Even before you consider the vast array of non-educational temptations a laptop brings to the classroom, it’s important to remember that using a computer itself is an active task. It’s not like driving a car, where you glide through the gear changes on automatic pilot. That would defeat its purpose.
Unless you’re a fantastic touch-typer transcribing the lecture verbatim, your laptop needs to be looked at. Every time you scroll, correct or open a new window your attention will momentarily disengage from what’s going on around you. More time and attention is lost if you have to fiddle with any mishaps such as losing your place, mistyping a search, accidentally closing a window or dealing with interruptions from arriving emails and updates. Even if you only miss a word or two each time, these words can add up leaving your memory of the class peppered with small holes.
Laptops can also cut you off visually and psychologically from your environment. The small portable office they create makes them ideal for carving out a private space on a busy train. But attending class is a group experience full of non-verbal information. The screen can often keep you from seeing your fellow students nod in agreement or scowl and shake their heads at what the lecturer is saying. If your eyes are fixed on the laptop, you can miss some of the facial expressions or hand gestures the teacher uses to illustrate a point.
No matter how involved you try to stay, using a laptop means having to constantly dart between two spaces’ – an inside’ consisting of you and the computer, and the world beyond the barrier of a fold-up screen.
I can see few uses of a laptop in the classroom that aren’t served as well if not better by other technologies. A pen and paper don’t create the same physical barrier, glow, beep or spit out error messages. Calculations can be done more quickly and compactly with a calculator. In-depth searches can be performed afterward. Puzzling concepts or unfamiliar terms can be explained by dare I say it asking a question.
Then, of course, there are the temptations. Laptops are fantastic creatures, especially with internet access. They are books, magazines, television, radio, games arcades, meeting places and offices rolled into one. It’s all too easy to dip out for a minute to check your e-mails, even if you don’t read them. If you spot an interesting one, curiosity will play on your mind till you can open it. Other wonders of the magic box can draw you in before you’re fully aware of it. Laptops can be bright, beckoning playmates hard to ignore.
It’s extremely difficult (some would say impossible) to give your full attention to more than one thing at a time. So regardless of how you use your computer, the mere act of using it creates an extra layer of busy-ness which can detract from both your experience of the real-life class and the potential of your machine.