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.

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?

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.

In the beginning, about 15 years ago, students really did just use their laptops to take notes. But step by step, and so imperceptibly, we have moved to a situation where even the students who want to take notes are distracted by their own screens and those of their neighbors. The one devoted student using pen and paper is also distracted by the glow and flash, and the noise of fingers on keypads. It’s hard, as a student at another Ivy League school told me, to keep the focus after forty-five minutes of hard work when one neighbor has a music video going and the other is checking his stocks on line.

What we're losing

Meanwhile, we are losing the long tradition of people learning from other people. The lecture course, in one form or another, has been around for more than 2,000 years. The ability of one human being to reach another by speech is an irreplaceable part of what it means to be human. In seminars, laptops are still more harmful, serving as physical barriers that prevent a group of students from becoming a class.

Even more concerning, after university, students who could not concentrate in the classroom will become workers who cannot concentrate in the workplace. It is possible that the American economy will never out-compete others because we have the most easily distracted workforce.

How to reconnect with our humanity

Removing laptops from the classroom gives students a chance to focus, and a chance to learn to focus. Without the flash of screens and the sound of typing, they find themselves... learning. In most courses, much is lost and nothing is gained by the use of the Internet. If the students need to use the Internet, they have the remaining 23 hours of the day, and indeed the rest of their lives, to do their screen-staring.

College students who spend their time online are missing out not only on education, but on experience. The four years of university are probably the best part of American life. It seems a shame to spend that time doing something that can be done anywhere and at any time. By allowing students to spend class time on the Internet, we professors are sending the message that college is just one more backdrop for googling.

And what do the students think? Almost all of them, judging from the student evaluations of my previous courses, saw the logic of the laptop ban, and liked the atmosphere of calm and concentration that it permitted. If, at some future point, the tide of student opinion turns against me, I have one final argument: Ever since the laptop ban was inaugurated, my students have been earning far better grades.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. His book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” out this month.

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