By: Eitan Lipsky  | 

UTS Initiative Brings the Issue of Laptops to the Table

At the opening day Undergraduate Torah Studies ceremony on August 29, Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of RIETS and Undergraduate Torah Studies, announced that the Yeshiva would be engaging in a new initiative for the upcoming school year. He highlighted the potential pitfall that technology could be for otherwise dedicated students who are simply unable to resist the urge to let their phones and laptops distract them while learning in the Beit Midrash or while sitting in their morning shiurim. In response to this phenomenon, Rabbi Penner urged students to refrain from having their cell phones on near them while they are learning.

Additionally, he promised that there would be an “open conversation” taking place throughout the first few months of the school year, whereby the values and detriments of laptop use during class (or shiur) would be debated and analyzed. This promise was actualized on September 14th, as the first panel discussion on this topic was held.

After much hype from the administration in anticipation of the event, the discussion got off to a rocky start. The unexpectedly meager crowd was surprised to learn that Rabbi Penner, a major endorser of this event, was attending a simcha (celebration) and thus not available to give his introductory remarks. One of the panelists scheduled to speak at the event, Professor Will Lee, was also not present, due to a misleading email that had the event’s location in a room in Furst Hall, instead of Rubin Shul, where it was meant to take place.

One student who attended the event, who prefers to remain anonymous, took issue with the poor student showing and the faculty no-shows. “I was very excited about attending the event and I am happy that I did go,” he said. “Yet, for all the hype (which even included an interruption of morning Seder), only about 20 students showed up. It didn’t help that a room location mix-up caused one of the featured speakers to be absent. As great as the panel was, there was a salient feeling among those who were present (busy students and presenters alike) that they had been misled.”

Nevertheless, the program continued as planned. Rabbi Joshua Blass, a RIETS Mashgiach, stepped in for Rabbi Penner and provided a message to the students to open the program about the need to sit and weigh the outcomes of our decisions before making them. With this, he introduced the program as one that was intended to engage the minds of students and allow them to each make the right decision for them about whether or not to use laptops in the class and shiur rooms.

Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Jeremy Wieder began the conversation by highlighting his philosophy on the issue, specifically mentioning the “no laptops” rule for his classes. While noting that laptops do have positive uses, he stressed that using a laptop in class does more harm than it does good. He spoke about the distraction that is caused by having a laptop in class and how it prevents us from using our time, which is the most sacred thing that we have, in a proper way. He also spoke about the lack of Derech Eretz towards teachers that students display when they sit through classes doing other things on their computers instead of listening and engaging in the lecture.

Dr. David Pelcovitz, professor and the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, spoke next, providing concrete statistics demonstrating the negative impact multitasking with technology has on focus and ability to retain information that is taught in a classroom lecture. He emphasized that not only does a student who uses a laptop for other things during class significantly inhibit his ability to focus, he or she also negatively impacts the focus of those around him. Dr. Pelcovitz concluded by expressing concern over the state of humanity in the technological era, and its shift away from deep thinking. This is in direct contrast, he said, with the way we are expected to be learning in Yeshiva, whereby we work hard and analyze information. He explained to the students that as the generations become more influenced by technology, they will lose the attention span required to contemplate their decisions prior to acting. He empowered the students present by telling them that they still have this ability, and should therefore embrace it.

While Rabbi Penner’s description of the program envisioned it as an “open conversation weighing the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom”, the arguments presented seemed to align with only one side of the debate. Nevertheless, students who attended certainly benefited from hearing these perspectives. Ilan Scher, a second-year student, applauded the event for raising points that are generally not considered. “Discussions about classroom computer use often speak about the individual using the computer, but rarely touch on the negative effects that it has on other students, the professor, and the classroom environment in general. This debate really opened up my mind to technology’s potential to do serious damage if not used responsibly.”