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Why laptops in class are distracting America's future workforce

Laptops in college classrooms are no longer just educational tools – they're distracting our future workers. During class, students tumble down these rabbit holes of diversion – losing their focus and undermining human connections so crucial to learning.

By Timothy Snyder / October 7, 2010

New Haven, Conn.

As these first few weeks of the college semester begin, professors look out expectantly into grand lecture halls, where they see, rather than faces of students, the backs of open laptops. The students, for their part, are looking intently at the laptop screens. What are they doing as they stare forward with such apparent focus?

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Thanks to wireless Internet access, they are updating their Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr profiles; they are chatting on Skype, Gchat, or iChat; they are making travel plans, or reading the newspaper, or following the pennant race. This fall, higher education lost yet another new class of freshmen, as the new students learned that the university classroom is just one more physical place to be on the Internet.

I teach at Yale, where lecturing is taken seriously – and in history, which boasts some of the best teachers. My ratings as a lecturer are consistently high. But even here, I would not have the attention of these very gifted students if I did not ban laptops and smartphones from my classroom. Part of the problem is that students are not paying attention at a given moment; part of the problem is that they often lack the ability to pay attention at all.

Of course, some of them think they are paying attention: The well-intentioned are checking the professor’s facts by googling. This is not a good use of that powerful tool, because what they learn in the class comes only from the class, and has a richness and precision they won’t get online. Once the search happens, the students miss the next minute of lecture, or even more, as they then follow the next appealing link. It doesn’t take long to get from googling Habermas to reading about Lady Gaga.

The scale of the problem

Almost none of my colleagues have any sense of the scale of the problem. To most professors over 50, the computer is an educational tool. If a student asked a professor for permission to bring a television set to class, the professor would be shocked. But a laptop connected to the Internet is, among other things, a television set. During lectures, students at our very best schools watch TV shows, video clips, and movies on YouTube, Hulu, or Vimeo. The forest of laptops may look much better than a television set on every desk, but in fact, it’s far worse.


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