Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Banning Laptops in the College Classroom

There has been another internet dust up about whether or not professors should ban laptops in their classrooms. Matthew Numer says students should be insulted by laptop bans, and Kevin Gannon writes that the argument behind the laptop ban “fails miserably as an intellectual position about teaching and learning.”  But I think the arguments against a laptop ban are, generally speaking, wrong. With all the usual caveats and exceptions, in my experience laptop bans are a good idea in introductory-level college classes. I would (and do) recommend it to my colleagues.

To me, there are three strong arguments against the laptop ban, and I think the two articles above do a good job of capturing them: 1) laptop bans are unfair to students requiring disability accommodations; 2) laptop bans are a bad response to larger issues in education, like poor pedagogical techniques or overcrowded courses; 3) laptop bans fail to treat students like the young adults they are.

Only the first argument has any real traction with me. That’s why I meet with the director of our campus’s disability services office each semester before the class begins, to discuss how the ban might affect the students taking my class that semester. I’m fortunate to work at a college small enough to make it realistically possible to discuss the impact of classroom policy changes like this at the individual level, and I’m aware not every professor has that luxury. Also (as I think everyone who does not allow laptops in class feels compelled to explain), I don’t have a blanket ban; students can get special permission to use a computer. I don’t call people out in class for using a laptop, although I do try to catch them as they leave to make sure they know the policy. So far, most of my students requiring accommodation prefer to record lectures in addition to taking notes by hand, rather than typing notes in a computer. The most regular laptop users I have are our frequently-injured student athletes; there is consistently enough someone who has permission to use a computer that I don’t think using one would single out a disabled student, no more than is the case with other more obvious accommodations like not being in class or leaving class early to take an exam or quiz with extended time. I don’t think this is a perfect solution; I can imagine a shy student who would be better accommodated using a laptop but deciding not to do so because they don’t want to (in their view) cause trouble. But it’s also the case that the argument for better disability accommodations could work the other way, in favor of a laptop ban. Limiting the extent to which additional screens can distract someone is an upside to a technology ban that people rarely talk about.

That laptop bans are a bad response to larger issues in higher education: well, yeah. Allowing laptops in class isn’t going to make the college enough money to fund the additional faculty members to allow me to have the ideal seven-person seminar-style class I want to hold. It won’t make the college enough money that we could loan all our students laptops or have all our classes in computer labs so that I could re-structure class meetings to incorporate technology (at my institution, I can’t be certain a student has a car or a cell phone, much less a laptop; I’ve yet to find a way to incorporate electronic devices into the classroom that doesn’t leave some people behind). Until then, we’re all making do.

The most common reason for allowing laptops in the college classroom is that students are adults and should be allowed to make these choices on their own; if they don’t choose to participate in class, that might be a rational choice or not, but it’s their decision to make. Really, we the professors have the obligation to win their attention. To quote Matthew Numer:

Our students are capable of making their own choices, and if they choose to check Snapchat instead of listening to your lecture, then that’s their loss. Besides, it’s my responsibility as an educator to ensure that my lecture is compelling. If my students aren’t paying attention, if they’re distracted, that’s on me. The same goes for anyone presiding over a business meeting.

(I feel like they will fire you if you have a meeting with the boss and play on your laptop instead of at least appearing to pay attention, but it’s been a while since I had a job outside academia.)

and Kevin Gannon:

Ultimately, it comes down to how we see our students. Do we see them as adults, or at least as capable agents in their own learning? Or do we see them as potential adversaries in need of policing? Do we see them as capable of making their own decisions and learning from those that aren’t necessarily the best ones?

The arguments that students are grown-ups and that it’s the fault of the professor if they/their course are insufficiently engaging seem to me to be manifestly contradictory. One thing that successful adults do is pay attention to things they find boring. I have to do it all the time! I’m not enthralled navigating SACSOC regulations or doing my income taxes, but I do it, because it’s important. I don’t personally find everything in history (even in my field or my classroom) equally exciting or interesting, but there are boring things you have to understand to do the neat stuff. Everybody wants to be able to order wine in a fancy Parisian restaurant; nobody wants to learn irregular verb conjugations.

I teach at a tiny, mostly-associate’s degree granting institution in the rural Deep South, largely teaching non-majors in survey courses. I can’t always count on my students to know what the best decisions are; that’s part of what I am trying to teach them. I could let a student learn that watching soccer online instead of paying attention will lead to a failing grade; in fact, I did, in one of my larger classes before I stopped allowing students free use of electronic devices in class. I don’t feel like doing so empowered the student.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t want to allow students to make bad decisions that make learning harder for other students in the classroom. I’m hesitant to write further, even anonymously, about my current or former students on the internet, but I think most people who teach survey-level courses have had students who simply don’t know how to be in a college classroom, or students who are smart enough that they can get through a survey class without trying particularly hard in class. I have seen such students act in a way that make it more difficult for other struggling students to succeed. I’ve been teaching long enough to not take it personally when students look at their phones rather than listen to me, but students participating in classroom discussion or making a presentation might take it differently.

I can imagine an introductory history survey that uses laptops or other electronic devices in a way that makes that class better (though I can’t easily imagine it realistically happening where I currently teach). Generally speaking and in my experience, students using electronic devices do not improve the classroom, and they usually make it worse. And I’ve not heard differently from a student. Anecdotes and data etc, but I’ll finish this with a story: At the end of the semester, I usually give each class as a whole a bonus opportunity: for every day that the entire classroom is engaged (including reading the material beforehand etc but most importantly, nobody focuses more on their cell phones than the class), the entire section gets a bonus on the final exam. From what I can tell, this improves grades, but more than that: I’ve also had several students tell me that I should do the same thing the whole semester, that they felt like they did better when they knew they couldn’t become distracted. I’ve yet to find the student who does better with more distractions in the classroom.

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