Every so often, the debate over laptops in classrooms flares anew. This time, it took over one of the most relaxing times of the year -- the days surrounding Thanksgiving -- when The New York Times published an op-ed by Susan Dynarski, professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan, entitled “Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.”
Commenters and those on Twitter had something to say about that, as did several bloggers for Inside Higher Ed and beyond. Banning students' preferred note-taking devices is counterproductive, some argued. Some students with disabilities can’t go without them and don’t want to be singled out, others pointed out. What about all the research that contradicts Dynarski’s argument? What about the shaky foundation of the research she cites in the piece? What about digital technology’s power to destroy brain cells?
Defenders, including Dynarski herself, countered the counterarguments: students retain more by writing notes by hand than typing them; laptops breed distraction, even for students in a classroom who aren't using them; students with disabilities who need laptops shouldn't encroach on the learning experience of those who don't.
Many in academe have had enough. They ask with increasing fervor: Can't we move beyond this simplistic debate?
“If you say anything about laptop bans on Twitter, you’re going to be pulled into a multiday maelstrom,” said Jesse Stommel, executive director of the University of Mary Washington’s division of teaching and learning technologies. “What are the actual issues that underlie this and what conversations would be more important for us to have?”
Several instructors and observers told “Inside Digital Learning” they believe the debate over banning laptops in the classrooms distracts from the real work of improving the learning experience for students. They made the case that instructors on either side of the divide should think more about the specific context of their classrooms and the needs of their students, rather than getting mired in a binary decision over a personal device.
Between the Poles
Laptops should symbolize more than an impenetrable obstacle to the learning experience, several observers argued. Jonathan Rees, professor of history at Colorado State University Pueblo, said he’s forced himself to move beyond the belief that he should always be the “center of attention” in the classroom. He now employs online tools like Scalar, which allows students to build media projects as an alternative to conventional written essays, and Hypothesis, which provides a platform for online annotation, to keep students focused on the material.
“The goal would be to find the tools that meet the way you teach already, rather than completely tearing up the stakes of your old teaching method and trying to put it down somewhere else,” Rees said. "You can do this slow evolution.”
Richard Godden, professor of English at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, has spent time at the beginning and in the middle of each semester talking to students about their laptop habits -- a practice he thinks often gets overlooked in this debate, which relies more on research and rhetoric. Some students admitted that they’re not comfortable with their own handwriting, while others expressed self-aware concern that their own laptops could prove a distraction.
“It surprised me at first when I started talking with students how insightful and succinct and detailed they are when relaying to me what works for them and what doesn’t,” Godden said. “My sense is often that they feel like that’s not something they can be up front with -- they need to abide by the rules that are being laid down as proper classroom etiquette and they try to fit into that.”
Though Godden hasn’t banned laptops in his classroom, he periodically asks students to close them when he reaches a critical point in the discussion.
Students are rarely passive receivers of knowledge, and instructors benefit from engaging with them on their terms, said Catherine Prendergast, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When a student asks Prendergast a question she can’t immediately answer, she asks the student to look up the answer right there.
“I’ve never taught a class where a student hasn’t taught me something new. I design research projects where they will teach me something new and learn something new themselves,” Prendergast said. “If we’re not, especially in a research university, creating new knowledge and doing that with our students, I question what we’re about.”
Creating Equal Access
Dynarski’s piece glances at a question that has long plagued critics of the laptop ban debate: How can students with disabilities be integrated into the classroom? Dynarski advocates for making exceptions for students with those needs even in situations where laptops are otherwise banned. But for some observers, that conclusion elides a more troubling reality.
“It takes a lot to get any accommodation request, so much in fact that students often don’t,” Prendergast said. “We need to look at the number of our students who have disabilities but don’t seek accommodations through their disability services center. We need to find out why they don’t.”
Stommel points out that some students who haven’t been diagnosed with learning disabilities still feel they learn differently from the “traditional student.” Blanket policies put those students at a disadvantage, too, he said.
Flipped classrooms and universal design are among the academic initiatives that could be helpful in that regard, as argued in a Huffington Post op-ed Monday from two academics specializing in disability issues. Educators admit the answers to these questions aren’t easy to find -- but they’d rather spend time finding them than relitigating a debate that hasn’t revealed new angles.
“The moment that we try to say, 'This is the best practice for learning, this is the best way to retain information,' we’re normalizing and generalizing the students,” Godden said. Rules that treat all students as equal only reinforce inherent differences, he said.
No End in Sight
The laptop ban debate is likely to resurface repeatedly, argues Cathy Davidson, founding director of the futures initiative and a distinguished professor in the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her study of history has convinced her that skepticism directed at laptops is merely the latest in a never-ending cycle of technological skirmishes that only expire when the technology itself ceases to be relevant.
She believes the instructor's ability to engage students renders the laptop debate an afterthought. One semester, she asked her students to engage in collaborative note taking by giving them access to a single Google Doc. During the next class period, students perused the notes and composed five difficult exam questions based on the previous period’s lecture.
“That’s the classic example where you’re using the laptop and using the technology to make the learning meaningful,” Davidson said. “You could do that without a laptop. But you could also do it with a laptop. Or you could not do it all, and keep going back to lecturing the same boring, old, inefficient way.”
George Otte, director of academic technology at the City University of New York, believes instructors need to provide more guidance for students on "how to innovate and how to adapt," particularly given the likelihood that the challenges they'll face and the careers they'll pursue in the modern world will differ from those instructors know well.
Observers interviewed for this article said they believe the laptop ban debate is productive for raising more pressing concerns, but not so much on its own. Educators have to be willing to adapt to students' needs, they argue -- whether they're related to new technologies or individual personalities.
“Your classroom is your lab. I’ve been teaching college now for [more than] 20 years … I’m still learning from my students, I’m still learning about the classroom,” Prendergast said. “We have to remain curious, not defensive.”