To ban or not to ban laptops?


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

11 thoughts on “To ban or not to ban laptops?

  1. As someone with just naturally bad hand writing I found switching to use a laptop for in-lecture note taking to be far more effective for my learning – as I could then read and understand my notes better. And for me was especially helped when the PowerPoint slides or notes were made available in a editable form, as I could edit the slide to include the notes or write them in the notes box. And then when I wasn’t needing to take notes or search for a definition I would switch the screen off to prevent myself getting distracted or distracting others with a bright screen.

  2. I used my laptop to look up relevant information. During one class I put up my hand, shared something relevant (an article updating the subject matter under discussion), the prof said “good point”, encouraged students to check this out, then told me to close down my laptop and pay attention.

    That was puzzling. I demonstrated relevancy, that I was learning, interested, curious about the topic under discussion–isn’t that what profs want? I was more engaged than most of the students, I can type fast and could include extra notes and points and links in my notes, yet the prof thought the laptop was interfering in some way with my learning.

    I only contributed once more in that class, and that was to point out the prof’s information on high tides and moon/sun alignments was incorrect—she didn’t believe me at first, but several others had checked their phones for information and backed me up. That was quite satisfying.

    And yes, as students we do know that it is about control, not learning, when the profs want to ban laptops. Not many other profs banned laptops, but the ones that did weren’t as respected.

  3. Thanks for the draft language including research re handwritten notes, Terry! I’m tweaking a syllabus right now, for use this semester, and just worked that line in.

  4. I’m a student who prefers paper to pencil. The faculty at my school express concern about distracting yourself and your classmates. While I understand the concern, some students will find a way to be distracted with or without help. I appreciate that you point that out.

  5. I think you make a lot of good points. For example, I too don’t care for bans for some of the same reasons you cite. However, I do “nudge” students to take notes on paper by offering a few bonus points. Those who feel they would gain more points by using the computer can make that calculated choice. This is the first time I’m trying this so I may encounter issues I haven’t anticipated, but the idea came from a colleague of mine in psychology who studies cognition. She does this in her classes and says 100% of the students choose the option, and many later thank her for the nudge.

    One reason I have adopted this is because I actually disagree with your claim that students who are distracted on computers will be just as distracted without them. This seems to me to almost suggest that distraction is just a result of motivation or interest, but I think there’s plenty of evidence that there’s more to it than that. I recently read Cam Newport’s book “Deep Work”, and I’m now quite convinced that we all could benefit from learning how to resist distractions. One thing that having students take notes on paper may do is show them that they learn better, and also that the world does not collapse just because they were “out of touch” for 50 minutes. OK, that’s two things I guess! Anyway, the point is that many students (I believe, and some have told me this) WANT to be less distracted, but haven’t figured out how to do this. A nudge by me might help. We shall see.

  6. OK, to be a bit snarky, how about we assume that our students are adults and they get to take notes any damn way they want given they do not substantially distract others around them. During the last 20 years, universities have become baby sitters. Now we have the next wave of educational breakthroughs (active learning is the knew cliche of the day). For difficult topics in the sciences, get your notes, grab the text book, go to the corner of library, and struggle and work through difficult topics. For the love of God, you can Google almost anything and get a step by step guide to understanding it. Ouch. OK, take your pot shots. Signed An Aging Dinosaur.

  7. Regarding the students on youtube who would not be paying attention anyway: Sure, they might not have been paying attention, but it is as distracting as hell to be sitting next to someone or behind someone who’s on youtube when a professor is lecturing. When I have laptop language in my syllabus, I ask students who are using laptops to sit in the back so they do not distract their classmates.

  8. To the instructors who offer bonus points (‘nudges’) to students who don’t use laptops in class: congratulations, you just increased the grade of every non-disabled student in your class and lowered the grade of some of your disabled students.

    That is not okay.

    Oh, you say, but if a student came to me with a documented disability, of course this wouldn’t apply to them. (Or, perhaps, you’re saying: I’ve done this in my classes, and no student ever came to me to ask for an exemption.)

    Documenting disabilities takes time and money. My disability (a neurological disorder) should have been straightforward to diagnose, but it still took me 11 months and countless doctors appointments from when I was first showing symptoms to get a diagnosis on paper — and that’s fast by chronic illness standards. I’m lucky enough to live in a country with socialised medicine, so all of this was free, but I shudder to think what that would have cost in the US. Then there’s liaising with the university disability office, which can take weeks if not months after all the medical stuff is sorted out. (And also costs money — my GP’s office charges the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries per form it has to fill out for me. Do you have any idea how many forms a disabled student has to fill out?) How many of your disabled students are going to have the time, energy, and money to go through all of this?

    And even after a disability has been successfully registered with the disability office, there comes the part many students most dread — negotiating with the instructor. Many instructors, generally out of ignorance but sometimes out of malice, do not react well to the ‘disability conversation.’ They think they know better than the student, try to insist that the student does not require their LEGALLY-MANDATED accommodations, suggest utterly useless alternatives…mock the student…deny that the disability even exists…etc. (See for a particularly egregious example.) (My own PhD supervisor, when my disability was disclosed to her, contacted my estranged parents, which caused all manner of trouble in my personal life. Why. Why would you do that.) Consider the power dynamics here. Your disabled students may very well be terrified of you, and they, in general, have excellent reasons to be terrified of professors.

    Discrimination isn’t worth it. Just let your students use a laptop.

  9. I know this sounds picky, but actually, correlation DOES imply causation (all those textbooks are incorrect see Shipley’s Cause and Correlation in Biology for a nice summary of this) – you just need to carefully consider what causal structure you are hypothesizing – and that is especially true in this case.

  10. I was just made aware of an app called “Pocket Points” that has, apparently, been successful in encouraging students to stay off of their phones in some cases. Students lock their phone during class periods, and then earn reward points that they can put toward purchases (presumably like a coupon to save on pizza or something). It has the advantages of being completely voluntary and not connected, directly, to any given course or course points (but would indirectly increase the learning of most students by keeping them off phones). I don’t know much about it, but it sounds like something worthy of looking into and mentioning to students. (No idea if it could be used for lap tops also.)

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