To Ban or Not To Ban (Laptops)? That Is The Question…

Students sitting with laptops in a lecture style classroom

Throughout 2017, the student use of laptops/technology ban in the classroom debate got hotter than Miami in August. While not a new concern in the classroom, this laptop ban debate merits discussion.

To Ban, or…

University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski identified in a New York Times op-ed article, Laptops are Great. But Not During a Lecture or Meeting, a ban of the use of electronics in her classes. Dynarski cited studies showing those who used laptops performed worse than others who did not. She also cited another study where non-laptop using students were negatively affected by laptop-using students sitting near them. It suggested the laptop’s power of distraction is too great to ignore, providing “visual pollution” in the classroom.

Dynarski noted she made exceptions for students with learning disabilities. Some involved in the debate point out the students being accommodated for a disability are easily identified, leading to a loss of privacy. However, Dynarski argued the privacy loss also occurred when those same students were allotted extra time for completing tests.

Other supporters of an electronics ban include Darren Rosenblum (2017) who cited studies suggesting that writing notes by hand aids in memory retention. He also provided an argument that momentary interruptions can derail train of thought and these disruptions significantly affect exam performance. Rosenblum stated that since levying an electronics ban, student engagement increased in his classroom. He had more consistent eye contact with students. Also, he was better able to tell when/if students were struggling with material he was sharing.

Not to Ban, Debate Continues

Some like Matthew Numer (2017), argued that our college students are adults capable of making their own decisions (with the responsibility of voting and potentially serving their country in the armed forces), and as such, should not be treated like children with an all-restrictive technology ban.

“Writing lines” was a form of school punishment in the days of yesteryear. Behavioral reform didn’t occur from writing the repetitive statement. Avoidance of the cramped hand muscles one would get from this punishment was a more likely deterrent. With mainstream access to technology, students have become accustomed to typing instead of handwriting. This shift decreased the practice of handwriting and thus, forcing students to hand write notes because of an electronics ban can seem punitive.

Person hand writing notes on tablet
CC BY-NC 2.0: Daniel Hoherd

Most of the arguments for banning electronics in the classroom highlight a limited perspective. Usually, the example is typing notes via a laptop. Students simply transcribe what is said and do not process what they hear. However, there are apps and programs (ie Notability and OneNote) on tablets or devices with interactive screens that allow students to write their notes and transcribe them to text for reference. Students can easily take pictures of associated material and add those to their notes as well. Electronics in the classroom, used with intention, can be beneficial to students. It is imperative to set expectations when leveraging technology appropriate for your course materials.

Some faculty have embraced the use of technology during class time to increase engagement with course content through the use of iClicker, Top Hat, and Kahoot!. Solutions like iClicker and Top Hat allow the integration of attendance tracking, polling, and quizzing. Students attend class prepared to answer questions at the beginning, middle and/or end of class (most often the practice is to include the beginning and end of class).

James Lang suggested (2016) that if students are not engaged with classroom lectures, it is an opportunity to embrace new ways of teaching, such as the use of active learning. In addition, he offers that providing rationale for modes of teaching and learning offers more transparency.

How To Be Successful in This Class

Woman using a tablet and whiteboard There is an assumption that by college, students should know how read a textbook, take notes, prepare for quizzes/exams, write papers, and work in groups. However, as noted in a previous article Great Expectations: Raise the Bar for Better Writing, students may not be familiar with the type of writing assignment you are requesting. In addition, the level of expectations for these tasks in college is usually higher than students have experienced before; especially when introducing online work. Basic methods many students are accustomed to using are no longer adequate. Perhaps your students have worked in groups before, but was it an effective and constructive group? Many students would benefit from guidance for basic time management skills. Some students need more than the freedom to “figure it out” as they go.

Until it is made relevant to students, awareness of best practices in learning is not on a student’s radar. Make use of university resources that may help guide students to better performance.

  • The University Learning Center works with faculty to create workshops to assist students to hone reading, writing and general study skills.
  • In addition, FIU Libraries provides support to faculty in developing LibGuides, helpful resources and research exercises related to course activities.

Setting Expectations

Many will agree that it is easy to become distracted by our devices. However, simply banning technology in the classroom does a disservice to our students. Provide transparency by teaching students why you want them to take handwritten notes to their benefit. Teach them why laptops can be a distraction to others, affecting everyone in the course. While not necessary to explain the motivation for every teaching choice, addressing certain aspects can decrease adversarial sentiment.

Lang framed a discussion based on the prompt, “Given that some of your peers find their laptops or other devices necessary, how can we all stay focused and be successful in the classroom?” Invite students to collaboratively draft course policies that make for an effective learning environment. Beyond providing an opportunity for student autonomy, you increase student buy-in to these policies.

In one university, a professor asked students at the beginning of the semester to personally decide if they were going to use laptops in the classroom. Based on their initial decision, students sat in a technology or no-technology zone for the remainder of the semester. A department at another university asked its students using laptops to sit in the back rows of its classrooms to avoid distracting others.

To ban or not to ban electronics and laptops in the classroom– it can be a complex question, even with the best intentions. Share your opinions about this article or the electronics/laptop ban debate by commenting below.

Valentine [Sky] rocked the FIU Online Instructional Designer "hat" for over 10 years. Her areas of expertise included social media, user interface design & game design thinking, Quality Matters, and the Canvas LMS. Since 2019, she was an Instructure/Canvas Advocate. Additionally, Valentine provided her HigherEd expertise as a Canvas Certified Educator program course facilitator. She was also an Adjunct Instructor with FIU's Marketing and Logistics department.

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