on laptops


So I’ve got a question for those in my readership who have done more teaching than I: what do you all do about laptops? I’m planning to ban them, but I’m having some difficulty committing to it.

Pro the ban:
1. I’m old school, even though I’m young. I think we all managed to learn just fine taking notes by hand, and I don’t feel like the ability to take notes on a laptop enhances actual learning (as opposed to enhancing the volume of dictation-style notes that don’t correlate to actual learning).
2. I think professors have the right to insist that students pay attention, or at least put on a show of paying attention. And while in theory, checking your email is no different than doing the crossword, I can’t help but think that the internet provides too many opportunities to distract others with your constant typing, the inappropriate laugh, or flashing images.
3. I generally work with the idea that college students are adults (which could be one argument towards letting them use their laptops). The absolute last thing I want to do is walk around the classroom trying to catch people browsing the internet; I don’t want to check the quality of people’s notes. For some reason, it feels a violation of their privacy to demand that I look through their notes. I’d say the same about the “lids up”/”lids down” approaches I’ve seen mentioned on various forums; it just seems like it uses up class time and focus on something I don’t want to deal with. These aren’t kindergarteners.
4. Back to that dictation issue: even those students who are taking notes should learn that notetaking isn’t transcription.
5. I intend to use my laptop (or whatever computer equipment is in the classroom) as needed to show images and clips and the like. Not sure why they need theirs as well.
6. And while I’ve seen many suggest the good uses of laptops and ways to incorporate students’ use of their laptops into your teaching, I can’t help but wonder about that one student who doesn’t have a laptop. Sure, I’m going to be teaching at one of the country’s most elite universities, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to have their own laptop.

Con the ban:
1. I’m not really a Luddite.
2. I feel like I could be too young to pull this off. As in, I’m just a year or three shy of the people who grew up almost exclusively with computers and internet.
3. This is the big one. Although my ban would come with the stipulation that students who need special accommodation for disabilities would be able to use laptops if that was the arrangement they made with the disabilities office, I also feel like having a ban could create a situation in which one student gets to use their laptop for the obvious reason: they need special accommodation. Correct me if I’m wrong, those of you more in the know, but it doesn’t quite feel right to have someone’s potentially unseen disability announced so publicly. Also, at my graduate institution, I had a student who had a student take notes for hir. Now granted, it could be that ze’s disability prevented hir from typing as well; but that’s one possibility, unless of course the student needed typed notes.

So that’s my dilemma, folks. I’m pretty anti-laptops, but I don’t want to create a situation in which it’s made clear to everyone in class who has a disability that they might not wish to be disclosed.

Your thoughts?


9 Responses to “on laptops”

  1. I’m also pretty anti-laptop on general principle, but I’m not comfortable banning them largely for your reason #3. In the end, I decided that it was the students’ responsibility to decide whether they were going to pay attention or update Facebook. (I did ban mobile phones in class. Texting is just rude.)

    I told my students that in my experience (I didn’t tell them that my experience consisted of being a TA for one previous class!) laptops tended to distract rather than help and that students who used laptops generally earned lower participation grades and had poorer lecture comprehension, but that it was up to them to decide whether they wanted to bring computers to class.

    My co-instructor this past year also came up with a policy that we thought worked pretty well: laptop users were required to sit at the edges of the lecture hall. That way, if they did surf over to YouTube or Facebook or another distracting site, the movement on the screen wouldn’t distract the paper note-takers. In the end we found that about 1/3 of our class brought laptops and 2/3 didn’t. I’m not gonna lie, I know there was a lot of Facebooking going on, but I also know those students suffered when final exam time came around. Their choice. They’re adults.

  2. I hate laptops in class and I would ban them in a heartbeat. And I’m totally not a Luddite.

    However. I think the special accommodation issue is a serious one. It creates a situation in which a student has to identify him or herself as having a disability. I actually had a student with that accommodation come and talk to me and then opt not to use his laptop because he didn’t want to out himself (so to speak). And I felt horrible (and probably would have been in trouble with ODS if he’d reported me to them.

    At my current school, laptops are allowed (and I’m not allowed to set my own policy). But I’m told it works for two reasons. First, students sit around a big wooden table in every class and I’m able to walk around behind them and see what they’re doing at any given time (and they know that). On top of that, participation is graded daily and amounts to 50% of the course grade. Students who bring laptops usually figure out pretty quickly that their participation grade will suffer seriously is they continue to bring it every day.

    So I think if you can build in other checks and balances, you could allow them. If I were back in my college environment, I would ask them not to bring them except for note-taking and probably make jokes about how tempted they will be to facebook. Laptops are fine as long as you don’t [insert ridiculous/rude behavior here]. Then I should probably commit to checking up on them by walking around, although architecturally that would be awkward, I think.

  3. If you say *on the syllabus* that you make sole exceptions for people with disabilities, your Con #3 shouldn’t be a problem.

    FWIW, I ban *all* electronic devices and I have a section on my syllabus about note-taking (it’s required — they lose participation points if they’re seen not taking notes) and how it’s not transcription. Here’s my electronic device ban language:

    All personal electronic devices must be TURNED OFF (or silenced) and PUT AWAY during class so that you may show respectful, thoughtful attention to one another and to the texts.

    Likewise, out of respect for your classmates and their comfort in having a free and open discussion, no sound- or video-recording devices may be used in this class without my express, written permission.

    If I see any unauthorized electronic devices in your hands, even if they aren’t turned on, you will lose all of your participation points for the day. If there’s a personal situation that requires you to monitor your phone or other device, you’re better off not being in class, where you’ll be too distracted to be engaged, anyway.

    The only exception: If you have a documented disability that requires the use of an electronic device for assistance seeing, hearing, or understanding, or for note-taking (by you or an assigned note-taker), please see me immediately with such documentation and I will make an exception in your case.

  4. I should add, btw, that my course is *deeply* and *intensely* discussion driven: assignments lead to discussion and students will assist in the final exam design based on what we’ve found worthwhile discussing over the semester. Hence the requirement for the note-taking and the need for attentive engagement.

  5. 5 thefrogprincess

    Thanks, all, for the thoughts. I should make a clarification, though. If this were a large lecture class where I had no intention of incorporating discussion, I’d probably either not bother with an ban or do what petite chablis mentioned, which is have laptop users sit in a designated area. As I mentioned in the original post, there’s something about walking around scrutinizing what people are doing on their laptops that doesn’t sit well with me. (And anyway, how do you assess the quality of someone’s notes?) But even my “lecture” class is small–at least at the moment. I think the department has decided that a publicity drive is needed (why I’m not sure), but maybe the reading-heavy syllabus and writing-intensive code (that I didn’t ask for) will deter folks. Anyway…lecture class is small, to the point where I will already be insisting that students sit in the first few rows, and I intend to run it as a mix of lecture and discussion, in which we dig deeply into the primary sources or secondary readings assigned, for at least 30 minutes each class period.

    I’d been leaning towards what Dr. Virago mentions, putting the caveat in my syllabus. That could still “out” somebody, so I have to weigh that risk against my larger concern about the kind of classroom environment I’m creating.

    Here’s the language I’ve come up with so far: The use of laptops is not permitted. We only have a short amount of time to work through a lot of material collectively, and the temptations of the internet are too great for us all. Please view class time as an opportunity to unplug for an hour and fifteen minutes. Furthermore, not using your laptops for notetaking should free you from the burden of viewing lectures as an extended dictation session. Rather than trying to write down everything I say, you should try to identify the key points and themes of my lectures.


  6. Ooh, I like your language better than mine!

    On the pro-ban side, I’d add that laptops are distracting to *other* students’ learning — which is why Petite Chablis’s suggestion of a special laptop section is good if you’re going to allow them.

    In my experience, students with disabilities that prevent them from taking notes themselves can get a note-taker assigned to them (either another student in the class or someone assigned by the office of accessibility), at least on my campus. I haven’t encountered a student who required laptop use, but obviously they’re out there, given Anastasia’s comment.

  7. 7 tanya.roth

    A lot of it just depends on the class format. I’ve worked with professors who banned them (as in a US survey course). That worked well, and the student who needed accommodation actually found he could write notes just fine (and had a note-taker in the class as well – so there are alternatives!).

    But I’m now teaching in a JK-12 school that uses technology extensively. All faculty get a tablet PC and all 7-12 grade students get the same. These are classes of 15-16 students max (on average), and in my opinion, they’re being socialized on appropriate technology use. Some teachers here make the students sign part of the syllabus saying that they agree to an acceptable use policy when it comes to using tech in class. That may seem high schoolish, but I’ve seen it done in colleges, too (and was first given that suggestion by someone at a college teaching center).

    I personally like to have the tech for a variety of class purposes, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to model appropriate technology use and even teach them that. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask anyone – no matter the grade/college level – to shut laptop lids or keep them off if they’re simply not needed (again, I have another college professor who uses the “monitors off” technique in a lab setting, or “lids down” as needed).

  8. 8 The History Enthusiast

    I don’t ban them, but I do two things: I make the statement Petite suggested in her first post re: you’ll get better grades if you pay attention…who knew?

    Also, I ask them to sit on the first row and “submit to an examination of their notes when I request it” (that language is in the syllabus). I do this for a couple of reasons.

    First, it deters the people who are just playing on Facebook the whole class because they don’t want everyone to see their business. That means I usually only have one or two in a 40 person class who bring their laptops. They sit on the edges because that’s where the outlets are.

    Two, if the person is looking at something distracting the students behind him/her will be making less eye contact with me, and when I see them getting distracted I can be pretty sure that student is goofing off. I then ask the student to shut their laptop and pull out a pen and paper.

    Three, the constant state of “fear” that I will ask to see their notes is another good deterrent. All I have them do is turn the laptop around and I check to see that they have a few pages of material. I don’t evaluate the quality; I only check to see that they wrote *something* down related to the material. I don’t do this every class, but I do it once and a while. It is not more work for me, and it helps keep them honest.

    To avoid any common complaints about this policy, I also tell the students that I’m doing this to provide them with some accountability. I realize how hard it can be to focus when you have tech gadgets to distract you, so I put a positive spin on it.

    I generally applaud the philosophical position which argues that they are adults, so don’t coddle them. The issue I come across here, though, is that my university has a lot of first-gen college students and also a lot of students who really shouldn’t be in college in the first place. That sounds harsh, I know, but they simply don’t have basic time-management skills. Because of this climate, I feel compelled to help them stay on track. If I were teaching at an Ivy I wouldn’t necessarily have the same policy.

  9. 9 The History Enthusiast

    I forgot to mention that my method doesn’t “out” anyone with a disability. The other students would just assume that person prefers typing to regular handwriting.

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