Laptops, Tablets, and Phones in the Classroom

Laptops, Tablets, and Phones in the Classroom


I settled on my New Year’s resolution while giving a lecture to 85 masters students. It was one kid who unintentionally suggested the idea. He was sitting in the back row, silently pecking away at his laptop the entire class. At times, he smiled at his screen. But he rarely looked up at me. I had a choice. I could disrupt the class to single him out. Or I could do what most teachers in higher education do: just ignore it. After all, these students are adults, and they have to take a final exam. Do I have to be the disciplinarian?…

Since most students can type very quickly, laptops encourage them to copy down nearly everything said in the classroom. But when students stare at the screen of their laptops, something is lost. The students shift from being intellectuals, listening to one another, to being customer-service representatives, taking down orders. Class is supposed to be a conversation, not an exercise in dictation. 

And so Tal Gross, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia, is banning laptops from his classroom. As he notes, research has found that “laptops in the classroom distracted not only the students who used them, but also students who sat nearby,” and that students seem to do better when taking notes by hand rather. “The students who took notes longhand scored much higher on conceptual questions than did the students who used a laptop.”

Given that engagement, dialogue, and facility with “conceptual questions,” are so important in a philosophy class, Gross’s reasons for banning laptops and the like would seem fairly compelling, provided there are accommodations made to allow students who need to use them for accessibility/disability reasons.  Have others tried this? How did it go?

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