To Ban or Not To Ban (Technology in the Classroom)?

Lately it seems as if the dawn of each new semester brings with it an opinion piece on laptop/smartphone/tablet/tech policies in the classroom. The most recent one that I’m aware of ran a couple days ago in the New York Times (here). Its title (“Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom”) leaves no doubt as to the author’s position on the matter: screens are not welcome, and for a number of reasons.

Pieces like this ignite numerous fires whenever they post. On the one
hand, you 70959205have those who claim that on the whole students are more effective learners when technology is absent. And this is true, for the most part; there are a number of studies that support the conclusion that we learn better when we are not distracted by a screen.

Yet on the other hand there are many who claim that a blanket ban on technology is draconian, uncreative, and problematic pedagogy. To note but one example: What about students with documented learning challenges who have learned to use their laptops to take notes more efficiently? The author of the article linked above addresses this group of students, actually. He refers to them as “medical exemptions,” and these “exemptions” are, presumably, allowed to use their laptops (or similar) in class. Basically: if you are using a laptop in class, it is because you have some flavor of learning disability. This puts some students in an awkward position, to say the least, and it amounts to an enormous breach of privacy.

Truth be told, I’ve gone back and forth on my technology policies for years, and I’m still unconvinced as to what the best solution is. I understand the rationale for banning it, for allowing it, and even for encouraging it. I’ve done all of these things, and each brings different results: some good, some bad, and some just, well, different.

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.

All this being said, I make every effort to discourage students from using their devices purely for distraction’s sake. And I don’t do this by giving them a rule, but by giving them a break (a literal one). During longer classes (more than one hour), I let students take a five-minute respite at the midpoint so that they can check their phones, go to the restroom, or talk with their neighbor. I started this last semester and it seems to have been successful. More than a few remarked to me at the end of the semester that they were less antsy to check their phones or open Facebook on their laptops because they knew they would have an opportunity to do so before too long.

I also try to break up the content of class so that it’s not just me yammering on at the front of the room. If I had to listen to me talk for an extended period of time, I would try and distract myself as well. I’ve found that moving away from traditional lecture and more towards discussion-based and interactive class sessions encourages students to be more engaged and attentive to what’s going on around them. And technology can be an enormous help here. Put students into groups and have them use their devices to find artwork or news articles. Allow students to “live tweet” class discussions using a special hashtag so that others can revisit the conversation later. Find ways to incorporate technology into your classes in ways that show students how to use it productively, and not just as a diversion. When students are more engaged and attentive, they are less likely to seek distraction.

Of course, the dreaded “laptop culture” that develops in some classes is a reality, and it can be an enormous problem. Classes form distinct personalities over the course of the semester (many would say these personalities are cemented in the first few meetings), and I’ve had at least one in which electronic devices became toxic to the learning environment. Screens everywhere, and none of them displaying anything relevant. In this class I opted to ban electronic devices at midterm; I’m not convinced that it was the right decision (for all the reasons noted above), but it certainly woke the students up and changed our trajectory for the better. Looking back on that experience, I’m inclined to think that a discussion about what it means to be “present” in the room might have worked just as well. After all, a huge part of what we do in the classroom is help students learn how to learn. And a huge part of helping them learn how to learn is helping them learn how to use the tools available to them, and to do so appropriately.

I’m still experimenting with technology in the classroom, and as I said above, I go back and forth regarding its merits (or lack thereof). At the end of the day, I do think that it is an issue that needs to be addressed with a degree of complexity far greater than just “ban it.” Simply telling students that screens are not allowed is in many ways the equivalent of “abstinence only” sex-ed: it doesn’t work, and it often encourages the type of behavior that you are trying to prevent.

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