Banning Laptops Is Poor Classroom Management & Is Often About A Professor's Ego

I submitted this to a major education publication about two months ago, but never received a reply. Fed up with the wait, I am posting this here now. I am so sick of the offensively slow timeline for academic publications.

I would have gone through and made changes during the summer as I worked with an editor, but the lack of reply and the emerging school year leaves me with little time now, so I present this in draft form.

Two recent articles about banning laptops in the classroom have led me to a desire to respond. Mary Flanagan's article on InsideHigherEd was, by far, the more interesting article of the two. I Agree with Flanagan that multitasking can "make us poor learners." Also, I share her desire to minimize lecture time in the classroom and that the key in the classroom is making class time valuable.

However, the value needs to come from the students enthusiasm as well. It is not a one way street. Some of my best students are great at multi-tasking; many are not. As an adult coming into a college classroom, students need to make a decision about how to engage with a course. Will you spend your time focused on the course? Will you spend your time focused on class, but also dealing whatever social requirements warrant moments of your time? Or will you spend your time focused on Reddit and Twitter? If you would rather tweet or go on Reddit in my classes, you will just fail them. Plain and simple.

In my experience, laptop bans often end up being more about the professor than the student. Why is a student on Reddit during MY lecture! When students are very distracted, a professor should wonder what they can change to correct this. Sure, this is hard to do on a day to day basis, but consider it. I will often ask the student or students directly how class can be modified so you focus more? They have agency as adult learners to succeed or fail, but they should also have a voice when there is a concern. I try to listen and emphasize with whatever is causing them to be distracted. If they have a good idea for modifying class, I will implement it. At worse, I give them a chance to talk it through or air grievances about their distraction. Many times, the trigger for the distraction is a legitimate life issue.

While I understand the concerns raised in other articles, I think there are other complications to this issue. What if a student has a learning disability, whether documented with a 504 Plan or not? What if the student has writing issues? What if they are an international student more comfortable on a laptop that is familiar to them? Even if they do not have a 504 Plan, how do you know they do not have issues? Why does it matter to YOU if they have a laptop, whether they use it properly or not? Also if documented, you are then singling them out

Further, what if they are just plain distracted? Having a bad day? I hear grown ups talk about having bad days all time. They expect some courtesy for that. This seems to often not be returned to students, but rather with some speech about "the real world" or other nonsense.

I have learning disabilities and severe writing problems. Getting to use a computer as a kid basically saved my education. Despite neurological impairment, poor motor dysfunction, ADD, and hand/eye coordination problems, computers let me succeed. I retain nothing when I write because my hand writing is such garbage that I can never read it later. I can go long form QUICK with a keyboard.

A study in The New Yorker says that “disconnected” students retain information better for quizzes. My experience is the exact opposite. I was never a good test taker to begin with, but being able to organize my notes myself helped by typing them out in a manner that worked for me. If left to writing, I would have failed and there is no way I ever become a college professor if I had not gotten an Apple II as a kid. I am glad my parents never saw some study and, in fact, had teachers fully encouraging and supporting me.

Even more troubling is the professor at Dartmouth who wanted a kill switch for wi-fi. What if there is an emergency? How will students ever grow to make the adults decisions we desire when we treat them like a child? Why can't students be playful and fail at things? Students need CHOICE to pass or fail. If you would rather go on Amazon to look at phones, that is YOUR problem. I make it clear what we will be doing. You are not a child and treating students like one is insulting and offensive.

Banning things also continues to automate society. Students never are allowed to grow, fail, or evolve. How can we expect success? At the end of the day, this is just more fear-mongering about new things. Most students who are distracted do not hurt the class. If you continue to be distracted, that is your fault. Students need the choice to succeed or fail with the tools available to them. Taking away that choice further pushes society into an automated nanny state without agency.