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In science/engineering subjects, it's not yet commonplace to use a laptop or tablet in class as most people still take notes with a pen and paper.

What is some good etiquette for laptop use in classes, so that I don't annoy or distract either my fellow students or the professor? Should I ask the professor if he/she would mind me using a laptop?

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    Every professor is different. – JeffE Oct 24 '13 at 19:43
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    I find this question 'primarily opinion-based' and not very useful. – fileunderwater Oct 25 '13 at 12:41
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    Voting to reopen following the edit (thanks Moriarty!). A question on customs and best practices for having a laptop in lectures is definitely interesting to have, and the answers do a great job of giving widely-applicable guidance (even though specifics will vary from place to place) – F'x Oct 26 '13 at 9:15
  • "In science/engineering subjects, it's not yet commonplace to use a laptop or tablet in class as most people still take notes with a pen and paper." - with its lack of qualifiers such as "in some places" or "at some universities", I can only call this statement entirely false. And even if we assume the statement were generally true, using a laptop in class can be very much commonplace even if it is not the majority doing it. – O. R. Mapper Jan 7 '15 at 12:16
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Professors don't share the same rationale so mileage may differ. Usually, the younger ones are more forgiving. Those born before late Generation X (aka 1970 or before) are more likely to feel awkward because in most of their education life, portable computers had not been made popular. So, personal computer and laptop were/are much less integrated into their daily life.

In fact, it's not the laptop, it's what the laptop being used for and the manners of the owner's. Here are some guidelines, most are in my syllabi as well:

  • If the syllabus does not require a labtop but you'd like to use one, inform the professor through e-mail for permission. This step, however, can be skipped if the majority of the students have started using one since the beginning.
  • Sit to the side or back so that your screen will not interfere with other students' line of eyesight.
  • Mute all sounds.
  • Be courteous about where to plug your charger and make sure no one will trip over the wire.
  • Type quietly.
  • Refrain from doing anything other than tasks related to the materials being covered (no Facebook, Reddit, Youtube, games, porn, jokes, e-mail, IM, shopping etc. even you think you have nailed down the contents).
  • Occasionally establish eye contacts with the professor.
  • Ask questions, keep engaged.
  • If there are very few students and the interaction becomes more of a meeting, angle your laptop to either or your side by about 40 degrees so that it's not becoming a wall between you and the professor, or you and other students.

I also ask my TAs to sit at the back of the classroom so that I can make sure karma finds its way when I tally up the in-class performance portion of the final grade.

  • +1 for using TA's. As a TA, in multiple courses, I have sat in the back (albeit with my own laptop open) but have scanned the classroom for students doing non-student-y things on their laptops (usually reddit) and have reported to the professor when asked to do so. – Shion Oct 24 '13 at 20:18
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    I largely agree with your points, except one: I don't see the point of wasting TAs' time in policing the lecture room or writing down offenders. If you (as a teacher) do not notice the change in behavior of the student, i.e. if their are not less engaged in the course and are not impolite, I don't see why you would penalize them. – F'x Oct 24 '13 at 21:13
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    @F'x, thanks. First I have to make a disclaimer that it has never happened because it seems just having two TAs at the back is deterring. Second, I disagree with you because on the students' part it is a breach of contract: I allow that privilege with a condition, and they violate it. Whether the lack of attention has to be visually detectable should not be an issue here. Lastly, because the peers can see the screen, the behavior also disrupts the class. Even intermittently and in the span of a few seconds, the quality of the class will decrease. – Penguin_Knight Oct 24 '13 at 22:55
  • Lol for the porn – Ooker Jan 31 '15 at 0:04
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Follow the directions given. If nothing was said with respect to laptops, you may use one but be ready to fold it if asked to do so.

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In addition to other useful information given earlier: yes, some "older" faculty are very sensitive (I almost wrote "hyper-sensitive", but that would have been judgmental...) about electronic devices of any sort in the classroom. Thus, no matter what you're doing, even if it's note-taking from their lecture, it will upset them.

Some of that reaction is due to the greater difficulty of telling exactly whether you're paying attention, or not. The point is that most other "inattentive" activity is more easily distinguished from "attentive" activity... so that part of what is upsetting is that it's no longer possible to easily distinguish.

Indeed, when I was in high school, one of the great attractions of my hobby of mathematics was that writing technical-looking stuff in a notebook looked just like taking notes in class... which was a great trick for me, personally: make occasional eye contact with teacher, then go back to what I was doing. :) An astute chemistry teacher did make a very cryptic comment which I only later realized was meant to let me know that, although no action was taken, not everyone was fooled. :)

But/and, in fact, "even many old people" realize that "paper" is being significantly supplanted by electronics. In my graduate courses, students have the PDF notes called-up on their tablets, and mark on them using the touchscreen corresponding to the "added value" I (attempt to) provide in my lecture/discussion of the material. This is entirely reasonable, and certainly preferable to everyone printing out their own copy to physically mark on... ?

Similarly, if/when I give references during lecture/discussion, how could I discourage a person from looking up the reference document (assuming it's available on-line)??? I realize that a well-prepared student may often have "extra cycles" available, so that they can legitimately pay attention well-enough, while looking up the peripheral stuff...

And, similarly, in fact, I realize that a well-prepared student can fully follow what I'm doing while intermittently carrying on an email/facebook/text-message discussion with friends. Why not? Is this worse than daydreaming, looking out the window? :)

I think the genuine operational issue is not whether-or-not faculty are offended, to which the answer is something like "yes, but that's not the only thing that offends faculty, ...", but whether it would be genuinely appropriate to try to actively prevent or "police" electronics use in class. This seems like a hopeless battle, beyond the larger request for ordinary civility in all things.

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It might give an impression that you are doing something else on laptop and this might make someone angry. The tick tick from keyboard can also be disturbing.

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