Teaching Today

A Truce in the Laptop Wars

The area between the trenches isn’t no-man’s land, argues Zachary Nowak. We can learn to meet in the middle.

November 12, 2019
 
 
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I’d like to propose a truce in the perennial battle over laptops in the classroom.

Proponents of laptop banning cite studies from the U.S. Military Academy in which professors divided students into three sections: total ban, partial ban (students could use tablets as long as they lay flat) and no ban at all. Students who were not allowed to use laptops at all scored higher on assessments. The difference was statistically significant, although small (1.7 percent on a 100-point assessment).

Another study suggested that negative effects of laptops -- primarily the distraction that they often represent -- is not simply a problem for the student using the laptop, but also for nearby students, who become collateral damage. A much-cited (and much-critiqued) study also pointed to the importance of note taking by hand: because students write slower in longhand than they can type, writing notes on paper forces students to process the information they’re writing down, while typing allows for more straightforward and automatic transcription of what the instructor is saying.

Such arguments for a laptop ban seem compelling. Yet the arguments against it can be just as convincing. Proponents of laptops in the classroom suggest that much of the resistance comes from professors who are dedicated Luddites: banning laptops because they are anti-technology rather than based on empirical research. More important, this approach means losing out on opportunities like engaging students through dynamic polling or using the course website to field anonymous questions students wouldn’t ask if they had to raise their hands.

Banning laptops, their defenders argue, infantilizes students. Reviewing syllabi that included laptop bans, I noticed the texts simply forbid using laptops rather than explaining the bans; they are draconian edicts inscribed into syllabi. Proponents of digitally engaged classrooms argue that forbidding laptops also elides the true causes of distraction: failure on the part of the professor to capture the students’ attention, whether through compelling lectures or active learning. Finally, banning laptops in general but allowing them for students who have an accessibility accommodation -- because of eyesight, wrist injuries or something else -- means that students who have these accommodations are outed to their classmates by their continued use of a computer despite the ban.

This past summer, I met with the director of my university’s Accessible Education Office. I went to her office because I had been unable to decisively weigh the pros and cons of a laptop ban. Once there, we reviewed the arguments together. I assumed responsibility for creating an engaging classroom, but I also recognized that my own attention often wandered to my smartphone or computer during even the most stimulating of conference presentations. I wanted to avoid reliance on the honor system (i.e., allowing laptops as long as they were only used for course work), but I also didn’t want to out students with accommodations.

We finally worked out a compromise. I implemented a general ban on laptops with two exceptions: anyone who had an accommodation could use one, as could anyone who came to my office hours and made a case for why they wanted to use one during class. I expected a number of students to select the second option and decided I would set a relatively low bar but would ask those students to sign a contract that outlined how they would use the laptops during class.

In the end, because zero out of 30 students made the request, no contract was necessary, and the atmosphere in the classroom was palpably less distracted for the general absence of screens and devices. Although I had a small number of students with accommodations, none of their peers would have known which of the two exceptions those students had.

At the end of the semester, I added a specific question to my evaluations asking about various pedagogical interventions I had tried out: course journals, polling, low-stakes Canvas quizzes and the partial laptop ban among them. I admit I myself was surprised when 93 percent of my students answered the question “I learned more by taking notes than by using a laptop in this class” with either “agree” or “strongly agree.”

Roughly the same percentage also agreed, or strongly agreed, that “The ‘no laptop’ rule in class made learning in class less distracting.” One student commented, “I liked the laptop ban, mostly because the sound of typing in lecture is super distracting to me.” Another said, “I really enjoyed having no laptops because you could tell the class was engaged, and it allowed for more participation. Also [the ban] helped me retain more knowledge when I had to write everything down.” Students made many other comments like this, with one student suggesting that I share the actual research with students at the beginning of the year.

You might think it ironic that my students had their laptops with them every class meeting -- at my request. I frequently asked them to pull them out for small group work to look up the finding missions of archives or zoom in on a location in Google maps and then discuss the landscape. For the record, I am hardly a Luddite, and perhaps that helped allay any complaints students may have otherwise had about the partial ban. I began every class with a PollEverywhere survey conducted using students’ smartphones and made frequent use of my course website as an additional learning venue through online quizzes.

My takeaway from my students’ reactions was that none of us need to take sides in the laptop wars. The area between the trenches isn’t no-man’s land. We can learn to meet in the middle. Better yet, we can meet in the middle to learn.

Bio

Zachary Nowak is a college fellow in the history department at Harvard University. He is also the associate director of the Center for Food & Sustainability Studies at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy.

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