Monday, January 9, 2017

To Ban Or Not To Ban Laptops?

If you want to see a group of academics throw down, ask them about their laptop policy. Make sure there are no sharp objects nearby, though. Stuff will get real. Very real.   

My inner-Luddite tends to find favor with the likes of Darren Rosenblum, whose recent op-ed emphatically exclaims, "Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom." 

He writes...
Focus is crucial, and we do best when monotasking: Even disruptions of a few seconds can derail one’s train of thought. Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts. One study found that laptops or tablets consistently undermine exam performance by 1.7 percent (a significant difference in the context of the study). Other studies reveal that writing by hand helps memory retention. Screens block us from connecting, whether at dinner or in a classroom. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that just having a phone on a table during a meal “is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people.”
Anecdotally, I have noticed that students who take notes by hand tend to do better than those who use a laptop. And as Rosenblum indicates, this isn't just because the laptop tempts us with digital distractions. Instead, taking notes on the laptop turns the learner into a transcription machine. An article in Scientific America elaborates on this...
Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture.  Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy "mental lifting," and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.  By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.
So the hand writer is more tactical, discerning, and intuitive. The typist, meanwhile, takes the words directly from the professor and places them in a Word document, using very little if any brain activity in the process. 

For all of these reasons, I am inclined to ban laptops in my class. But I haven't done so yet. Instead, I tend to agree with my friend Eric Vanden Eykel, who recently had this to say...
My current policy is to permit technology as long as it does not distract me or others. My students are adults, so I try to treat them as such. Do some students get sucked into social media and fail to pay attention? Sure. And because they are adults they will also experience the real consequence of not doing well in the course. 
But in my experience, many students use their technology in positive ways, to take notes, to look up words that are unfamiliar to them, etc. Most, I think, occupy a middle ground between diligence and distraction. These students might take notes by hand but occasionally pull out their phones to check in on the outside world. I do the same thing in faculty meetings (sshhh), so I can’t in good conscience be too hard on this group. 
Another reason I’ve chosen to permit technology in my classrooms is that I find enforcement of a strict ban to be itself distracting and problematic. Most of my classes have between twenty and thirty students in them, and if I stop what we are doing every time I see a phone, it disrupts the flow of things. It punishes students who are following the rules. But there’s also the far more central issue (noted above) of students who use laptops or comparable devices because of learning difficulties. Students should be allowed and encouraged to use the tools that they need in class without fear of judgement from their peers.

As I see it, this is an issue where two worthwhile educational impulses are in tension. On the one hand, we want a learning environment that is free from distractions, where we block out the noise of a very noisy world and turn our attention exclusively to the task before us. On the other hand, we want to encourage students to take ownership of their learning, to make decisions for themselves about how they learn and what works best for them.

So this semester, I have again allowed laptops in my intro course (not my upper-level) while strongly encouraging students to take notes by hand. I educate them, in other words, on the benefits and drawbacks of their note-taking decisions. It has largely been effective--most students get the hint. But each semester, I find myself debating this topic as I update my syllabus. It seems that many of my professor friends are doing the same. 

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