On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom

This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge.  I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge).   [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]

1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject.  [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study.  If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]

2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.

3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources:  more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class.  [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]

4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age.  [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics.  I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]

5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.

6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work.  In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class.  [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.”  That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]

6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning.  I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them.  I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.

6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support.  I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class.    [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and more options out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]

7) Other critiques of laptop/device bans include: accessibility issues for studies with accommodations, the argument that bans are more about professors’ egos, the notion that bans demonstrate an inflexibility of approach, and the point that other distractions exist too.

8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.

9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting.  I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem.  It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.

10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.

Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.


[Thanks to Sue Fernsebner for pointing out the appropriateness of this discussion in the wake of the many pieces reflecting on Seymour Papert‘s life and work.]

Why I Teach

Let’s get something clear from the start: I love teaching. I love teaching history. I love teaching students at a school that prioritizes teaching. I love walking in to a classroom with historical documents and scholarly readings and images and strategies for how I’m going to talk with students about the past (and often the present and the future).  I love that I walk out from that same classroom an hour or so later simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, having learned as much as the students have in our give and take of learning about the past.  I love seeing what students can do if you push them out of their comfort zone while also providing them with support and opportunities to approach, both creatively and rigorously, the study of history.  I love my job.

My approach to teaching is grounded in the importance of historical inquiry, the multidisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, and five key related beliefs.  First, I believe that students are at the center of teaching.  I work to involve students in classes as participants, leaders, and fellow learners.  In exchange, I expect students to take responsibility for their education in and out of my classes.

Second, I believe that technology can play a key role in enhancing traditional pedagogical practices.  I integrate WordPress, Omeka, Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and web-based discussions, online research, multimedia content, digital history projects, electronic editing of papers, and image and video creation into my classes.  All of these aspects of technology are used to vary and improve communication, offer alternative forms of discussion or presentation, or broaden the academic experience in and out of the classroom, while holding on to scholarly and intellectual rigor.

Third, I believe in the importance of teaching students to be critical consumers of knowledge.  I have a responsibility to teach students to approach all primary and secondary content with a skeptical eye, not just historical sources or scholarly books and articles, though grappling with these remain essential to the discipline.  For example, in my courses on US History in Film, American Technology and Culture, Civil War and Memory, History of the Information Age, and Digital History, I work with students to analyze critically what have become the key popular sources of information about the past, namely movies and the Internet.  In all my classes I work with students to explore what it means to be skeptical about all sources of knowledge.

Fourth, I believe in the need to teach students to be rigorous yet creative and adaptable producers of knowledge.  This skill links closely with the previous notion.  Understanding how knowledge is produced makes one a better consumer, but being skeptical about one’s sources also makes one a better writer and speaker.  In my classes students are encouraged to express themselves in various ways: formal and informal, written and oral, online and in person. I teach a number of different skill sets related to exchanging and expressing information in my classes, from basic writing to oral presentations to working with groups to digital project design to the creation of infographics, images & documentaries, yet all stem from one’s ability to convey content, concepts and ideas in the best possible way.

Fifth, I believe in students being “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” in their learning. A student walked into my office several years ago and said to me, “Dr. McClurken, I’m really struggling with all this online stuff,” referring to the projects I had assigned to the students in my American Technology and Culture course. She explained that digital projects were unfamiliar to her and that she was uncomfortable with her ability to do the assignment. She was surprised when my response to her discomfort was, “Good.” I went on to explain that I wanted her and her classmates to push the boundaries of what they understood about the conceptualization and presentation of historical information beyond papers and tests. Though she struggled a bit learning the tools we were using that semester, she later sent an email thanking me for introducing her to new methods of approaching history with the subject heading, “From Antipathy to Appreciation.” Note the last part of my initial phrase—“not paralyzed”—because it’s equally important.  I want students to move out of their comfort zones because that is where deep learning occurs, but I don’t want them to be so uncomfortable they can’t get anything done.  To keep them from paralysis we discuss potential resources to which they can turn (including their fellow students), we talk extensively about what constitutes successful work (even to the point in some classes of collectively constructing the rubrics with which I assess their papers and projects), and I tell them that they can always come to me if truly stumped.  The results of a semester’s worth of student discomfort is worth it to me, and more importantly to them, as I see their pride in the work that they’ve created and shared not only with me or with their class, but with the wider world.

This post is part of a Connected Courses assignment, and is a revised version of a piece I’ve written in various forms for various submissions.