Study finds laptops may not benefit design majors

Laptop computers are changing the way students in the School of Design interact, according to a two-year study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers.

Researchers from the university’s Office of Technology for Education and the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence conducted the study to explore how laptops change the way students work, and whether they were beneficial or detrimental. Laptops were given out to students in typography classes for either one semester or one year.

Students were mostly observed during classes, but they were also asked to fill out surveys and logbooks with information such as where and how long they work and whether they receive feedback on their work. There were also group discussions at the end of the semester that encouraged students to share their class experiences.

According to the study, students with laptops generally spend more time on assignments and work later into the night than those who do not have laptops. Laptop owners’ time was frequently divided between checking e-mail and instant messaging. They also spent more time looking up websites to complete their assignments than sketching their own work.

This dependency on laptops could create problems, according to 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,” said Fay in a Carnegie Mellon press release. “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.”

It was no surprise to Dan Boyarski, the head of the School of Design, that students used their laptops for other tasks while they were working on their assignments.

“That’s no different than when they’re working on our computers in our lab, because our computers are hooked up too,” Boyarski said. “So they can be in the middle of working and they’re going to check their e-mail and get distracted by something else.”

However, Boyarski said he was surprised that students preferred working alone at home more than working with other students because “they didn’t see enough value in the interaction between themselves.”

“Generally, when they work in our lab, they’re working together. They’re talking to each other. They’re asking each other for suggestions,” he said. “There’s this wonderful learning that goes on.”

Students working at home often received a broader range of criticism because they sought feedback online from friends who were not in design programs. Although they recognized that working at home supplied fewer educational advantages, they were still drawn in by the comfort of a home environment. Laptops may be portable, but students rarely worked in places other than studio or home.

Introducing laptops into studio also helped create a very different learning environment in terms of what could be done during class time. Since the laptop was in the classroom along with the printer, a student could have much faster iterations of assignments and make changes as soon as the instructor provided suggestions.

This was a substantial improvement from when students had to go two floors down to the lab in order to make changes, according to Boyarski, because by the time they return with the new work, the instructor might have moved on to a different student.

“The quality of the work didn’t change very much, but the use of time was better and they were able to iterate a lot more,” said Boyarski.

“And I think that, for us, in teaching design, that’s important because we want quite a number of iterations. I think that’s the best way to learn.”