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5 Reasons To Allow Digital Devices In Your Classroom

An argument for allowing students to use laptops and other electronic devices in class.

November 30, 2014

Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.

Amidst reports of Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley CEOs imposing extremely strict technology rules on their children, the debate around technology use in the classroom has caught fire once again. One of the strongest arguments for banning technology in the classroom came earlier this fall, from media pundit Clay Shirky in a piece titled “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away.”

In principle, I agree with a lot of what Shirky writes—multiple studies confirm the cognitive toll that distractions and multitasking inflict on learning; his argument that social media is designed both in form and content to distract has merit; and as an email-addict myself, I know that feeling of “instant and satisfying gratification” he describes all too well. Suggesting, however, that enforcing a technology ban is the solution to students’ lack of engagement strikes me both as insecure and a wee bit simplistic.

Surely, learning can take place in the absence of technology. But valuable learning can also take place in the presence of it. In my own experience as a foreign language instructor, I have found that there are many benefits to allowing—and in certain cases encouraging—students to use digital devices in class, five of which are outlined below.

1. They help facilitate conversation.

Many professors opting to impose a laptop ban in their classrooms cite a lack of quality conversation and student engagement as the primary reason. But my own experience largely contradicts this argument. In the 15-25 student classrooms in which I have taught, Google has proven to be an asset rather than a distraction. I have found that occasionally asking students to look up something on the web to add to class discussion can help them re-engage with the task at hand. One example is when students look up and share biographical or historical data that relate to a conversation being had, often adding a fun or obscure twist. Or when they use online dictionaries to share alternate meanings that I wouldn’t be able to list off the top of my head. Sometimes the striking difference between Google Translate and an online dictionary provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss information literacy. But by far the greatest results I have seen come during group work, when students collaborate on small research tasks and report their findings back to the class.

2. They help foster a more inclusive classroom.

Those in favor of banning laptops in classrooms like to demonstrate how handwritten notes lead to better learning compared to notes taken on a computer. However true this statement may be for some people, it disregards students with neurological or medical conditions who have difficulty controlling writing utensils and for whom writing by hand is cognitively and physically challenging. Similarly, there are students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, who may find typing with a spelling assistant easier and less frustrating. Some suggest making exceptions to imposed bans for those students registered with their university’s disability services. But such an accommodation would put some students in the spotlight, “outing” their disability to the rest of the class. What’s more, many students never register with disability services, for various reasons. Even looking beyond special needs, however, people have different needs—different systems for organizing and consuming information and different learning styles, and as educators I think we ought to embrace this diversity.

3. They help foster a more democratic atmosphere.

I have colleagues and students who read exclusively on electronic devices, purchase most textbooks in electronic form and use various apps to annotate journal articles on their iPad or Kindle. When those students are banned from bringing their electronic devices to class, their information and knowledge management practices are turned upside down: piles of paper that don’t “fit” their learning style, and time (and paper!) wasted copying notes from one format to another. But it’s even more questionable when students are coerced into buying hard copy versions of books instead of cheaper electronic versions to use during class, given the exorbitant cost of most textbooks. Of course I don’t doubt that professors mean well, even—or perhaps especially—when they ban things and practices. But even if we accept that many people learn better by reading paper books and writing their notes on paper, I think we should allow our students to choose themselves whether or not they want to do so.

4. They are more environmentally friendly than paper.

I look around me sometimes during seminars and I can’t help but wonder how many trees we would save if we stopped printing out all those course readings. The answer is a lot, probably. It makes no sense to encourage students who read on electronic devices and depend on digital annotation software to print out 300+ pages of paper a week just to bring to class and then discard. While going out and buying an iPad just for note-taking is no less sustainable than using a Moleskine, using a device that already exists actually is. There are of course analog options than one might argue are more eco-friendly than their digital counterparts, like vegetable-based ink and tree-free paper, but they are harder to find and often more expensive.

5. They offer an opportunity to educate students about media use.

From alcohol to marijuana, I think that most of us would agree that banning things rarely works. But more than that, by allowing our students to use digital devices in class, we are creating an opportunity to teach them to think critically about technology use in their education and life more broadly. One of the greatest misconceptions about technology, often perpetuated by top tech executives, is that technology nowadays is so “brain-dead” easy to use and straightforward that we don’t need to waste any time trying to teach our students how to use it. Yet more and more studies confirm that entering freshmen lack basic information-seeking skills  and critical thinking skills related to information, media, and technology more broadly. At the same time, very little is being done to address this problem. Guidelines for proper and improper technology use in the classroom can create an opportunity for conversation and learning. Dartmouth math professor Dan Rockmore, in a recent New Yorker article, makes another wonderful suggestion that I think educators on either side of the debate should consider: requiring students to read some studies discussing the use of digital technologies in the classroom to get them to think critically about how technology is reconfiguring their brains and educational practices.

Are you using technology in your classroom? What are the pros and cons?

[Image by Flickr user Alec Couros, used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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