Banning laptops in the classroom

Over the weekend two news items caught my attention about professors increasingly banning laptops from their classrooms. What I distilled from these pieces is that laptops are a distraction for students resulting in poor academic performance. For me personally, there are two issues here, first the student’s management of distraction and second the respect shown to the professor while delivering a lecture.

As pointed out in the NPR report,”Put Away That Laptop: Professors Pull the Plug“, distraction didn’t start with the laptop. Classroom distractions have been around since the dawn of classroom education. Whether it’s passing notes, talking to a fellow classmate, or looking out the classroom window and day dreaming, students can be distracted. The issue is how students deal with distraction on their own so they can stay focused and on task. It is true that today’s student has many more way to become distracted and these will not go away. One can ban electronic devices but one cannot ensure distraction won’t occur from non-device intrusions. Delivering as hour-long PowerPoint lecture to a passive audience will not be engaging. Instructors must use ways to continually engage students during instruction. A number of techniques have been proposed over the years. Classrooms can be equipped with technology that prevents students from logging onto the Internet. I personally have no problem with this under certain circumstances. For instance, if I’m teaching a laboratory course that requires the use of computer hardware in a campus computer lab, I need the students to focus on the software being used. But, in a conventional lecture hall, where the instruction is not about using technology, restricting access is more problematic.

What bothers me most is the lack of respect shown by students who are not paying attention in class, whether this be to digital distractions or others. I become frustrated after spending many hours crafting a good lecture only to find, albeit, a minority of students not paying attention. I have the attitude that we, the students and I, have a job to do during class, I instruct and they learn. Sleeping, texting, talking to their neighbor, finishing an assignment for another class is not showing me the respect for the time and effort that I have put into creating and delivering a lecture. For several of my colleagues, this is not an issue. Even seeing students with heads on their desks, they continue to plow through their lecture material.

So why should I as a professor care? Though banning laptops has been shown to increase student attention, we lose a valuable resource for learning. The issues described above seem to arise in lecture courses, which begs the question, “Is the lecture format the most appropriate one for learning, especially in higher education?” The answer to this question is a difficult one indeed, and in my opinion, may well depend on the content, level, and purpose of the course. Given the industrial mode of “educational production” foisted on professors in the early 60s, the lecture is the most efficient way to instruct large masses of students. If the goal is to maximize the “profit” in education, is it necessary to have students meet face-to-face in many of the large lecture courses that are currently offered by universities? I’ll have more to say in a future blog post.

About Michael Ritter PhD
Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

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