Should Laptops Be Banned in Class? An Op-Ed Fires Up the Debate

November 27, 2017

Is there anything more painful to a professor than discovering half her students have been lost to shoe-shopping and Snapchat? The distraction of technology is a major driver of electronics bans in classrooms. But other academics are equally adamant that technology can be a force for good, or at least that professors have no right to tell students what they can and can’t use in class.

That long-simmering debate flared up last week in response to a New York Times op-ed by Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Ms. Dynarski, who bans electronics in her classes and seminars, wrote that “a growing body of evidence shows that, over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

She went on to cite a series of studies to prove her point: Students retain more when taking notes by hand. They distract their classmates when using a computer. They perform less well on tests than do students in classes where electronics are not allowed.

The one exception Ms. Dynarski said she makes is for students with learning disabilities. While that may reveal who has a disability, she wrote, “Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class.”

The twitterstorm that followed was, of course, inevitable. Ms. Dynarski’s arguments received plenty of applause, but also came in for abundant criticism.

One camp took the professor to task on the issue of learning disabilities.

On that point Ms. Dynarski had her defenders.

Another commenter questioned the validity of the research cited, suggesting that it is too limited in scope to say much of anything.

Others argued that technology isn’t to blame for the distraction problem — the lecture is.

Kevin Gannon, a history professor at Grand View University who runs a blog on teaching and technology called The Tattooed Professor, cited a piece he wrote last year on banning technology bans. In it he noted that technology critics rarely critique pedagogy and that test scores are a poor measure of actual learning.

The issue of how best to engage distracted students is timeless, with some professors using technology to try to engage students. Earlier this year James M. Lang, a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass., wrote about how he uses instant polls to keep students focused.

Ms. Dynarski responded to a few of her critics, ending on another thought-provoking note:

Beth McMurtrie writes about technology’s influence on teaching and the future of learning. Follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie, or email her at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.