Liberal Arts University Classes Aren’t Filled With Laptops?

I was recently chatting with an English professor from a Canadian university, and happened to ask how many of her students took notes with laptops in class. “Oh, one or two,” she replied.

Really? Isn’t it 2007? I haven’t been in a university classroom for a while, but I kind of assumed that, regardless of faculty, nearly everybody would have laptops open.

Instead, apparently the vast majority of students take notes the way I did, with paper and pencil. Despite there being some kind of fancy, well-used eClassroom site, the students tend to print out materials, punch holes in them and stick them in binders. How very 1992.

Can any professors, students or recent graduates confirm this behaviour? Why do you suppose that laptops haven’t inundated the classroom?


  1. Laptops are a contentious thing to whip out around many professors. They see it as a competitive threat. They hate the idea of students chatting on IM or updating Facebook while they talk. It’s not uncommon for professors to want wireless networks in a lecture to be suspended while they teach.

    You’re starting to see signs of change, like designating one student to start notes in a wiki, while another is the designated Google/Wikipedia fact checker. But that sort of things is rare.

    Generally, a lot of instructors are techno-skeptics — then again, knowing what I do about their experiences with technology (there have been and are some rough spots) I am sympathetic.

  2. I got my B.A. in ’93, but last fall I was taking a credit course at the local community college. I started off bringing my MacBook (no WiFi on campus though, so I couldn’t even check e-mail before class), but with the tiny chair/desk combo, there wasn’t enough room for the MB and my textbook. Also in my case my teacher used PowerPoint and gave out printouts of all her slides, so it was kind of overkill.

  3. Laptops are rare in classrooms, even at heavy Math/Engineering schools like Waterloo, for the very simple reason that today’s laptops are a pain in the butt. The only form factor that makes sense is a TabletPC on which you can take “ink” notes. Otherwise on a traditional laptop: (a) keys clacking annoys the crap out of everyone around you; (b) you can’t circle things, put *** beside them, draw arrows from this point to that point with an annotation about the relationship, etc … all essential parts of effective note-taking; (c) you can’t type fast enough to keep up; (d) you can’t draw graphs, diagrams; (e) one slip and your $2000 investment is broken on the floor; (f) if you need to take a leak, you have to pack everyting up, ‘cuz you’re not going to leave said $2000 investment sitting there; … and the list goes on. Trust me, its not for lack of trying…

    Now, the TabletPC with OneNote has been a lifesaver! You can take ink notes as fast as you can write, draw diagrams, graphs, math formulas, circle, arrows — its just digital ink. Later you can tidying things up if you’re so inclined, print your notes, share them and most importantly — SEARCH them.

    So kids, don’t waste $$$ on a laptop with the fantasy you’re going to use it to take notes, unless you go with a tablet.

  4. I’ve actually had professors ask that we not use laptops to take notes, particularly in English/History classes, because people become so involved in taking down every word that they don’t take in what is being said and that’s my experience as well. I find taking notes “the old fashioned way” forces me to pay closer attention and only write down what is really important rather than every word the prof leaks out.

  5. At the pre-colliate level, many U.S. schools that had launched programs to provide students with notebook PCs are now reconsidering because they seem to have no impact on student achievement. Teachers are reporting that computers get in the way more than help.

    It seems naive to think that the introduction of technology will magically equate to a more efficient learning environment. In fact, I’m inclined to believe – especially in the case of younger kids – that tech could be more of a barrier to students learning to think creatively & solve problems.

  6. That’s my experience as well – it’s a pain to lug your laptop around campus with you to class and it’s loud to type away during a lecture. Also, for me personally anyway, I find the act of handwriting out the notes helps me to remember the information better later, although that isn’t the case for everyone.

    When I graduated in 2003 there was only 1 guy in my entire graduating class of about 200 students (in my major) who brought his laptop to class.

  7. I graduated about 8 months ago, and I still took notes “the old fashion” way too. As someone has already pointed out, it’s difficult to draw diagrams or little notes in the margains (even adding colour) and especially with classes in statistics, it was a pain to get symbols etc. Also, there was the factor of not having enough desk space. I tried it out a few times, but reverted back simply because I found I was creating more work for myself.

  8. Despite being as geeky as they come, I’ve always found taking paper notes more useful and productive in a classroom or similar setting. Aside from the reasons the others give, in my experience the mental process of absorbing what the teacher is saying and then converting it to writing helps me learn better than typing, which tends more towards transcription than real note-taking.

    I did try taking notes on a laptop during a summer course at the Bamfield Marine Station as long ago as 1989 (yes really! it was a Tandy Model 100!), but I found it more gimmicky than useful. The tablet/OneNote approach might work for me, though I haven’t tried it.

  9. I found the paper and pencil the way to go too. Mainly for the reasons stated by most everyone already, diagrams, charts, stars, etc. is impossible to do on a notebook and still keep up. I started taking a small voice recorder that I could just push record on and still take my paper notes. That way if I missed anything I still had it on the recorder and I could listen to them while driving, etc.

  10. When I went to college, 1990-1994, I bought a Mac laptop and took notes on it for at least two of those years. I was almost always the only one in the class doing so, and I have to say — it was far more effective for me than these paper-and-pencil users say.

    The only drawback was when sometimes I’d open up my laptop and I’d left the sound on.

    Of course, that was pretty much pre-wifi, and having the Internet as a distraction might change things.


  11. I always brought my laptop to class at UBC. In 2005 (when I sudo graduated) laptops were common place but not the majority. In a sociology class of 50 there would be maybe 12 people with laptops. This ratio is higher than a lot of others here, most likely because of the free wi-fi at UBC.

    I think that the biggest barrier to entry was battery life. My iBook gets 4 hours while a lot of bigger laptops can’t make it through one or two classes without needing to be plugged in. Other than that, I would say that most people choose not to bring in their laptops because they didn’t think there was a benefit. Almost every class member had a laptop of some kind – it’s hard to get by without them as a student these days.

  12. I agree with most everyone else, that it’s more productive to take notes by hand. You’re not supposed to write down everything the instructor says, but just outlines & key points with your own thoughts & observations (plus all those stars & arrows). I tend to process the info better this way and I’m able to retain it much longer.

    I wouldn’t want to haul a laptop around campus anyways. There is a lot of theft on campus so you literally have to keep your hand on it all day. Although, if you’re commuting in from say Surrey to UBC everyday for example it may make sense to have it with you, not to take notes in class but to work on your assignments out of class since you’re on campus all day. Only reason I could see to have one.

  13. I’ve seen very few (bar one or two geeky studes) in the Digital Business and Digital Marketing classes I teach. What concerns me more is that I spend a lot of time creatng slides and materials which we have to disseminate for “accessibility reasons” in advance of the class. As a result, the students just don’t take notes any more, because they think it’s all there for them. It’s become a crutch whcih has caused them to become passive learners. Having no notes and giving the all one-note (something we could from this summer) and simply removing the sldies might be the start of encouraging them to be active learners again. I engage with the technology a lot, I just wish that the learners would engage with it too sometimes…..

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: