It’s Not the Tool, It’s the Craftsman

I am on an email discussion list for one of the universities where I have been an adjunct. There’s currently a discussion about the need for paper syllabi in an era where most of these documents get posted on a course management system and many students tend to discard or even ignore paper documents. One of the arguments against electronic versions is that some teachers do not allow students to use laptops in their classes because the laptops make it too easy for students to be distracted by using the Internet.

I understand the logic here, but I don’t think I can agree with it. Yes, it is true, many people today think that they can multitask and so they don’t concentrate on one thing. But in the end, if students aren’t concentrating on what the teacher is focused on, it’s because they don’t want to focus. It’s not like students suddenly discovered how to focus on something other than the teacher when the laptop was invented.

I still have many of my notebooks from undergrad and grad school. I can figure out what my favorite songs at the time were, because I often wrote the lyrics in the margins while trying to pass time during a lecture. Notebooks can also be used to do homework or start writing papers for other classes. Or writing notes to someone else in the room. Or starting that story you wanted to write. Or making some kind of doodle to amuse yourself and your neighbors. Should we ban notebooks from classrooms? Of course not. Even if you did, there’s still staring out the windows.

We’re not going to be able to teach students how to live in a world of multiple-tab browsers by creating an artificial zone with only one focus. We can’t create such a zone, and even if we did, it wouldn’t be helping students live in the world. We have to create a space where they see the value in choosing to focus on one thing, so that they will continue to use that skill once they graduate.

Especially at the college level, I believe in letting students take responsibility for their learning. Either they will succeed or they won’t based on their choices, and hopefully they’ll learn something either way. Some students interpret this as me being “easy” or not caring what they do, but others commit themselves to doing well and make the most of the opportunities I give them. I’ll take that tradeoff because the engagement of the second group creates an environment where we all can get something from the conversation.


  1. Comment by Saskia:

    Thank you for the post, I agree with you that students were distracted without notebooks too.
    However, the nice thing with notebooks they are more or less flat on the table, and the interaction of the student with the notebook is not unlike notetaking, in general. The problem I have, as a student, with fellow students using their laptops to do all kinds of things that are not related to the course is that the screens are upright and there are bright colours and moving things on them, so they keep attracting the eye. Whenever I am in a course, I try to sit as much to the front as possible in order to avoid this, but sometimes you still have students sitting in the very front row and doing heavens knows what. It is very annoying for me as a fellow students.
    I think that students who are not interested in the course should either not attend or sit in the back where they do not distract other students.

    • Comment by Dave Thomer:

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right to bring up the effect on others in the classroom. There’s definitely potential for distraction to spread throughout the group. I don’t know how to get all (or most) students to agree on their obligations to their fellow classmates. I don’t know if that’s something you can impose with a policy or if it’s something students need to build themselves.

      You also have a good point that laptops and other devices do allow more potential for distractions than plain old paper, and I don’t want to minimize that. There is some research that suggests that if students have laptops in a traditional lecture class, they retain less than students who don’t have them. I think that points to two things. We’re always going to have these devices, so we better learn to tune them out when we need to. And teachers are probably going to need to change the way they do things to account for the ways that our current society operates and communicates.