College Guide


August 21, 2012 10:57 AM Computers in The Classroom?

By Erik Voeten

I am pondering banning laptops and tablets from my classroom. The upsides of this are obvious: avoiding the distractions that come with Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and all the other wonderful things the internet has to offer. Research rather unambiguously shows that small distractions (such as checking e-mail) lead to considerable drops in levels of concentration and abilities to retain information. I am quite sure my classes are boring at times but students will have to find a way to deal with that without escaping to the Web’s temptations.

Yet the downsides of banning laptops and tablets are also considerable. I am less worried about note-taking (there is an alternative!) but my classes rely on lots of readings that are made available electronically. Banning laptops would force my students to print these materials, which rather defeats the purpose.

I would love to learn from readers’ experiences (both from students and faculty). Any feedback on bans? Are there policies that fall short of banning but still sufficiently discourage the web’s trappings? I wish my university had a possibility for locally turning off the wireless network but that does not seem to exist.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.


  • TKE on August 21, 2012 6:59 PM:

    Do it. You won't regret it.

    I banned them last semester, and it was great. I expected some grumbling after the first class, but all I got were three students who came up to thank me -- they were sick of the distractions that came from other students surfing the web too.

    At the end of the semester, the evaluations were overwhelmingly in favor -- even the ones who thought they couldn't live without their laptops said they took better notes and enjoyed the class more than the other courses where they were always tempted to surf the web during lectures.

    I understand the worry that they'll print more, but honestly, they print most of that stuff out anyway.

    Do it. I'm never going back.

  • El on August 21, 2012 7:52 PM:

    Unless you are handing out copies of the notes/lectures, don't do it. Some people do legitimately need laptops to take notes. (I'm one of them.) If I had a handout or knew one would be provided, I could do the notes after the class on the computer, but in real time, I need the computer.

  • eden on August 21, 2012 8:41 PM:

    I'm in favor. Honestly, being able to have a laptop in class had no impact on whether or not I printed material. (I did b/c I can't read on computer screens very long.)

    For those like El, you can either post the readings at least 24 hours in advance, giving them time to print on their own, or have a few copies available for those that need them.

    I think the benefits outweigh the costs, and there are workarounds. Plus it will give everyone a break - too much staring at computer screens isn't good for the eyes.

  • T-Rex on August 21, 2012 8:48 PM:

    I banned them a few years ago when I got sick of watching people obviously check Facebook or play Angry Birds during class. Let them call me whatever names they like, it's made the atmosphere in class less obnoxiously high-school like.

  • OKDem on August 21, 2012 9:01 PM:

    Can't you get get several instructors to coordinate and have your campus IT turn the WiFi off in that part of the building?

    The issue is the net not what is on the device itself. Although solitaire downloads may go up.

    Captcha = have uropyop
    Uhhh... No, thank you.

  • am3386 on August 21, 2012 9:27 PM:

    It depends on the subject you're teaching, of course. But I would say absolutely ban them.

    I teach the humanities at a smallish private college. Some small seminars and the occasional large lecture hall. In all situations I explicitly state in my syllabus that laptop use will be prohibited except under special circumstances, and that if a student feels they legitimately need to use a laptop to take notes in my class, they need to meet with me to ask my permission and explain their need. I announce this policy first day, explaining the reasons behind it. As a general rule (although I don't mention this to the students) I will always grant permission to a student with a documented learning disability. However, I won't give permission if a student just thinks they take better notes with the laptop. In practice though, this has never happened; the only students who have asked are those with learning disabilities. It's possible that the demand for a one on one conversation deters those who don't have a legitimate reason. (On the other hand, I teach at a Catholic-affiliated school, so it's also possible that my students are generally not natural rebels!)

    When I do an electronic reading, and it's too long to print out, I announce prior to the class session in question that they can bring their devices to read. I then ask them to put them away at the end of the discussion.

    As T-rex says, it does wonders for the class environment. Students pay more attention and discussions are much stronger. I totally recommend it.

  • Etaoin Shrdlu on August 21, 2012 11:10 PM:

    Every once in a while, I would tell the class "Close your computers and pay attention, this is important." It didn't take the students long to get the message. You might want to have them read in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to learn why "multi-tasking" is nonsense.

  • psycholinguist on August 22, 2012 12:09 AM:

    Best thing I ever did. I actually use the ban as a way to introduce my psych one students to the notion of examining a question with an empirical approach - there are several good studies out there looking at the effects of laptop use in the classroom, and we spend some time reviewing those the first day.

    this is my favorite study, and I think every professor should read it. We have an obligation to every student in that classroom, and laptops affect everyone.

    The findings are that not only are laptops distracting to the students who have them, but they are also, as someone commented above, incredibly distracting to other students. What I was seeing was that my class was spitting into two factions - those with, who were living inside that machine, and those without laptops.

    here's another study looking at the real detremental consequences for students using laptops - they are about 9 points on average below students who don't use them

    I teach a course that does make use of electronic readings and labs, and on those days, laptops are permitted. I think discussing the research on laptop use with students that first day seems to make them more aware of the problems that laptops create, and more conscientious when they are used.

  • Crissa on August 22, 2012 12:49 AM:

    I say don't do it.

    I'm unable to write for long periods, and suffer pretty horribly for doing so - but I can type for hours longer.

    Added to that, I love being able to read materials and look up words and terms and keep up with a class without disrupting it.

    An instructor that bans laptops in classes is an instructor I would not want to be around - someone insecure in their teaching style, who will penalize those with bad handwriting or carpal tunnel issues, and someone who'd rather lose those students ahead of or behind their curve in information than let them work ahead of or catch up with reference material.

  • Crissa on August 22, 2012 1:03 AM:

    ...And anyone who mentions the multi-tasking studies should know there's no actual control group to compare to. Or that multi-tasking has much to do with listening to a lecture.

  • psycholinguist on August 22, 2012 1:55 AM:

    Good lord Crissa, if you are going to mention multitasking studies, of which there are hundreds, you should probably actually read a few before you claim researchers conducting them have all decided to skip a fundamental tenet of experimental design. If you have issues with manual writing, get an accommodation for it. The reason I don't want students in my classroom using laptops is because it inflicts a penalty on the other students around them.

  • bmcchgo on August 22, 2012 9:50 AM:

    I hate to be squishy, but I am leaning towards the ban. Are you planning to ban smart phones, as well? There's the real culprit.

    As an adult student at DePaul University, our program is a mix of young and old. Some of both groups use their laptop/tablets to take careful, detailed notes; and some of both groups use them to surf the web or check email.

    My advice would be to feel the students out at the beginning of the semester/quarter. If too many are distracted and not engaged, invoke the ban.

  • ajw93 (@ajw93) on August 22, 2012 1:25 PM:

    I agree with @psycholinguist; I have terrible handwriting and always have. I was able to accommodate -- well before college, by the way -- by 1) developing my own shorthand to cut down on wrist fatigue, 2) not gripping the pen so damn hard (that's just me), and 3) re-copying my notes later in the day or week. It's a great study tool. Now that I've been coding for a living, obviously I don't write much any more, but that doesn't mean that when I went back to grad school last year I was going to clickety-clack my way through class every night, distracting my professors and my colleagues. I am an adult. I dealt with it.

    And OKDem -- IIRC, GU's wireless network isn't set up in such a segmented way. So he really might be stuck with an "all-or-nothing" approach. I say, ban 'em!