Carnegie Mellon University
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Nov. 20 - Laptop Study


Eric Sloss

Jonathan Potts

Carnegie Mellon Research Shows Laptops in Classrooms Isolate Students

Study Finds Laptops Give Students Greater Flexibility, But Don't Improve Performance    

PITTSBURGH—In a two-year study of sophomore classes in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design, researchers in the university's Office of Technology for Education and the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence have found that the use of laptops significantly changed students' work habits, but not always for the better.    

The study was designed to investigate how students use laptops inside and outside the classroom and how these practices enrich or diminish their university experience. The School of Design was chosen for the study because of the central role computers play in many aspects of its students' work, its similarity to other computer-intensive departments and faculty interested in investigating the advantages and disadvantages of a school-wide laptop policy.

The study examined whether laptops affect the nature of the instructor-to-student or student-to-student interactions in and out of the classroom; how students conduct their out-of-class work in terms of location, time-on-task, and physical and social setting; and the process and quality of student work.     

Among the study's findings:

  • Students interacted with a broader audience and received more diverse sources of feedback while using laptops. Laptop students were more likely to show their work to and get feedback from nondesign students. Instructors saw this increase in diversity of audience and critique as a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students who used laptops spent more time on assignments and worked for longer periods of time than students who did not use laptops.
  • While laptops led students to devote more time to their assignments, this did not translate into higher quality work. Students often interrupted their work to check email and surf the Web, or they spent significant time searching the Web for pictures or diagrams they could have created more quickly themselves.
  • Students with laptops were more likely to work from home and reported home as their preferred place to work.
  • Students with laptops were more likely to work alone than other students.

All students were given laptops for their classroom and personal use for either one semester or a full academic year. Multiple measures, including classroom observation, student interviews, surveys and work logs — as well as student design processes and products — were collected to provide a rich source of both qualitative and quantitative data. These data points were also collected from students without laptops during the first semester of the study.    

"It's not that laptops are good or bad for learning. It depends on how they are used," said Anne Fay, author of the study and director of assessment for the Eberly Center and the Office of Technology for Education. "Laptops can provide students with new creative tools and resources, adding to their intellectual toolbox of strategies, techniques and skills. The problem arises, however, when students use them as replacements for all their other tools. Used in this way, laptops serve to narrow the range of students' skills, not broaden them."     

The use of laptop computers on university campuses is growing and some colleges and universities now require students to have them. However, little is known about how laptops affect the lives of students or classroom culture because there have been few systematic studies examining how students use laptops to support their curricular and co-curricular experiences at a university.     

"Technology has made a significant impact on the way we educate designers and this study is helping us understand the advantages and disadvantages of laptops in design education," said Dan Boyarski, head of the School of Design. "We are in a new educational landscape and we're learning to work with new and traditional approaches to teaching design that best suit the students' educational experience."  

The Carnegie Mellon study showed that laptops allowed students to enjoy the freedom to work whenever and wherever they wanted, without the constraints imposed by desktop computers or computer cluster hours. But many students complained that without externally imposed constraints, they often failed to manage their time and as a result were more likely to work through the night to meet deadlines.   

Despite the portability of laptops, only a minority of students used them off campus, accounting for only 2 percent of the overall time spent on assignments. The exception was the strong tendency to work at home. Students reported preferring the comfort of working at home even though they recognized the greater educational value of working with other students on campus.     

Working at home was also associated with negative social and psychological effects, such as loneliness and the erosion of a sense of community. Even when students did get help from peers, it was often online rather than face-to-face. This is something for educators to consider when designing optimal workspaces for learning, which should include features that provide physical comfort, such as comfortable furniture, access to food and lighting control. Researchers say comfortable, functional learning spaces can foster the sense of community that students reported they lost when using their laptops.