Some folks want to ban laptops from their classrooms, and others are okay with laptops.
This is a perennially annoying discussion in higher ed today. But I think it’s an important issue because it has the potential to really affect learning.
What do I do? Here’s the language in my syllabus for this semester:
Some research suggests that writing notes on paper helps you learn and study better. But if you have a need or preference to use a laptop, that’s fine. Please avoid doing things that aren’t related to the class.
If you do use a device, you might be asked to sit in a particular location in the room that I think is most suitable for the learning environment for other students in the class. Audio or video recording in class is prohibited unless prior authorization is granted. No devices are allowed during assessments unless specified otherwise.
So, yeah, I’m not a fan of a laptop ban. (For a comprehensive argument for banning laptop bans, see what Kevin Gannon has to say.)
I have two reasons for not banning laptops in my classroom, both of which I think are critical for positive student learning experiences.
- Some students need their laptops to learn better. While there’s some research showing that written notes might be better for cognitive processes, there are also students in our classes with a range of learning disabilities that are ameliorated by using a laptop. Of course, students who are diagnosed from the campus disability center can give us notes to be excused from our laptop bans. This, then would advertise to the entire class that they have a learning disability, which some students obviously want to avoid. Moreover, some students don’t even want to approach professors with a disability note, because they fear it will result in an unfair bias — and even more aren’t diagnosed officially on campus and aren’t equipped to bring in a note. I don’t want to single out students who need a laptop as an accommodation for a disability, or disadvantage the disabled ones who don’t have an official accommodation.
- Students learn better when there is mutual respect, and a laptop ban can get in the way of this respect. Nobody likes being told what to do. It’s our classroom, we run it, professors wield a huge amount of power, and students are used to some professors abusing that power. Some of them think we’re being overly bossy by telling them that they can’t use their computers or phones in class. (Some are fine with a ban, and of course, some students even prefer this.) Students know that professors ban laptops because it’s us — the professors — who don’t like having to compete with distractions. This is an issue of control. Sure, folks can try to claim a laptop ban is about student outcomes, but really, laptops in the room can hard for us to deal with. When we exert control over things just to make ourselves more comfortable, even though it makes some students less comfortable, then there will be resentment. While the laptops might get in the way of learning to some extent, this resentment will get in the way even more. When we control student behavior just because we don’t like it, then that’s selfish and not respecting our students’ ability to make decisions for themselves.
While I think these two reasons above are critical, I also don’t think much of the arguments in favor of laptop bans. If students learn better from writing notes by hand, then we are not taking that option away from them! The main argument is that students will be distracted by their phones and laptops in class. We all have stories about students who were using devices to shop, or watch videos, or whatnot, instead of paying attention in class.
Here’s a little secret: all of these students who are watching Youtube in class wouldn’t be paying attention even if they didn’t have access to a laptop. They’d be zoned out, doodling, daydreaming, writing a poem, something else. Students might be more overtly distracted when they have laptops on off-task materials, but how do we know that extracurricular browsing is a cause and not a mere symptom of distraction? Y’all are scientists, and must know that we shouldn’t infer causation from correlation, after all.
The main reason that I’m not worried about laptops in the classroom is that I’m keeping my students plenty busy. I’ll lecture in snippets but there’s a lot of group work, problem-solving, and other forms of active learning happening. Students who are in my classes, if I’m doing my job well, literally won’t have the time to go shopping on the internet. And more often than not, the laptops will help out with the lesson. When I do notice students using the internet in class, it’s often to find additional information related to what we’re doing in class. I don’t want to shut down that kind of independent inquiry!
It’s up to me to develop lessons that students think are worth their time. If I force students to keep away from digital devices, I’m not necessarily increasing their interest in what I’m doing at the front of the classroom. If I take channel of the worry I might muster about laptops and refocus it on building lessons that require student engagement, we’re all better off.