Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Should Laptops Be Banned?

One of the current discussions among university faculty nationwide is whether to ban laptops from the classroom. The logic behind this? Students are using their laptops to access the Internet and social media instead of taking notes in class.

Leery of an outright ban, some universities have apparently tried to combat technology with more technology, giving professors the option of turning their classrooms into Wi-Fi dead zones, thus blocking access to the Internet.

And in some universities, no personal electronic devices are allowed in the classroom — including laptops, cell phones, iPads, and, presumably, microtransmitters concealed in the fillings of students’ teeth.

Where laptops are allowed, a compromise apparently pleasing to both students and faculty is to relegate them to the back row, where they do not distract other students.

Three Different Classroom Settings

At the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, I teach in three very different classroom settings.

For photography and videography courses, I teach in a computer lab. For Introduction to Visual Communications, a survey course required of all students in the school, I teach in a large lecture classroom holding 85 students. And for my entrepreneurship course, Freelancing for Creative Professionals, I teach in a classroom that holds about 30 students.

In the computer lab, students work on the school’s Macintosh desktop computers, so personal laptops are rarely used. In the other two classrooms, there is wireless Internet service, and students can bring their computers to class.

The Allure of the Electronic Device

As we all know, electronic devices are seductive. That’s part of their allure. Ask anyone whose spouse or partner just got an iPhone. Watch people waiting for their flight at the airport. Or attend a meeting — especially faculty meetings!

Students are not immune to this allure. One of the challenges of being a teacher these days is being more engaging than Facebook. That’s a tough challenge!

I’m making the assumption many students using laptops in the large lecture classroom are not using them to take notes. My evidence is anecdotal. When we watch the two-minute videos their classmates have created, I have to ask students to close their laptops. This tells me their minds are engaged elsewhere.

Faculty members at other universities report students using laptops in class to play video poker, watch movies, and drift from website to website.

My Dilemma

So here’s my dilemma. On the one hand, keeping students engaged is hard enough without having to compete with the Internet. The five or six students sitting next to and behind their classmate surfing the Net on their laptop will inevitably be distracted by what they see on the screen.

I try to be respectful of my students and expect a certain level of respect in return. I don’t tolerate a student who is reading a book or newspaper in class, so why should I allow electronic reading and viewing?

On the other hand, if I ban laptops, what about smartphones and iPads, which can be used both for taking notes and scanning Facebook? My wife, who is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina Aiken, tells me she has had Emergency Medical Technicians in her courses. They need their phones when they are on call.

So do we then get in the business of determining who needs a device in class and who doesn’t? Supporting documents? Does course subject come into play? R U 4 real?

Students Decide

This whole discussion has led me to think about my role as a university instructor. Unlike high school, no one is forced to go to college or university. In fact, I believe it is a privilege. My students are adults — they can vote, serve in the military, give legal consent, and enter into binding contracts.

As adults, they can also decide how they want to use the privilege of attending university. They can make the most of it, or they can squander it. That is their decision — not mine.

If they make the most of the privilege, there is a good chance they will succeed in other aspects of their life, such as a career. If they squander it, they will have wasted their parents’ hard-earned money, their scholarship or student loans, and all the hours they’ve spent working to help pay for tuition and other bills.

Laptop use has been associated in some educational studies with lower academic performance. In other words, your mind can’t be two places at once, so if it’s on Facebook, that’s like being absent from class. Imagine paying big bucks for a rock concert and then not showing up!

Rules of Engagement

My job is to engage my students in the course material — not to be a truant officer or a disciplinarian. Students who visit Facebook instead of paying attention during class may think they are putting one over on the instructor. That is a mentality left over from high school. The only one losing out in that situation is the student.

The same applies to attendance. I can’t force students to come to class. I impose a grade penalty for excessive absences, and ultimately a student who misses too many classes may fail. I do get concerned when a student stops coming to class, and I will try to contact the student and also let the administration know. But it’s the student’s choice.

Notice I use the word “engage” when I talk about my role as an instructor. There has been some talk in relation to laptop use that we can combat this by being more entertaining. I like the reaction from one of my colleagues: “I don’t juggle!” Entertainment is passive, engagement is active. I’m in favor of engagement, not edutainment.

By the way, when I recently went to graduate school, I tried using a laptop to take notes but found it prevented me from engaging with the professor and my classmates. Too bad, because my handwriting is horrible, and I wish I had the notes in electronic form.

All the Rage

Finally, there are videos on YouTube showing teachers venting their anger about laptops and cell phones by destroying student property. I believe violence of any form — whether against persons or property — is completely inappropriate and unprofessional. If you can’t manage your classroom in a nonviolent way, you should start looking for another job.

So how do you respond to laptops, cell phones, iPads, and other distractions? I’ve found the two Hs to be helpful — humor and humiliation. If a cell phone rings in class, I’ll say, “If it’s for me, tell them I’m not here.” If a student is obviously distracted by something on their computer screen, I’ll ask them to share it with the entire class. I don’t tolerate rudeness, but it doesn’t help to go ballistic.

More Info

If you want to read further on laptops and the classroom, here are some other articles:

Why I Ban Laptops in My Classroom,” by David Cole, October 23, 2008.

Wide Web of diversions gets laptops evicted from lecture halls,” The Washington Post, March 9, 2010.

American lecturers banning laptops from the classroom,” by James Bone, The Times of London, March 11, 2010.

Banning Laptops in Classrooms,” by Paul Thagard, Psychology Today, July 9, 2010.

If you’ve had experience with laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom, as either a teacher or a student, I’d love to hear from you!

5 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Should Laptops Be Banned?”

  1. Sorry but I think students are just lazy if try require a laptop to take notes. Stop treating them like they are entitled to the easiest way to learn and make the little buggers work for their knowledge. Pen and paper has worked for a long time. It's more fluid, allowing students to conceptualise ideas rather than write text after text. Have someone sit in and count the faces looking at you every 5mins. Then ban laptops and repeat. See if there's a change in attention levels.

  2. I think pen and paper is a much better way to take notes also, for the reason Gareth cites. Ban 'em!

  3. I favor the law school approach -- call on people. And, if they're unprepared or too immersed in their laptops, make an example out of them. Sort of like Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase."

  4. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink, though you can make sure it is thirsty when you arrive.

    I think it is a matter of adult education and the students right not to engage in the lecture. If they tune out in class and therefore can't pass their assessments it is their issue. They are welcome to walk out at anytime.

    This doesn't negate the responsibility of the lecturer to ensure their sessions are engaging, interesting, current, and informative. If they are buried in their social media because the lecture is boring, then it is the responsibility of the lecturer to improve their game.

  5. Interesting comments - as an adjunct college professor I think too big a deal is made of all this. I tell my students I have one rule for lectures, computers get turned off. I welcome questions and discussion and they won't participate with the computer distracting them - even if they really are just taking notes. Its a visual communications class and they need to learn to do things with their hands anyway.

    I have to remind them every time I start a lecture, but it saves the hassle of getting distracted telling them to shut it all down later.

    When I started this policy the distraction problems all ended.

    And you are right in the first paragraph - college is a privilege. Students shouldn't have their hands held. Its not a service industry. Are they going to get jobs and surf facebook at staff meetings? Some might, but they don't need to learn that from us.

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