Digital Note-taking in College

Student Voice: Why Laptops Should Be Allowed in the Classroom

Suchita Chadha is a junior at Emerson College and the author of our weekly “Student Voice” column. 

In the first few days of a new semester, professors across North America probably go through the same routine: try to learn names, initiate some kind of “get to know you” activity if the class size permits it, then finally run through school policies and the course syllabus. But in recent years, another topic-of-importance has made its way into the syllabus—the use of personal devices.

Today, the laptop is an extension of our minds and bodies, perhaps more so than the smart phone because this is our avenue to all aspects of our life. Despite this, “no personal devices whatsoever” is quickly becoming an oft-used line amidst post-secondary circles. And it’s frustrating. Understandable, but nonetheless frustrating.

The most basic and common use of laptops is of course to take notes during class. In classes where the lecture jumps from point to point, occasionally circling back to previous topics, it’s much easier to keep notes organized with laptops. More thought can be put into absorbing the information than trying to squish bullets into margins and filling the page with arrows that are so often simply left hanging. Given the amount of time students age 17-25 spend on the computer, it’s also safe to assume that many can type faster than they write—at the very least, it’s much neater than the complicated on-the-spot shorthand and messy writing most of us must contend with at the end of a lesson.

For international students who speak English as a second language, the lack of personal devices in class is perhaps more of an imposed impairment than a mere frustration. For these students, already at a disadvantage having come from a different educational system, personal devices build a bridge of understanding, acting as the middle-man between the student and the world. Rather than being a crutch, it allows students to develop fluency in English with more ease, removed from the worry of falling behind in academics. Whether it’s the ease of typing in their first language, or simply the lack of concern with trying to correctly spell unfamiliar words during fast-paced lectures, digital note-taking reduces some of the stress of college.

For international students without a language barrier, a different educational foundation can make college more difficult than it need be. Professors, intentionally or not, tend to operate with the bias that all their students have a foundation in the material being taught. Realistically, a majority of them probably do—it’s those who studied in another part of the world that are left grasping at information to fill them in to what everyone else already seems to know. Chances are, they’re feeling self-conscious and nervous, so few to none of these students will point out that they don’t know something.Having access to computers during class allows these students to quickly double-check information as needed, especially for times when it’s history-based discussion. While larger assignments can be researched at home, class participation usually accounts for 10-30% of our grades, so drawing confidence from the infinite knowledge of the Internet is comforting and rewarding.

Others may argue that this hinders their learning; instead, it simply brings all the students to an equal playing field from which they can continue to grow and learn through the course of the semester. Naturally, as they become more accustomed to the new environment and develop a comfort with the language, this notion of dependency will gradually decrease. It is also important to note that even students who have grown up in America also report using their laptops for other educational purposes aside from note taking that include fact-checking and working on group assignments.

Of course, this level of constant connectivity isn’t entirely beneficial for students who wish to learn. For every student who is focused solely on the class, there’s one who’s checking Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, or some other social networking site. But that inattentiveness is, for the most part, inevitable. Those who’d rather do something else will find a way, PD or not. In a survey of students at Emerson College, the results show that a majority would prefer to have a laptop in all classes though only 50% of professors allow it, while for many it depends not the course. For the latter group, it’s a question on the volume of notes per class they will have to take. Students who’d rather use a notebook gave one main reason: they find it more beneficial to physically write down the information. There are very few educators in the world who would request students not to have a notebook in class, so when the laptop is exactly that for a fraction of the class, it’s simply unfair for professors to forbid it. A negotiated compromise of lecture-only devices would be better than nothing, but it’s a conversation that needs to happen.

As daily use of technology continues to gain momentum, post-secondary institutions will need to accommodate this new notebook that so many students rely on. The dependency won’t ease off anytime soon, and college—four incredibly important years determining our future—isn’t the time to demand a change from us.

What do you think—should personal devices be allowed in the classroom? Enter into the education debate on Twitter or Facebook.

Read other articles from our Student Voice column here. 

Suchita Chadha

Suchita Chadha

Suchita is a student at Emerson College, where she is pursuing a BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing for poetry with a Global & Post-Colonial Studies minor. She has been published in Verge Magazine (Canada) and Affairs Today (UK).