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Faculty members at many campuses have been debating whether they should ban laptops in class. At Cornell University, students are trying to change the discussion. The Student Assembly there adopted a resolution last month pushing for “greater freedom of student laptop usage” in certain classes.

The resolution suggests that, in courses that require heavy note-taking or where reading materials are available online, instructors should permit students to use their laptops to support and enhance learning. If professors oppose laptops in class, the resolution says, the should at least agree to discuss the issue with students.

Resolutions that pass through Cornell’s Student Assembly do not have any power over faculty decision making, but the students involved wanted this resolution -- which passed unanimously last month -- to send a message and help open up dialogue about classroom technology, said Noah Chovanec, a junior who sponsored the laptop resolution.

In recent years, Cornell faculty members have become stricter about laptop use in their classes, Chovanec said.

“I think that’s a problem,” he said. “Laptops can be an effective note-taking tool. We are all adults and should be able to decide what suits us best.”

That said, neither Chovanec nor others in the assembly think the university should require its instructors to allow laptops in their classes. In some circumstances, such as a small, discussion-based seminar, laptops add unnecessary distractions, he said.

“We don’t want to say faculty should always let us use laptops in any class to take notes,” Chovanec said. “We want them to evaluate their own classroom environments and see what’s working and what’s not.”

The resolution has merits, according to Charles Van Loan, dean of faculty at Cornell.

“It’s a conversation starter,” Van Loan said. “In that sense, it’s good. Technology in the classroom is good. I welcome the dialogue that springs up here.”

But realistically, he said, faculty members can't develop a single, catch-all policy for laptop usage -- there is simply too much variation in class sizes, teaching styles, course levels and subject matter to expect the same policy to apply to every instructor.

“I don’t think a uniform policy would serve anyone. It’s unenforceable,” Van Loan said. "But it’s a great topic -- it’s about multitasking, it’s about being rude, it’s about how we learn and so on.”

This is something faculty members need to talk about among themselves as well as with their students, he said. It should be one of the first conversations they have at the start of a term -- just as they go over how many exams they will administer during the semester and how many research papers they plan to assign, they should also discuss their own technology policy and expectations.

Cornell faculty members realize each student has his or her own learning style, Van Loan said, but each professor also has an established teaching style.

“You have to respect how a professor runs his or her course,” he said, and some professors simply cannot tolerate the level of distraction that comes with open laptops.

Chovanec said he personally prefers to take notes with pen and paper, but he supports others’ choice to use a laptop if that’s what they prefer. Still, he has also seen people multitasking on their laptops in class -- playing games, watching sports, shopping online, instant messaging, etc. -- and found it very disruptive.

Exceptions can and should be made for students with disabilities who need devices to support their learning, Van Loan said.

“If a student needs a listening device or is visually impaired, I don’t think there’s any question about allowing steps to be taken to accommodate the student,” he said.

Katherine Fahey, director of Student Disability Services, supports technology use in the classroom -- if not as a full-on policy, then at least in the sense that all students feel comfortable asking for an exception.  

“In courses in which the instructor believes that learning is enhanced by students not using laptops, there should be an opportunity for any student to request an exception based on individual learning style, the impact of one’s disability or other factors,” Fahey said in an email.

But even asking to overrule a professor’s classroom technology policy can be uncomfortable for many students, especially at the beginning of the semester when there is no established relationship.

“Inclusive course design that allows access to technology takes into consideration the wide range of abilities of the students and eliminates the need for exceptions or modifications,” she said. 

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