24 August 2015

Laptop bans in classes: better learning environment or tool of oppression?

I got into a discussion over the weekend about taking laptops out of classrooms. There is a reasonable amount of evidence that laptops are not enablers of note-taking, and they generally harm student performance in traditional lecture settings. Counterpoints appeared in my timeline this morning. First:

I can’t handwrite w/o significant disabling pain. Having the only comp in class made my disability obvious.


If you’re teaching and think banning laptops will make students more successful, you’re just flat wrong. And ableist. Bad form.

When I asked if there was any published research showing that laptop use did not affect student learning, the answer was, “No.” The reply thread went straight to, “They’re adults, and it’s their problem if they can’t focus.”

There are a lot of issues at play here. First, you have the instructor’s responsibility to provide the best learning environment possible. If an instructor knows that laptop use has a negative effect on learning, she or he would negligent if I did not discourage their use. It would be like a high level professional coach not requiring an athlete to train or eat right.

That university students are adults does not remove that professional responsibility. “You’re on your own” and “Sink or swim” are rarely good teaching practices, regardless of a student’s age. The issue is about attention and memory formation, which has not very much to do with age. Similarly, distracted driving laws don’t allow people to talk on phones in cars after a certain age because, “They’re adults.”

There are reasons to make exceptions to rules, and a student who has difficulty using a pen absolutely should be one of them. That’s a perfectly reasonable accommodation to make. That an accommodation makes a physical limitation obvious to others may not be ideal, but may be unavoidable. That’s how compromises work.

This is where dialogue needs to happen. Telepathy still doesn’t work, and students need to let instructors know what their particular situation is. My particular institution has an office devoted to helping students and instructors reach a reasonable solution.

That some students may need exceptions to a rule is not necessarily a reason to abandon the rule at the outset. It depends on how many exceptions you might expect, and how critical the rule is to creating a good learning environment.

As with so many things, the reality is more complicated than, “Ban laptops: Y / N?”

Related posts

Ban tech, or why I am such a hypocrite
Use your laptop, lose a letter grade
Earning it versus enforcing it

Photo from Brett Jordan on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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