14, 2012

    I had a professor that used these same reasons to try to get students to not use a laptop in class. He didn’t ban them, but just made it a suggestion. After I heard his arguments, I actually gave the notebook and pen thing a try out of respect for the professor. It lasted two classses. I found his arguments did not apply to me and that his way actually impeded my ability to learn.

    As for the physical barrier argument, isn’t the desk also a physical barrier. Yet, people have learned while sitting behind desks for a very long time. Regardless, I have never felt a need for a physical connection to a professor to learn. I felt no difference in “barriers” when I didn’t have my laptop.

    He also used the transcription argument, which may be true for some, but not for me. My hand-written notes are horrible compared to my typed notes. My typed notes are much more organized. In addition, when I need to look back into my notes for something, I can find what I’m looking for much quicker with the “find” function on my laptop. I’m simply better organized and spend my time more efficiently when studying for an exam when I use my laptop to take notes. But most importantly, I can continue to watch the instructor while I’m taking notes on my laptop. I don’t need to look at what I’m writing. With notebook and pen I was constantly looking down at my paper. I can’t write with a pen legibly without looking at the paper. I am more engaged when I am able to take notes on my laptop.

    I really think it all comes down to professors being worried about the third argument, that students will be wasting time on Facebook or some other such website. This is the only argument that I think is really valid. It is about respecting the professor and the effort he/she has put into the lesson. My school has a pretty simple policy on this. The Dean or faculty members randomly walk into the back of classrooms or look through the windows to see if students are using their laptops for something other than education. If they see a Facebook screen or other non-related website, you will be asked to pack up and leave class. That only had to happen a couple of times before students decided the embarrasment of being called out in front of the entire class and asked to leave was not worth browsing the web. I’m in my third year of law school and it only happend a couple of times my first year.

    Students all have different study habits and learn in different ways. Students should have options that best suit them, but it is reasonable to have repercussions for those students that aren’t respecting the professor’s time.

  • Katherine Corson
    September 15, 2012

    I recently bought a Samsung Galaxy Note tablet and it’s honestly the best of both worlds. I’m in Stern so everything is based in slide decks. I can import the decks into the SNote app and write on the deck – and it can even turn handwriting to text (and yes my handwriting is awful) and correct shapes for diagrams. Then I can save everything in folders amd carry it around. I don’t get the screen barrier of a laptop and ideally I would go paperless and neat in all classes. I think if products likd this existed where it’s clear that you’re taking notes but on a digital screen and not paper, professors might feel more comfortable allowing the technology in the classroom. I feel like with that type of product it would be more obvious if you’re browsing the Internet since you’re looking down and clicking, and since I want a professor to think I’m paying attention I would be less tempted to surf the web.

  • Robyn Ortiz
    September 15, 2012

    I’m a schoolteacher (5th grade), so I’m not in the position of dealing with students “taking notes” on their laptops. However, I have ADHD, and when I’m in a meeting, it’s a HUGE struggle for me to stay focused if I have my laptop in front of me — even if I’m taking notes on the information presented. However, I would resent having to take notes on paper and then copy them into my GoogleDrive or other WP program. What would’ve worked best for me as a college student is the same idea Trisha mentioned — accountability from a watchful authority figure. If I sit next to my principal at a meeting, I don’t “surf the Web”. I just sit and take notes on my laptop. Perhaps the NYU professors need to rethink the policy and enact a “random monitoring” one. Very often, public embarrassment is better motivator than an unreasonable rule.

    And… just so the college kids know… professors have been lecturing for millenia. Get over the “I’m bored” rant. Learn to concentrate and glean what you can from these people who know their subject far better than you do. You’re not paying them to entertain you. You’re paying the university for an EDUCATION. If you’d rather be entertained while educated, go home and watch Sesame Street and Magic School Bus.

  • Brad Klitzke
    September 17, 2012

    For those who argue that “the professor is right, I am more distracted when I have a device in front of me”. When and how do you think this is going to change? Do you think those distractions wont be there in the work place? Trust me, they are here.

    Learn to deal with those distractions now. Use your device for productivity, not as a modern version of doodling and you’ll be more successful in life.

    Why do some professors hate technology? Simple, it provides you with the opportunity to find a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips. Knowledge use to be sacred and rare. They controlled that knowledge and now they feel like it is slipping through their fingers….no one likes to lose control.

    Lastly, explain to me how you can claim you are preparing the leaders of tomorrow by only allowing them to use the tools of the past.

  • Omar Parker MBA
    September 17, 2012

    Do you think this article is bias towards online education?

  • Laura Adkins
    September 20, 2012
  • Marc Haverscale
    September 26, 2013

    This is largely a power play.

    These professors are setting policy because they can. Is the laptop ban reasonable? It depends on the student… some can multi-task well and some can’t. Of course, some students are also distracted by a hot classmate, a skipped meal, upcoming deadlines, social concerns, a teacher’s inpenetrable accent, etc. I attended school before the laptop, so it was never an issue for me. The inpenetrable Indian or Russian accent on the other hand was a killer.

    Of course, any real professor (teaching a real class teach skills and knowledge rather than just trendy jargon) will have provided notes (hard-copy and PDF) so that the student doesn’t need to slavishly copy the blackboard. Listen to the lecture, annotate the printed notes in the margins, hope it makes sense. The advantage of PDF class-notes viewed on a tablet is ease of carrying the notes for all of your classes, but I still managed to carry all the printed class-notes and textbooks for every class I had that day. But I guess that’s the kind of Macho Man I am.

    Though I especially liked the bullshit reasoning of interfering with the interpersonal teacher-student dynamic. Only a Humanities professor could say something like that with a straight face. Any technical class would probably be improved by a well made instructional video, and any non-technical class is largely babble and jargon to be memorized and forgotten later.

  • Carson Jeffreys
    January 15, 2014

    “So that settles that: you should not use your laptop in class because if every single innovation can’t contribute to education, then none can”

    So does the class write with sticks in the dirt?

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