Three issues with the case for banning laptops

June 13, 2014, 2:40 pm

2984626120_6f756e2da7_mThis article, “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom”, written by Dan Rockmore for The New Yorker, has been getting considerable airtime on social media this week. As a classroom instructor I can certainly attest to the power of technology to distract and interfere with student learning. But I had three issues with the “case” being made.

1. Because the headline focuses on banning laptops from the classroom, it’s easy to miss this very important point made in the article:

These examples [of how learning is negatively affected by the presence of technology] can be seen as the progeny of an ill-conceived union of twenty-first-century tools (computers, tablets, smartphones) with nineteenth-century modalities (lectures). I’m not discussing the “flipped classroom,” wherein lectures are accessed outside of class on digital devices and the classroom is used as a discussion and problem-solving forum. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online learning can release learning from the restrictions of time, space, and, to some degree, money. Nor am I surveying the wide range of software and apps that are available, many of which have ably engaged new learners and engendered new and creative habits of mind. [Emphasis mine]

In other words: The real problem is not laptops per se but the unstable mixture of a certain kind of technology with a certain kind of pedagogy – namely, lecture. Indeed one of the studies quoted in the article is titled “The laptop and the lecture”. Rockmore is absolutely right to point out that there are other pedagogies for which technology is a natural fit and can serve to multiply, rather than divide, student learning.

So, question: If the problem isn’t laptops, why is it that laptops are the things to be banned? Shouldn’t there be a parallel case for banning, or at least significantly modifying, the lecture pedagogy with which laptops are clashing?

Rockmore says that in the future,

I will require my students to read some of the studies I’ve alluded to in this post, to help them understand why I’m doing what I’m doing and to get them to think critically about the use of technology in their lives and their education.

To be fair, I don’t know what Rockmore’s pedagogy is like.  But there’s no indication that he will do anything else besides lecture. I’m not sure how well that will play with students, when they are told to read some articles and think critically about technology – and then be asked to shut their laptops.

The “Laptop and the Lecture” study is really about multitasking, not about laptops. More engaging pedagogy can help focus students so that multitasking becomes less of an issue. I’d like to hear some thoughts about that, to balance out the thoughts on technology.

2. This statement bothers me:

Common to all of these contexts is the human-machine interaction. Our “digital assistants” are platforms for play and socializing; it makes sense, then, that we would approach those devices as game and chat machines, rather than as learning portals.

I don’t deny that most college students seem to use technology primarily as an entertainment appliance. But if anything, a university education can co-opt technology and make it into a tool for learning. The prevalence of the game culture surrounding technology means this is not going to be automatic – teaching students to use technology as a tool for self-regulated learning can and should be an explicit goal in higher education. And yet, laptops that are supposed to be banned from the classroom? How can we begin to instruct students on how to use technology as a learning tool, if we deliberately exclude them from the arenas in which learning takes place?

3. Finally, Rockmore quotes this study – which has been equally well-circulated – about how taking notes on a laptop is not as effective as taking notes by hand. This is used as evidence in the case for banning laptops. But this is not what that study actually says. The study doesn’t distinguish between digital and paper notes but rather typed versus handwritten notes. So, what if I use a laptop with a touchscreen, or an iPad, and handwrite my notes on it? Indeed, this is how I do all my note taking – using Notability on my iPad, so I can sync it easily to Evernote. Is someone suggesting that I should use a pen and a legal pad instead of a stylus and an iPad, just because technology?

Laptops are not a “new, trendy thing” as suggested in the final sentence of the article – they are a standard piece of equipment that, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, are owned by 88% of all undergraduate students in the US (and that’s data from four years ago). The technology is not going away, and professors trying to make it go away are simply never going to win that battle. If we want to have more student attention, banning technology is a dead end. Let’s think about better pedagogy instead.


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