Should professors employ a “no-screens” policy?

Sam Hays and Maria-Xenia Hardt

Editor’s note: As the use of laptops in class becomes widespread across campus, we asked two columnists if glowing screens should be allowed to remain open. Are laptops a necessary tool that professors should invite into classrooms, or are they a  distraction that should be kept out?

POINT: Laptops interfere with lecture

Apparently, the girl in the row in front of mine threw up on the E-bus on Friday night, and it was oh-so-embarrassing — at least that’s what she’s just told a friend on Facebook. The guy to my right has updated his Twitter page at least a dozen times in the last five minutes. A couple of rows back, a phone vibrates audibly on the desk. I can’t help but feel the information flowing all around me. Unfortunately, I am not interested in 90 percent of this information, but its physical presence competes for my attention with the 10 percent that I actually came here for. What was the topic of today’s lecture again?

Maybe it’s my fault that I’m so easily distracted by the people around me. Or maybe it’s the fault of the professor, whose lecture does not capture everybody’s attention. But most likely, the problem is that a lot of students have a hard time voluntarily abandoning their phones and laptops for a time as short as 80 minutes, and everybody’s learning and teaching experience suffers as a result.

UT doesn’t have a blanket policy when it comes to cyber-distractions, so every professor has to find a solution on his or her own. Many lecturers already have some computer usage policies, and although some laptop addicts might feel bullied, there are good reasons for these regulations. Wendy Hunter, a government professor, has gone from allowing her students to take notes on their laptops to banning laptops to banning all electronic devices. She says, “The spirit of my no-screen policy was to achieve more focused engagement. I see the class as an intellectual community, and this community does not work when people do three things at the same time.” Hunter freely concedes that allowing students to take notes on their laptops, hoping they would do solely that, failed. “It was unsustainable. Students just checked out, and it was so obvious when it happened. There was inappropriate laughter while I was talking about something very serious and I had to repeat myself a lot. Not only the people with a laptop got distracted, but students around them, too, looking onto their neighbors’ screens.” So Wendy Hunter banned laptops from her classrooms altogether — and people started texting each other instead. As a consequence, she has had to ban phone use. But, she observes, the students moved on, and they’re better for it. “People abide by the rule. If you give students the logic behind it, they are mostly okay with it.”

The ice is getting thinner. More and more lecturers at UT are refusing to compete with Facebook and Twitter for the attention of their students any longer. In an ideal world, all students would voluntarily switch off their phones and close their laptops — or at least use them exclusively for note-taking — and no professor would have to ban electronic devices from the classroom. Unfortunately, that world does not exist. The reality is that, right now, surfing and texting distract multiple parties and cause them to miss out on valuable class time. Most UT professors are interested in student progress; they want to share what they are passionate about and what they believe to be valuable information. So wise up and don’t take offense when your teachers politely ask you to close your laptop and switch off your phone. It’s no different from asking, “May I have your attention, please?”

Hardt is an English junior from Freiburg, Germany.

COUNTERPOINT: Embrace the future with technology

Computers are the modern medium for conducting business, writing stories and developing ideas. So why do many professors prohibit the use of laptops in class?

Technology allows us to do so much more with the information presented in lecture. With numerous apps like Evernote or even standard word processing suites, our computers allow us to store information into easily organized folders and label it so that all of our lecture notes can be accessed with incredible ease.

Of course, there is worry about the negative externalities of in-class computer use. All of the teachers with whom I spoke about laptops during lectures were concerned by the distractions that computers can cause our peers, and understandably so.

Sharon Strover, a professor in the College of Communication’s Radio, Television and Film department puts it plainly: “The bottom line is that laptops facilitate attention drift. I am familiar with the draw and ease of Facebook and other sites, and it is simply too easy for people to begin to start clicking around; before students are even aware of it, their attention has drifted.” Students are, without a doubt, similarly aware of the distractions inherent to computer use. But ultimately, it’s up to those students to take responsibility in class, in the same way that it’s up to them to decide whether to study or to go out to a party. If you’re staring at your Twitter feed while you’re supposed to be taking notes during lecture, that’s your fault — you’ve chosen to spend the time you’ve purchased at this University doing something you could very well do in your apartment or dorm room. 

Professors are also worried that people who are taking notes by hand will be distracted by the bright laptop screens shining like beacons around the classroom. Glenn Frankel, director of the School of Journalism and professor, says that, in a large lecture course, “laptops just seem like one more distraction.” On his barring of laptop use in the lecture-heavy J301F (Fundamental Issues in Journalism), Frankel says, “I feared they would be a major distraction for the students who used them and for their neighboring students in the close-quarters lecture hall.”

Almost every professor with whom I spoke raised this point, but there is a simple solution: Professors can decide in which segments of the lecture hall laptop use is permitted and in which section laptop use is verboten, thus separating the bright screens from the pen and paper. This easy fix allows students to choose their preferred note-taking method, and it limits the distractions to those who opt not to bring a computer. 

The technological landscape of the world we live in is changing. A major topic of discussion inside the College of Communication is the rapid evolution of the journalism industry. Journalists have turned to laptops and social media platforms to deliver information to the public. Notably, these recent technologies are the topic of many lecture courses — courses in which laptops are often banned. The more readily journalists embrace the digital era, the easier it will be to operate in an entirely revolutionized industry. Professors should limit the distractions associated with technology, not the technology itself.

Hays is a journalism freshman from Dripping Springs.