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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Thinker
Thinker
3 years ago

A lot of classrooms operate on a sort of technological honor system, that is “if you bring it, use it for learning (e.g. taking notes and having the assigned readings available) and don’t be surfing the web or looking at Facebook.” This suggests that laptops are only really an issue when used inappropriately.

But to call attention to another problem, I’ve noticed a lack of eye contact taking place in graduate seminars. It seems to me that having a laptop in front of them amounts to one more thing that can be looked at instead of whoever happens to be speaking at the moment (of course the problem isn’t limited to laptops, I find a major issue with handouts that accompany presentations is that almost everyone stares at the handout the entire time and little to no eye contact is made between presenter and audience).

I don’t think it’s good for classrooms in the sense that people don’t seem to be as present and tuned in to what is happening *in the room*, but I also don’t think it is good for *us* as people and philosophers, either. Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

Is eye contact really all that important? For me personally, it isn’t. Actually that’s an understatement. I hate making eye contact. Makes me crazy uncomfortable. And I find that maintaining eye contact requires huge effort on my part — effort I’d rather put in to thinking about the content being discussed. I also know I’m not alone in this and I wish people would stop thinking I’m sketchy or weird because I don’t want to stare into their soul all the time. Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Tom
3 years ago

Spoken like a true philosopher.Report

ABCDEFGodthåb
ABCDEFGodthåb
Reply to  Daniel
3 years ago

Apologies if you meant your statement as some kind of compliment, Daniel, but if not:

Or spoken like someone from either (A) A cultural/family background that has different norms concerning eye contact, (B) Someone on the autism spectrum (C) Someone who is maybe just socially different. Maybe the reason Tom would prefer to focus more on the content and less on the eye contact is not because he has some sort of lofty self-image as a philosopher who cares only about ideas and not people, but for the obvious reason specified in his post: eye contact makes him very uncomfortable which, like anything that makes a person very uncomfortable, probably makes it hard to focus on other things. And surely we can agree that eye contact is so important that we should pay attention to it at the EXPENSE of paying attention to the content.

To be clear, I have no reason to think that Tom fits the first two categories rather than the third or some further category, but I mention them because especially in the case of (B), some people get unfairly and unreasonably judged and alienated because they experience the social norms that are taken for granted in certain cultures quite differently than others do. In the first two cases at the very least, everyone should be able to agree that the fact that they experience those social norms differently is not something that at all results from them having some kind of personal failing. So, whether or not there are cases that involve a personal failing – like a lofty self-conception as a philosopher too important for normal human interaction — we shouldn’t be enforcing social norms like eye contact, certainly not by mocking people who prefer to opt out of them, because that is damaging to the far more common case: someone who, through no personal failing whatsoever, is not comfortable with those social norms. Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  ABCDEFGodthåb
3 years ago

It was primarily meant as a teasing joke, since it’s abundantly clear that philosophers can find various types of social interaction to be taxing (myself included). That said, let’s not ignore that fact that someone aggressively avoiding eye contact can make for a situation just as uncomfortable and distracting for the other person. It can also leave the other person wondering if they’ve done something wrong (caused offense of some sort, etc.) Obviously we should be charitable in interpreting the behavior of others and we ought to be accommodating of those who are coming from the different types of circumstances you describe. But the above poster seemed to be ignoring, or else unconcerned with, the discomfort of those around them in a way that struck me as somewhat flippant. Writing that “I wish people would stop thinking I’m sketchy or weird because I don’t want to stare into their soul all the time” isn’t exactly the most charitable interpretation of what’s going on with the other people in such cases. Generally I think it’s best for everyone to meet everyone else half way, even when that sometimes means each of us will be a bit less comfortable.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  ABCDEFGodthåb
3 years ago

I’d love to get on board the compassion boat here, except that seminars are supposed to be part of professional training for work as a professional philosopher, which will virtually always mean teaching and mentoring undergraduates. Our field has a well documented lack of professional training in this regard. And we are supposed to let the fact that some people are made uncomfortable by eye contact decide whether our norms should encourage such contact? Surely there should be at least some pressure to get over this discomfort, not the least because good teaching and mentoring in all cultures requires real interpersonal interaction. What does this commenter plan to do when their first student comes to office hours and sits down in front of them? Gaze frantically around at the walls and the ceiling?Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

What makes you think I’ve never had students in my office? Or that I’m not a faculty member with a full-time teaching load and loads of students? Oh I get it. You’ve already decided that anyone who doesn’t look others in the eyes as much as you like can’t *possibly* be a real philosopher like you.

Well, newsflash: I’m an incredibly well-liked and effective educator, I do teach a full load, and I get tons of students coming by my office. And I regularly get comments in teaching evaluations about how useful I am in office hours.

But how? If you don’t look them in the eye, how could you possibly be educating them!?

Another newsflash: I don’t teach classes on eye-to-eye contact. I teach philosophy classes.

Oh and no, I don’t “gaze frantically around at the walls and ceilings”. Why? Because I’m a professional. And because I’m an adult. And because this isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with this, so (big shocker!) I’ve had lots of time in my life to come up with coping strategies.

So what *do* I do? When students come to my office, I pull out whatever we’re going to be working on, and we look at that, together. Or if they have general questions, I pull out a blank sheet of paper and write notes that they can take with them while I respond. These notes might be lists of sources, a diagram of an argument I think they should make, a sketch of how a proof goes, an overview of an example, etc.

In general, I interact with a student in office hours like I interact with any other human. You seem to be suggesting that “real interpersonal interaction” *requires* eye contact. The fact is, it doesn’t. It requires treating another person like a person. Turns out you can do that without looking them in the eye.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

Tom, if you think about it, you’ll see that my argument requires no such assumption or necessary condition. Is it true that interpersonal interaction or mentoring is aided by eye contact? Almost certainly. I know of no research which suggests that human communication is *not* aided by eye contact, and much research which says the opposite. Are we supposed to be good interactors and mentors? Yes. Should there be pressure on us to try to overcome personal discomfort of this sort? Conclusion: yes. If you think this through you’ll see that it is all perfectly consistent with the possibility of individuals finding ways to teach effectively without making eye contact. But the notion that *mere* difference in comfort level justifies the *general* absence of pressure to make significant eye contact is not defensible. This appeal to compassion based on difference ends up actually making us less compassionate (as a discipline) towards the people to whom we owe our primary responsibilities, i.e. students. We therefore have reason to worry if laptops are being used as ways to avoid practicing something that will help you be a better teacher.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

Nope, not letting you get away with that move. The following:
“What does this commenter plan to do when their first student comes to office hours and sits down in front of them? Gaze frantically around at the walls and the ceiling?”
is not even remotely like pressing an argument. This is an active effort to make people who are different than you look absurd. You can’t duck your way out of your attempts to stigmatize me by (condescendingly, I might add) asking me to “think about it” or by trying to shift focus to your “argument” such as it was.

You gave up your status as a contributor to an actual argument the moment you descended into caricature making. And I’m calling you out on it.Report

Kolja Keller
Kolja Keller
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

I am teaching a freshman class on writing argumentative research papers with a philosophical topic as the theme, and for that class the laptops are sometimes essential. Students submit drafts and do peer review on google drive at home and then discuss them in their groups in class. Sometimes I have my students do a re-writing assignment on a draft, or they learn to use the library website and databases to look for sources. Hence, there are some pedagogical reasons to use laptops in those situations, and especially if students have to write papers in a class, spending some time in class doing exercises on how to write a better philosophy paper might not be completely out of place in a introductory philosophy class either.Report

Carnap
Carnap
3 years ago

As the evidence is pretty clear that laptops and phones are a real distraction, I have banned them in class (but for students with demonstrated disability). However, to judge by their behavior, students seem constitutionally incapable of turning off their phones for an hour or so. Even when I make the policy clear in writing, mention it repeatedly, and call out students who violate it, they apparently cannot resist checking their phones. Still, in spite of the difficulties, I assume that reduced use of electronics is reducing distraction and I intend to continue. (I’d really like a device that blocks all wifi and cellular signals in the class.)Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Carnap
3 years ago

“I’d really like a device that blocks all wifi and cellular signals in the class.”

That would be an awful capability in the era in which we now receive text alerts about emergencies like campus shootings. As someone on a campus where this has happened in the past, I don’t trivialize the importance of being able to receive such alerts. People also have family emergencies and may worry about the ability to take a call or see an important text (at which point they would, of course, step out of the classroom). That’s not unreasonable.

Besides, if someone glances at their phone to check the time or figure out where they need to go for their next to do or calendar item, I have no problem with it. It’s really not that distracting. Banning laptops and flagrant cell phone usage has its time and place, but let’s not go full-blown Luddite here.Report

David
David
Reply to  Daniel
3 years ago

I don’t think Carnap was “trivializing” alerts about campus shootings, and I think this is a harder question than you let on, Daniel. There are lots of measures proposed to decrease harms from terrorism, and I think there are usually but not always good questions about both how much they decrease those harms in practice and also how we ought to weigh their chance of decreasing harms against their downside. Also, I think it’s an open question whether, say in 1995, students were suffering more from family emergencies without smart phones and laptops (and I have trouble deciding which words to use there…”suffering more” is probably unfair by me…what do you think?) I’m not saying you’re wrong, and as you say you are not unreasonable (I agree), but I think this is a harder question than you’re letting on.

Last I think “full-blown Luddite” vs. your “time and place” criterion is a false choice. Whether this is the relevant “time and place” is the point under discussion. My question for you is which time and place do you have in mind for banning phones and then, in that time and place, wouldn’t we just use your same objection that we would be safer from campus shootings if there were never such a time and place to turn off the phone?
Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  David
3 years ago

I’m not following all of this comment, and I think you may have misunderstood some of its intent with regard to cell phone usage. So let me clarify: If you ban cell phones entirely (especially if you were to go as far as blocking the signals, as Carnap suggested above), then you cut off the possibility of receiving alert texts for all manner of campus emergencies. Whether or not we want to quibble about how much that counts as “trivializing” is beside the point. The upshot is that I would feel markedly less safe in the classroom if we were to follow Carnap’s wishes and implement “a device that blocks all wifi and cellular signals in the class.” Such a policy, and any other that would require cell phones to be shut off entirely and never glanced at, strikes me as extreme.Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  Daniel
3 years ago

How would being alerted of an unexpected emergency (like a shooting) work? Generally if one’s phone buzzes while in class the expectation is to ignore the buzz. Unless people are looking at their phones every time there’s a buzz, the alert will simply go missed.Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  nicholesuomi
3 years ago

A classroom or lecture hall full of students all simultaneously receiving a text and an email with “EMERGENCY ALERT” in the subject line gets noticed awful quickly. At least that’s the case so long as an overly restrictive technology policy hasn’t been implemented. Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  Daniel
3 years ago

But again, why are people checking their texts/emails in class? That seems to be clearly in the realm of distractions to be excised from class. People being distracted by them is the cost associated with using laptops and phones.

If everyone got a buzz at once, that would be cause to look, but that would mean people have their phones up loud enough for others to hear, which also is pretty clearly in the range of things to not do. Distracting others because people are texting you is bad.Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  nicholesuomi
3 years ago

Why are people checking? Well, maybe because we want the ability to see important emergency alerts. It’s not like you need to be constantly checking your phone to see an important alert on it. It’s as if you think that cell phone usage is some kind of all or nothing activity. Obviously you can glance at a notification on your phone’s lock screen for a split second and not lose much of anything by way of attention. I personally keep my cell phone out on the lectern when I’m in front of the classroom (it’s one of the ways I keep track of time). Phones have settings that allow buzzing to be turned off without removing the ability to see a notification. There are also ‘Do Not Disturb’ modes that allow for certain callers or notifications to go through while most others are blocked. If you don’t know how to do these settings, then you should really learn. And if someone is being distracting in their electronic usage, they should be called out for it. But let’s not pretend there’s no gradation here. That’s just silly. And it’s silly to think that cell and WiFi signals should be blocked entirely. Do you honestly think that they should be? If we need to call 911 for some reason, I don’t want to worry about blocked signals, or even just having to wait for a device to power on for that matter.Report

philosopherofthefuture
philosopherofthefuture
3 years ago

No technology. It’s the one thing I’m really really strict about. Almost an asshole about, but not quite. Really, it’s tech rehab for everyone. Tech is a huge distraction and disrupts the classroom. Exceptions for disabilities is of course allowed.Report

Rosa
Rosa
3 years ago

Here’s what I’ve done to keep from outing students with disabilities (I also ban laptops and phones in my classroom): I present the whole class with the empirical data on laptops lowering grades, distracting students nearby, etc, to justify my policy to them. Then, I tell them that philosophy is nevertheless about making successful arguments, and tell them that if they think they have an argument strong enough to justify my letting them use laptops/phones/tablets, I’m happy to listen to that argument in office hours and to make an exception for them if their argument is sufficiently strong. My hope is that when a student with a disability uses a laptop in my classroom, their peers will just think – if indeed they think anything about it – that that student is an especially able philosopher. (I should say that I also mention the university disability accommodation policy on the same day, and tell students who need accommodations to come to me to figure out how to best meet their needs.)Report

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  Rosa
3 years ago

Love this idea!Report

Numenius
Numenius
3 years ago

A couple of data points. Last year I taught two rather similar classes at the same institution. In one class, I banned technology altogether and had zero complaints. In the second class, I told my students I had originally intended to ban technology but instead was going to ask them to turn off wifi if they wanted to use their laptops to take notes. I had *multiple* complaints on the mid-term evaluations, some from those distracted by others’ laptop use, but more from the laptop users themselves wishing I had just forced them to take notes on hand because they lacked self-restraint not to use their laptops for e-mail, surfing, etc. While I felt I couldn’t reverse the policy, I made the class more interactive – a challenge given the physical layout of the classroom – to try to combat the vacant laptop stares, but I vowed to hold my ground on technology from then on.

This is not a generational issue. Look around next time at a faculty meeting and see who has their phone out at some point. Most of us who own smartphones are addicted to them. For at least some students, perhaps even the majority, it’s a relief to be in a space where they are doing something productive and forced to be face-to-face with others. Report

FB
FB
3 years ago

As a philosophy BA grad and University IT pro, this is something that has interested me for some time.

I have been saying for years now that campus needs to do more to consult faculty and instructors when forming their technology policy, and this topic is a good example; at my University at least (large midwest “public ivy”), campus technology policy is mostly decided by administrators and IT pros with, as far as I can tell, very little input from the actual educators. Hence we end up with initiatives to blast every square inch of real estate in the area with many overlapping high bandwidth wi-fi signals ($$$), computers and computer labs literally everywhere (many of which don’t actually get much use), over-the-top centralized printing services, helpdesk services being manned around the clock, etc, etc etc.

Now if these things are really needed and helping the mission of the University, that’s great. (Some departments at other Universities now have even banned / killed wi-fi in classrooms, taking a different stance). The problem is, many of these projects move forward without much real discussion. IT Pros , IT Directors, and Administrators lately tend to assume more technology is better…and of course, that more money for more these projects is always a good thing. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t, but it’s a hell of a lot of resources to be devoting to something that may not hold up when faculty and empirical data enter the discussion. (Not just the initial cost of the project, but paying armies of people to continually maintain this stuff that always breaks down)

I think it is up to faculty to really stand up and speak their voices on these issues – get involved in IT committees, come together and deliver statements to administration to ensure you are at least included in the discussion. If not you may soon lose your right to even make any kind of technology policy in your own classroom. “IT Committee” may sound like a real snooze, but at least around here there are some pretty major decisions being made related with technology that directly impact faculty and teaching all the time…and faculty either don’t seem to be aware, or don’t seem to be interested in getting involved.

Report

Anna
Anna
3 years ago

I haven’t tried banning laptops, because I know I can’t read my own handwriting and always typed for notes. I keep my class so busy with interactions and group work that they don’t really have time to worry about laptops anyway. I have tried banning phones and had the same experience as Carnap. Students simply didn’t listen, and each class was constantly interrupted by me policing cell phone use. It became such a distraction I haven’t tried it since. I am impressed when I hear professors who have tried this and been successful. I think, “Do they just come across as more authoritative? Why do their students listen to them and not to me?” Oh well. Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  Anna
3 years ago

I only have one data point for each, but I’ve seen lowering final grades (the case I saw was 2 percentage points per instance) and removal from the class for the day being effective deterrents. (How this impacted, say, course evals I don’t know, but it certainly seemed to have fixed the cell phone problem.)Report

C
C
3 years ago

One argument that my students have offered against this policy, which I implement, is that it is not environmentally friendly. They have to print out the reading material to bring to class (or at least use paper to write down the argument and main ideas in advance) and they have to use paper during the session to take notes. I don’t think this defeats the case for the no-electronics policy, but it’s worth keeping in mind as part of the costs to be acknowledged.Report

Jonathan Reid Surovell
Reply to  C
3 years ago

I’ve recommended that my students who are worried about this re-use paper from the recycle bins near printing stations and in other places likely to have discarded single-sided print jobs. This probably wouldn’t provide enough note-taking paper for everyone, but it helps, and likely will provide enough for the students who worry about it.Report

James
James
3 years ago

I wonder how many instructors that ban laptops and phones also rely on lecture as the primary or sole form of classroom instruction. If, as I suspect, the correlation is high, then the problem is not with the student, but rather with the teacher. Report

Rosa
Rosa
Reply to  James
3 years ago

FWIW, I never lecture, and the colleagues who I know who ban laptops don’t either. This is obviously an empirical question, but my anecdotal experience is that this correlation doesn’t hold. Report

Fellow Hermeneut
Fellow Hermeneut
Reply to  James
3 years ago

I don’t understand some of this generation’s wholesale rejection of lectures as a valuable form of instruction. If you want to criticize bad lectures, then I wholeheartedly support you, but please also include in your smug indictment mindless classroom discussions, poorly assembled group projects, silly role playing exercises and tedious worksheets.

When I hear a blanket statement like the one above, I wonder whether the person has ever had the privilege of hearing a good lecture. (If they had, I suspect, they would be far more appreciative of its value.) Or perhaps the problem is that technology has shortened our attention spans making it difficult for many people to follow the thread of a sophisticated argument, however deftly delivered. In both cases, it seems we have a much bigger problem than simply whether to allow students to use technology in the classroom.

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I would much rather hear a good lecture with a bit of discussion at the end, than have to endure the chatter of students who did not understand what they read but feel compelled to share their thoughts anyway. Let’s criticize bad teaching, not a particular form of teaching.
Report

Zain
Zain
3 years ago

Through my undergrad I was a designated note-taker for the diversity services in my institution for my peers with learning disabilities. I took rigorous, meticulous notes and even added my own commentary to the lectures (which the recipients found extremely helpful or so they told me). I think this process also significantly aided my own understanding of the class material. I could not have done this by hand, I just don’t write that fast. Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
3 years ago

I don’t know how things work at Dynarski’s university, but my experience has *always* been that students with extra time take their exams in a separate room (often but not always the office for students with learning disabilities). So they’re not actually outed by extra-time policies.

I let my students use their laptops, phones, whatever. I’m not comfortable outing those with disability requirements or accommodations, and I don’t think I should be imposing my note-taking preferences on them (even if they’re superior). I also don’t require compulsory attendance, and make it clear to students that they shouldn’t come to class just to warm up the seats. To my mind, the rest is up to me; it’s my job to create a classroom environment where students are (mostly!) engaged, and not watching porn on their phones, playing video games, etc.

Report

Jonathan Reid Surovell
Reply to  Michel X.
3 years ago

I don’t see it as note-taking preferences. I see it as a commitment to creating the best learning environment possible. As the research shows, laptops and phones harm the learning environment for everyone, not just the users. Having experimented with allowing phones and laptops again this semester, I don’t see this as an abstract concern. The difference is tangible.

Also, I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to expect university professors to out compete social media companies and websites spending big bucks to get people addicted. It’s like expecting them to forego ice cream within arm’s reach for some celery in the next room. Some can do it, most can’t.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Michel X.
3 years ago

I don’t understand this response: people who take their exams separately are outed as getting extra time (or some other accommodation), right? Report

JW
JW
3 years ago

Though it’s in a journal that many libraries don’t subscribe to (including mine), there is some scholarship on this issue in philosophy classes. I feel kind of awkward self-promoting, but it may be of interest to some:

https://www.pdcnet.org/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=teachphil&id=teachphil_2016_0039_0003_0307_0327Report

Richard Zach
Reply to  JW
3 years ago

Please upload it to philpapers.org so we can all read it https://philpapers.org/rec/WRIRMD-2Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
3 years ago

All the social science research can say is what generally happens. There seems to sometimes be a conflation of “generally laptops hinder learning” and “students are always better served if their laptops are forbidden.”Report

Gary Bartlett
Gary Bartlett
3 years ago

What about ebooks? They’re increasingly common. How does one ban laptops, or even phones, when students need them in order to refer to the text in class? (This question is not rhetorical; I’m genuinely curious whether anyone else has thought about this, and how it affected your policy.)Report

GV
GV
3 years ago

I ask students who wish to use a laptop to sign a “Laptop Contract” (pledging to use it for the purpose of taking notes) and to agree to sit in the back of the classroom so as not to disturb others. Under this policy only a very few students use laptops, whereas without the policy many do as a kind of “default”. Benefits I’ve seen since adopting this policy are that students tend to be more engaged in the class (I teach in a question-answer style, and so my lectures rely on their being students willing to answer my questions), and in general students have expressed appreciation for not having to stare at the screens of their peers (since the users are in the back). Allowing some laptops does allow the freedom to those who judge themselves to genuinely need them and consider themselves capable of self-regulation (under the terms of the contract) to use them, recognizing some students to be exceptions to what’s true generally (and letting them determine that for themselves). Adding the step of the signed contract aids students with self-regulation, since it has to be a carefully considered choice rather than a spontaneous desire to zone out that particular day. It also prevents involuntarily “outing” students with disabilities who have the right to use a laptop under University policy, since they are not the only students to be permitted laptops, as well as allowing laptops for notetakers for those with disabilities. Initially I worried that by being relegated to the back of the room, it might be harder for laptop users to participate in class discussion, but in practice this has not stopped them. On the whole moving the users to the back has helped the vast majority of students who choose not to use laptops to not be effectively forced by their peers to watch whatever is on their screens, and it has helped establish a norm of active engagement rather than passive listening. With cell phones I’ve found it hard to enforce an outright ban, so I ask only that they use them discretely so that I and others don’t notice. Most students understand how to use phones in this way, it gives the chance for those who don’t know how to be discrete to learn (through being called out on it), and it helps students who have responsibilities as caretakers, etc.., still attend class.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  GV
3 years ago

I do this as well. My contract includes the proviso that I may at any time say “Hands up” and students have to take their hands off of their devices while I walk around and see what they were doing. If it isn’t class-relevant they lose their laptop privileges. I’ve rarely if ever followed through.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Dale Miller
3 years ago

I would think that kind of policing activity would do more to undermine the classroom learning environment than having a couple of distracted students checking their Facebook pages. To engage meaningfully with philosophical texts and topics, students need to take some responsibility for their own learning, which is hard to do if you have to resort to treating them like they’re still in high school. Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Derek Bowman
3 years ago

I don’t disagree, which is why I do almost no actual policing. I do think that there’s a point to putting the enforcement clause in the contract, however. First, it gives me an ability to act in cases in which I worry that students are distracting not just themselves but others. Second, I think that it may convey a little more forcefully a message about what sorts of behavior are appropriate for the classroom. Report

Jason "Uncomfortable Truths" Brennan
Jason "Uncomfortable Truths" Brennan
3 years ago
Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I suppose since we’ve gotten the first obviously and deliberately trolling comment I might have come too late too this, but I’ll chime in anyway.
We really ought to think of our own behavior and our own temptations before we make laptop and cell phone policies. When I reflect on how tempted I am to sneak a peek at my own phone or computer in conferences– even when the paper is actually quite interesting– I feel comfortable completely dismissing the “Well if it’s interesting your students won’t feel an urge to go down the internet rabbit hole.” I’m a person who’s devoted his working life to philosophy and I feel the temptation even in talks I judge very interesting, so what should I expect of students who might not yet be convinced of philosophy’s value? If we have trouble managing these temptations, and I think if we’re honest most of us do, then can we really blithely expect that as long as we do a really good job students just won’t have them? So when I think of how distracting computers and cell phones are to me personally, I have no problem banning them and beyond the disability issues Dynarski cites I don’t see any good argument for not doing so.
There are also issues of respect and the sort of classroom environment you want to create. I was at an otherwise great conference some years ago where one of the star speakers goofed off on their laptop during both the talks before theirs. This really irked me for a few reasons. One it was just incredibly rude and I was angry for the speakers. But more importantly I found it really distracting myself. How I’m I supposed to concentrate on a rather intricate argument when this person is pounding away on Gchat? Finally, there’s just the question of the atmosphere it creates. If one person isn’t taking what’s going on seriously it becomes much harder for everyone else to. I’ll give another example to illustrate this. Since moving my wife and I have been church shopping a lot, and in one of the one’s we visited several parishioners texted and surfed the web all through the minister’s sermon. Now not only did I find that distracting but it just created an atmosphere where I found it incredibly hard to take what she was saying seriously. If in class some students are sitting there goofing off on the internet or texting it sends that same message that what’s going on here isn’t serious and important and doesn’t deserve attention. If I find it hard to engage in the atmosphere that creates it would be ridiculous for me to expect an 18 year old right out of high school who doesn’t even know what philosophy is yet not to be affected by that sort of atmosphere.Report

Jason "Plays Nice With Others" Brennan
Jason "Plays Nice With Others" Brennan
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

My comment isn’t trolling. Students don’t learn much, and they forget almost everything they learn. It’s true that laptops bans increase short-term retention, but long-term retention is so close to zero, and soft-skill development is so poor, that there’s little point in banning them. I realize my post was written in a flippant way, but that’s actually a considered opinion.Report

CJ
CJ

Students don’t learn much over all. It doesn’t follow they don’t learn much in my class. Report

Jonathan Reid Surovell

Jason: Does your comment apply to the kinds of improvement in critical thinking skills that students achieve in courses with argument mapping? Here’s an example of the kind of study prompting my question:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257681352_An_evaluation_of_argument_mapping_as_a_method_of_enhancing_critical_thinking_performance_in_e-learning_environments

My thought is this: since argument mapping works in a cognitively different way than traditional, text-based critical thinking instruction, and since mapping has been shown to produce better results, conclusions concerning the one kind of instruction can’t be carried over to the other.

I take studies like the one I just linked to, combined with those that find that laptop-free lecture attendance enhances learning, to establish a defeasible presumption in favor of lecturing on argument mapping with a laptop ban (in certain kinds of introductory courses). But if the benefits these argument mapping studies observe have been shown to be short-lived, then that would probably defeat the presumption (it might depend on how short lived they are–can they survive long enough to help students do better in their first year of a post-college job, e.g.?).Report

Rick
Rick
3 years ago

As someone who is regularly “distracted” by my media devices in lectures/seminars/talks, I’ll just be honest: I’m probably distracted anyway. Long before the advent of these toys, I had an impossible time sitting through more than about 10-15 min of lecture and paying attention *even when I was interested*. How does this work? I dunno, I just suddenly realize that I haven’t been paying attention for the last 10 minutes and I have no idea what happened. The problem is far worse if I already had a hard time with the subject matter, or if it just isn’t very interesting. This can happen to me in conversations if the other person gives a long answer—or if something pops into my head. Maybe I’m a unique snowflake and most people don’t have this problem, so they won’t be distracted unless they have a device in their hands. But my experience, at least, is that laptop/etc are less the problem than my own relatively-intransigent personality/character flaws.

Part of the reason I use a tablet (or laptop) is both ease of notetaking (which I can then store digitally rather than trying to find space in my home) and also minimal cost and environmental impact. Printing out every single reading for a seminar, or only buying hard copy books, is not only expensive but also wasteful. And, like notetaking, space is at a premium for me. I can keep all of my philosophy books forever if they’re digital. Not so if they’re hard copy.

To my mind, then, even if there is a small cost to my learning directly from the lecture, it is offset by the other gains. Report

Samuel Duncan
Samuel Duncan
3 years ago

I don’t want to hijack the thread, but I’ve been wondering a lot about a related issue: How do other philosophers conduct their own lectures and how do they feel about say projecting notes in PowerPoint? I don’t do it in most lectures and I tend to stick to the traditional white board. My main reason is the same that some people use for preferring film to digital photography: If I have to write it out on the board it makes me think long and hard about what’s important and what isn’t. With PowerPoint I put too much on the slides and the important points got lost. I also felt like it just encouraged a rather passive attitude where many students copied the slides verbatim; putting the slides online later didn’t really help this. On the other hand maybe I’m just not good with PowerPoint. Some of my friends who are very good teachers use it. So if it’s not completely off topic I do wonder what others think about that. Report

Nichi
Nichi
Reply to  Samuel Duncan
3 years ago

I’ve seen slides done well, though some regard for putting only the important up is of course needed. The three main things: 1. Passages can be put up, and then certain pieces highlighted. This also, hopefully, averts just copying the slides since the passages are in the already-had texts and a simple reference to where in the text to look can be copied down. (And this has the benefit of people not rushing around to find the passage in time to start reading it, and then ending up with several people lost.) 2. If one of the main goals of the class is deconstructing the arguments, then the argument can be put on the slides, too. Given how awful handwriting can be, this can occasionally be the better move. (But it seems rather equal to just writing on the board otherwise.) 3. Diagrams, pictures, etc. have a clear advantage in slide form.
(Pictures, maps, etc. can bring a history of philosophy to life a bit.)

If one is prone to going on tangents, the slides also provide a bit of a pre-established track to follow. So if 1 and 3 aren’t very important, and one’s handwriting doesn’t demand typing, then balancing one’s discipline in putting just the right content in the slides versus in staying on track seems to be an important balance.Report