Tiffany* ’16 walks into history class and sits down in her regular seat in the back left corner of her classroom in Seaver. She opens up her MacBook Pro and the first thing she does is check Facebook, emails and the daily online shopping sales. Throughout class she switches from her notes on the Civil War to Buzzfeed and Etsy. Although she spends a portion of class browsing various sites, she doesn’t believe it affects her studies or grades.
“I don’t use my laptop in most of my classes so I don’t think it affects my schoolwork that much,” Tiffany said. “I online shop a lot, but I think I am still able to take efficient notes and get everything down. I’ve never been caught.”
While the Upper School has just begun the transition to the one-to-one laptop program, which will be mandatory next year and led by Director of Institutional Technology and math teacher Jeff Snapp, the Middle School has already instituted the program throughout the campus. Students in grades seven through nine are required to buy a laptop and bring it to school every day.
The purpose of the one-to-one laptop program is to enable teachers to implement a more computer-based curriculum in class. This, however, may be putting students at a disadvantage.
A 2011 study by St. John’s University School of Law Professor Jeff Sovern found that 90 percent of laptops users at his school used their computers for online activities unrelated to coursework for at least five minutes, and 60 percent of students were distracted for more than half the class.
Researchers from Princeton University and UCLA tested the differences in learning between students using laptops and handwriting notes. The article titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” published in the journal “Psychological Science” in 2014, found in three studies that even if students are free of distractions such as texting and the Internet, using a laptop is still a less effective way of taking notes.
In their research, they found that students were able to write more information down when they used a laptop. However, students who took notes by hand performed better on conceptual questions and processed information better. Because using a laptop gave students the capability to write more, the research showed that students translated the lecture verbatim, which researchers described as “detrimental to learning.”
According to the research, students who handwrite their notes have to listen to the information presented to them, process it and write down a summary in their own words, which helps them better retain and process the information.
“I think there is a perception by students and teachers at Harvard-Westlake that the laptop program is intended to require students to take notes on their computers,” Snapp said. “I don’t know where this notion comes from, but that is not at all the intention of Harvard-Westlake’s laptop program.”
Many students already use their laptops to take notes in class, although the one-to-one program would not require it. However, some students who currently do not bring their laptops to school say that if they were required to do so next year, they would use them to take notes in class.
“I don’t usually bring my laptop to school, but if I was forced to, I would most likely use it for notes even though I’d probably get distracted easily,” Lindsey Tse ’16 said.
Snapp said that the program will allow all students to have equal access to Internet resources and information, and it will allow teachers to give new forms of assessments.
“It is an opportunity for teachers to bring the world into their classrooms … which will ultimately increase student engagement,” Snapp said. “All of these things will take a while to catch on. They will develop over time. I think the end of next year will look very different from the beginning of next year as teachers become more comfortable experimenting with different ways of using student laptops to enhance classroom instruction.”
History teacher Dror Yaron dislikes laptops in class.
“I prefer a class where there is active face-to-face engagement where everyone is 100 percent present, where there is eye contact and there is a vibrant discussion,” Yaron said. “I see [laptops in class] more as an unproductive distraction that actually undermines active and engaged learning and effective relations between teacher and student.”
Some students agree.
“Sometimes when I’m supposed to be working on an English essay during an [in class] writing day, I just can’t get any work done, and I end up on Buzzfeed or online shopping,” Katie Zipkin-Leed ’15 said. “Having the computer in front of you adds a lot of distractions.”
Jocie Chen ’18 said she uses her laptop only for school work, “but a lot of kids use it to watch Netflix, funny videos, and play games in and out of class. I think it’s a bit of a distraction because if you’re sitting in front of your computer in class bored to death, then you want to use your computer to look up funny things, text your friends or play games.”
Snapp says that there is no plan currently in place to try and limit the distractions that laptops cause.
“I don’t even know what that would look like,” Snapp said. “Most off-task behavior during class, with or without a readily-accessible computer or smartphone, happens because of attention span limitations and students not being engaged in the lesson. If students are engaged in the lesson, then they will not be tempted to indulge in a distraction.”
Director of Studies Elizabeth Resnick said that the responsibility for handling distractions rests with individual teachers.
“We encourage teachers to have students use their laptops when they augment or improve student learning,” Resnick said in an email. “Teachers, ultimately, will be the arbiters of their classrooms — some will revoke the use of a computer if students are distracted, others will simply allow natural consequences to teach students (that is, distracted students are learning less of the material, and will likely, therefore, have diminished academic results).”
The school does not require students to buy a specific brand or operating system; however, they have a list of requirements the computer must meet. Students cannot use iPads, iPhones, Android tablets, Microsoft Surface RT or Smartphones. The school recommends the Macbook Air, Macbook Pro, Windows laptop or Microsoft Surface Pro.
Dave Rubin, Director of Computer Services, said that the school is currently focused on getting ready for the program. They are increasing bandwidth, adding wireless printing for students and creating a laptop loaner program.
Alexandria Oser ’16 believes that students shouldn’t have to bring a computer to school.
“I just think that people should get to decide whether or not they want to use a computer,” Oser said. “Sometimes I like to leave it home since it makes my backpack heavier. A lot of people around school throw your bag around or just drop it on the floor when you’re not around so it can destroy peoples’ stuff.”
Ari Blut ’15 regularly brings her laptop to school and uses it in class but not always for the intended reason.
“When high demand concert tickets go on sale during class, I’ve occasionally had to quietly whip out the credit card and do what I have to do at the cost of my notes,” Blut said.
Additional reporting by Lola Clark.