Laptops in Classrooms Revisited

Nearly two years ago, prompted by a Columbia professor’s decision to ban laptops in his classes, we discussed classroom computer and phone policies. The subject has been gaining more traction recently, owing to recent studies and an op-ed last week in The New York Times by University of Michigan education, public policy, and economics professor Susan Dynarski.

Dynarski generally bans laptops in her classrooms. She says:

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.

Her essay summarizes some of the recent relevant research.

In the earlier discussion, those who tried laptop bans thought they were successful. Michael Valdman (VCU) said his laptop ban went “shockingly well,” continuing: “I banned them in my lower level classes about four years ago and I haven’t had a single complaint. The only explanation I can think of is that most of the students were glad to be free of the burden of having to exercise self-restraint.” Scott Clifton (Miami) wrote that “I have had a no electronics policy for years and it has had a tremendously positive effect.” Chris Surprenant (New Orleans) wrote, “I’ve had a no electronics policy in my class since I began teaching and I’ve never encountered any problems. All of my classes (even the larger introductory courses) are run dialectically, so I don’t do much in the way of lecturing (and I discourage rigorous note taking).”

James Genone (Rutgers Camden) refrained from banning laptops, but gave his students information about why one might want to do so. He says: “A couple of years ago I started presenting my students with some empirical data regarding laptop use in the classroom, and then gave them the choice of whether or not to use them (I did say that students who chose to use them should sit in the back, and that if it was ever disruptive or distracting I would revoke the privilege). Since I started this practice, not one student has chosen to use a laptop in one of my classes.”

Several commenters raised concerns about disabled students who make use of laptops or phones in order to function adequately in the classroom. And indeed, Dynarski is sensitive to this need. She writes:

I do make one major exception. Students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class. This does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability. That is a loss of privacy for those students, which also occurs when they are given more time to complete a test. Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class.

Discussion welcome. What is your current classroom technology policy? If you have a laptop/tablet/phone ban in place, how is it going? Do you have a successful alternative policy to banning laptops?

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