Laptops and learning

The emergence of portable and affordable laptops in the 1990s was accompanied by optimistic predictions about how this would transform education. Many early-adopters of technology in education promoted “one-to-one computing” in schools where laptops were issued to every student. Other schools moved towards the so-called “bring your own device” (BYOD) model. One educational charity named the “One Laptop per Child” (OLPC) organization set out to issue small laptops to millions of children in the developing world.

The benefits of equipping every student with computers have been the subject of lively debates among educators. Early on, one-to-one computing schools encountered many challenges such as capital costs, ongoing maintenance, support, licensing and security. Rather than being a panacea for educators, recent educational research suggests that laptops may actually harm learning. The primary concern is the multitude of distractions that accompany laptops such as social networking, games and videos. I have observed many screens from the back of a classroom “tuned” to other tasks. This should not be surprising – the design of modern software coupled with ubiquitous wireless networks allows many programs to run simultaneously, each with its own alerts and updates. It seems as if these modern devices have been engineered for distraction. Gary Small, author of iBrain, observes how our digital devices plunge us into a state of “continuous partial attention,” and attention is a valuable resource in the classroom. Contrary to their own impressions, students cannot multi-task well.

A recent study published by the journal Computers and Education has demonstrated that laptops have an effect beyond their users to surrounding students, sometimes referred to as the “secondhand smoke effect.” Multitasking on laptops was shown to be “detrimental to comprehension of lecture content” for both the laptop users as well as nearby students. Moreover, students were unaware of the extent to which they were being distracted.

The pen is mightier
Even for the disciplined student who resists distractions, it seems laptops are less effective than handwritten notes. Another recent study published in the Journal of Psychological Science titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard” compared longhand note taking with laptop note taking. The results showed that even when laptops were used strictly for taking notes, their use results in “shallower processing.” It seems that students process things more deeply when using longhand. The study discovered that students who took notes on laptops performed worse than students who took notes using longhand.

I teach computer science, so the notion of banning computers from my classes seems absurd. My approach has been to treat college students as adults; if they want to squander their time playing games and reading Facebook during class, it is their responsibility. However, as a teacher, I am also responsible to ensure that the activity of some students does not affect the learning environment for others. Furthermore, the culture of the classroom, including class discussions, can be impaired when students are distracted. For this reason, I have recently insisted on a “laptop contract” with my students. In this contract, students are encouraged to use longhand, but may use laptops on the condition that they disable their wi-fi connection (except when necessary to minimize distractions) and commit to using the laptop for class-related work only.

I have started discussing some of this research with my students. One of the concepts that I want students to appreciate is that all technologies have a bias, and that it often takes years before the true effects of technologies are recognized. The studies about laptops in the classroom illustrate these points well.

Distractions aside, laptops in the classroom can enhance learning, and I have tried adding activities that make effective use of my students‘ laptops. One of these activities involves stopping lectures to do hands-on computer exercises to illustrate a point in the lecture. Many computer science classes also include a practical lab component devoted to hands-on programming activities. That being said, I still see value in engaging students in traditional “Socratic” lectures and discussions.

What would an appropriate digital device which is designed to be well-suited to the classroom look like? It would be designed to minimize distractions, possess a simple interface, be lightweight with a long battery life and it would retrieve the advantages of longhand note taking. Ironically, such a device may actually end up reproducing the look and feel of a pen and paper. Until such a device arrives, students and teachers should recognize what we gain with laptops in the classroom as well as what we might lose.


  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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