more on laptops

18Aug11

So thanks to all of you who commented on my last post about the potential laptop ban that I’m thinking about imposing in my two classes this fall.

I’ve got more to say on the subject.

So first, let me admit that I spent time today reading through Margaret Soltan‘s various posts in which she vigorously argues for laptop bans. So I haven’t exactly done the most unbiased extra reading. That said, through her I found a post Timothy Burke wrote a few years back in which a commenter made the point that laptop bans could be humiliating, i.e. someone confirming that my biggest concern could be an issue. So I take that seriously.

And yet…

The more I thought about it and the more I thought through the comments many of you made, the more determined I got to impose a laptop ban. And here’s why:

1. I think we can say that students are adults (which is something I wholeheartedly believe, actually, which is why the various inspection and “lids down” schemes feel uncomfortable to me), but I still believe professors have the right, indeed responsibility, to create the kind of classroom environment they believe works best for the students in their class. My job is not to cater to every student’s whim just ’cause: it’s to teach them. (And note: I’m not making an argument for university-wide laptop bans, but each professor knows the kind of classroom environment they’re aiming for.) I’m not banning laptops because I believe I can force everybody to pay attention in class. But there are ways of not paying attention that hurt the student alone and there are ways of not paying attention that are rude to everybody else. And surfing the internet, watching porn, watching music videos, checking your stocks, checking your bank account, and the potential noise and flashing lights inherent to those activities are rude.

2. Tanya points out that it can be good to teach students the appropriate methods of technology use and that technology can be an incredible aid to learning. I agree fully. But I think technology in and of itself is not inherently an aid to learning. Students will only learn more with technology if I, as the professor, incorporate technology or technological methods into my classroom. Not saying I won’t in future, but in the two courses I’m preparing for this upcoming semester, there’s no technology component that requires students to have their laptops. They’d simply be typing notes and getting distracted. Also, it’s just as important for students to learn that there are times when using technology isn’t appropriate.

3. A lot of the stuff I read today, stuff that was both pro- and anti-laptops in the classroom, talked about students looking things up and correcting their professors in class. Well, I’ve got several problems here. First, the time they’re looking things up is time they’re missing the next point I’m making or the next great comment from a colleague. Second, what is the quality of the sources they’re looking up in so short a time? I’ve got nothing against Wikipedia, I use it all the time, but when you’re deploying the facts from it in a history course, it has to be verified with other sources. There’s not time for that kind of research in the 30 seconds they’re trying to trip me up. (Now I know not all students are trying to trip up their professors, but as a woman of color, I don’t want to open that door.) On a related point, I’ve got no problems with students asking questions about what I’m saying or checking what I’m saying, but that needs to be an intentional process of research that they do on their own time and then mention the next class period, or that they get the class to engage in by raising a question. And most importantly, if students spend their time fact-checking, they’re missing the point: that history at the college level is not about a collection of facts. It’s about analysis and critical thinking about change over time based upon a foundation of information. Facts are relatively easily verified outside class; learning to think critically is not.

So for these reasons, I’m going to impose a ban, in all likelihood. The question of disability accommodation is still a big one, and if it came down to it, I might revise my policy over it. But I’m hoping that if there is a student who needs accommodation, an assigned notetaker would do the job. (That I have had experience, as has Dr. Virago, and I found that that could be handled very discreetly.)

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5 Responses to “more on laptops”

  1. 1 mhs

    I am a political science professor, and I am going to institute a partial laptop ban this semester and see how it goes. I have written in my syllabus that students wishing to use laptops are required to come to my office hours and sign a contract indicating that they will use the laptop responsibly. In the contract, I will require that they disable their internet connection while class is in session, and that they do not open any software other than that which they use to take notes. If they use a laptop without a contract, or in violation of the terms of their contract, they will be asked to leave class that day and lose credit for whatever work was turned in.

  2. 2 tanya.roth

    I think you have sound reasoning – and as you pointed out, using technology EFFECTIVELY is the key. Personally, I like to take notes on my laptop – but I type 100wpm and I have a hard time following oral information if I can’t write it down (and do well with visual aids!)

    Something that comes to mind – if your classroom does NOT have wi-fi, it does simplify things. My campus was all wifi, but one semester we had lecture in a room that did NOT have wifi. Really, it seems to be a wifi issue in a lot of ways. If students don’t have it, it reduces the # of distractions.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue since your post yesterday. What The History Enthusiast said in the comments about helping students stay on track when they lack basic time management skills and are not well-prepared for college really struck home. I had a number of students in my class this past year who fit that description. In retrospect, I wonder if banning laptops in the 25-person discussion section I led might have helped some of those struggling students focus. I don’t think a laptop ban would have been realistic in the big lecture (125 students) but it might have helped in the small-group situation.

    I really like mhs’s idea of laptop contracts. That gives students who need to use the laptop an easy way to use one without identifying themselves as someone with learning challenges, but it also creates just enough of a barrier to laptop use that most students will just bring a notebook.

  4. I have definitely had the wikipedia googler–he didn’t correct me correctly but he tried.

  5. 5 newkidonthehallway

    I banned laptops my last year of teaching – mostly because I taught small-ish classes, and I wanted the focus to be on the conversation/discussion, which I felt (and still think) that using laptops inhibited. I think there were one or two occasions where students asked if they could use their laptops because that’s where they had the readings/notes stored, and I said yes, but it didn’t happen very often – overall, it was fine, and I didn’t have anyone complain about the policy.

    I had a prof of my own last year who banned laptops, and that I found kind of frustrating, based on the way that I took notes and how I used those notes (this was in law school, where the grade is based entirely on the exam at the end of the semester, so class notes take on a different significance than when there are a serious of different kinds of assessments based on a variety of sources, as in your typical undergrad class. I mean, in most law school classes, participation in class has absolutely no connection to your grade in the class, nor does it even always contribute to your understanding of the class, so it’s a very different kind of setting).

    Personally, I got kind of OCD about ensuring that my notes were perfect as I took them, because I couldn’t go back and edit them as I could using the computer, which actually inhibited my own participation in class. However, I do think that the overall student engagement/level of discussion was significantly higher without the laptops in the class (and I got one of my highest law school grades, so I can’t complain about that, either).

    All that said, in the end, I can’t get too worked up about whether banning them is “right” or not – I think it’s basically the instructor’s prerogative. There are enough arguments on either side that I think instructor preference is totally a valid basis for deciding whether to use them or not.

    (I do laugh because one of my prof’s big arguments was that taking notes on the computer is transcribing, not processing, and that therefore students learn better taking notes by hand. I don’t buy that at all, because I just transcribe regardless of method – when I take notes by hand, I transcribe – write down everything I can – too. It’s just the way that I take notes. In fact, I process notes a bit better on the computer, I think, because I find it easier on the computer to organize my notes as I go, and outline them in the sense of distinguishing the bigger topics from the sub topics from the small details and so on. When I hand-write, I’m much more likely to create a long list of relatively undifferentiated stuff that’s less helpful to me later. That said, it is very easy to distract yourself on the computer. And in the end, it was my prof’s call to make, regardless of whether I agreed or not. Though it may have helped that it wasn’t a required class, so students who really hated the laptop ban could vote with their feet.)

    About the accommodations – I know some profs who ban laptops allow one person each class to have a laptop up to take notes, and then put the notes online after class. I think they usually rotate the note-taking around the class, so no one person is burdened/advantaged with the computer; I’m sure it can result in notes of varying quality, but it’s one way to have computer-accessible notes without singling out a student who needs accommodations. When I was teaching pre-laptops-in-class, students who needed accommodations usually had a designated note-taker in the class, and none of the rest of the students were any wiser. If typed notes were required, I’d imagine it would be possible to hire a student to type up their notes after class, rather than have to have the computer in class. (If the student has a disability that requires them to have a machine simply to communicate, I’d imagine that’s going to be pretty obvious to classmates regardless of whether laptops are banned in class or not.)


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