Should you ban laptops (and other devices) from your classroom?

Students using laptops in a lecture hall, view from the back looking at the students' screens.This question was cogently addressed in two recent articles. One by Tal Gross, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, appeared December 30, 2014 in a Washington Post op-ed piece titled, This Year, I Resolve to Ban Laptops from my Classroom. Gross references the other article, by Clay Shirkey, professor at New York University, Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away, which appeared September 8, 2014 on Medium. To be clear, neither is teaching in an active learning classroom where laptops might be considered a necessary piece of equipment for the pedagogical process.  Gross describes a lecture format with 85 students. Shirkey, who call himself “an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, [and] a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor” asked the students in his “fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.”

Shirkey noticed a change over time as mobile devices grew to be both more technically robust and widely used. Rather than being a useful tool for note taking, these devices have become a distraction. There is also the issue of multitasking. Shirkey states, “We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.” Any number of studies have shown that multi-taskers are deluded in their belief that the practice enhances their work performance. The seductive immediacy of social media makes it even more difficult for students using laptops, tablets, and cellphones in the classroom to focus on the material being taught. But what tipped Shirkey over was the paper Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers, with results that “demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.” In justifying his decision to have students put away their laptops (and other devices), he says that he now sees teaching and learning as a collaborative effort with his students. “It’s not me demanding that they focus — its (sic) me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.”

Tal Gross focuses on another aspect of the issue—that of note taking. Typing on laptops can become “an exercise in dictation.” In a study undertaken by Pam A. Mueller (Princeton) and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (UCLA) titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the KeyboardAdvantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, the results showed “…that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” [Psychological Science, April 23, 2014, doi: 10.1177/ 0956797614524581.]

Both articles provide food for thought. Anecdotal evidence from our faculty here at Johns Hopkins suggests that students are becoming less adept at taking notes by hand, and even writing by hand at all. Old-fashioned essay-style exams taken in blue books seem to provide a challenge to students who complain of hand cramps at the end of the test. Yet the learning gains may be significant. Maybe it’s time to revive an old, tried and true practice. For students (and instructors) who need some tutoring on how to take notes, here is a resource to check out: The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, by Mike Rohde [Peachpit Press, November 30, 2012.]

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC MCGunner on Imgur at http://imgur.com/N2PYK8S?tags

3 thoughts on “Should you ban laptops (and other devices) from your classroom?

  1. I think it does not really matter if similar classes have many monitors and presentation screen as in the figure because of laptops and other electronic items suspected of being open anything other than the lesson.This is my opinion

  2. Pingback: Attention Spans – Introduction (1/4): – The Never Ending Blog

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