In an increasingly digital world, a number of Colorado professors are turning back the clock and choosing to limit or entirely ban student use of technology in their classrooms.
These faculty members point to research suggesting a number of negative issues when students use laptops and tablets in class, running the gamut from decreased retention to distracting others.
Susan Schulten, chairwoman of the history department at the University of Denver, began asking students to stop using technology in class years ago.
“I do not have an aversion to using the Web for deep research, for reference or for many other goals,” Schulten said. “But in my own experience, a device-free classroom enhances the level of intellectual commitment. When we’re together, trying to work through a tough text or a complex chain of events, it’s simply more engaging and satisfying for everyone.”
In making their decision, many professors rely on recent research revealing that students are generally ineffective at multitasking.
A study published in Computers & Education in 2013, for example, found that students multitasking on laptops during class scored lower on tests — as did students sitting in view of those laptops.
Because of such research, Phoebe Young, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, divides her classroom into different zones: one for students who prefer not to be distracted by technology and one for students who take notes on laptops and tablets.
Each semester, Young shares research with her students about how multitasking can be distracting during class. Then, students can choose which zone to sit in.
Young said she started this policy several years ago, after multiple students — some as far as 20 rows back — complained about a student shopping for underwear on her computer. According to Young, at least half her students generally choose to sit in the tech-free zone.
Over the years, Young said, she has seen students grow increasingly reliant on technology, in both productive and detrimental ways.
Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at CU who has banned students from using any technology in class, said she based her decision partly on research suggesting handwritten notes are more effective.
A recent study published in Psychological Science found that even when students use laptops solely to take notes, their comprehension is lower than that of students who take notes by hand, since those typing tend to transcribe the lecture verbatim without processing the information.
Richard Maez, a senior studying history and Spanish at DU, said he has had professors on both sides of the tech debate.
“Personally, I don’t use my laptop to take notes because I know I will get distracted by the Internet or e-mail,” Maez said. “I also feel that, when I am in a class that doesn’t allow technology, there is better discussion and participation because people are not focused in on their screens.”
Some professors, like Paul Seaborn of the Daniels College of Business at DU, are taking a metered approach. He does not ban technology use outright, but Seaborn said he asks students to close their laptops periodically — during guest lectures or presentations, for example.
The Office of Teaching & Learning at DU does not ban technology in the classroom. As the office points out on its website, students had plenty of options for not paying attention before laptops became commonplace, whether through daydreaming or doodling.
A happy medium
Susan Zvacek, DU’s associate provost for the advancement of teaching and learning, said she recognizes the potential distraction but, like Young, feels it is important for students to make choices.
“Our philosophy is that we should help students learn to use devices when they’re beneficial, but to also recognize when they aren’t,” Zvacek said.
DU journalism professor Derigan Silver allows students to continue using technology in his classroom. He has seen the research on handwritten notes, but he believes different styles of note-taking work better for different students.
Even with his open technology policy, Silver said roughly 40 percent of his students choose to take notes by hand.
Despite the lack of consensus, both Young and Seaborn said there is an eagerness among professors to address this issue.
“It’s definitely something being discussed a lot in the hallways and meetings,” Seaborn said. “We’re all still finding a balance.”