education philosopher

On Allowing Computer Technology in the (College) Classroom

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 10, 2015

Much proverbial ink has been spilled in the past year or so debating whether or not professors should ban computer technology in class. A lot of it comes down on the side of disallowing students from bringing or opening laptops, cell phone, and other potential distractions in class. I respectfully dissent from that viewpoint, and I’d like to offer some reasons why.

[First, a caveat. Since the context in which I teach may be different from others, I should explain my general situation. I teach in a College of Education, and the classes I teach generally don’t get larger than 30 students. Thus, I am able to do more activity-based learning than professors stuck with larger lecture-hall class sizes.]

The primary reason I am concerned about the efficacy of banning computer technology in class is that it assumes that computer surfing in class is a cause, not a symptom, of inattention. That is, many professors seem to assume that banning computer technology will stop (or make it significantly harder) for students to think about other things, like their friends, what they want to do after class, etc. I am skeptical that this is how attention works. I think all us 30+ers all remember our k-12 experience, where we were unlikely to have computer technology at the ready, and that didn’t stop us from not paying attention. When we think about something other than what the professor wants us to think about, it is a general sign that what we are thinking about is, to us, more engaging than what they are talking about. Computer technology may give us a way to act on our boredom or inattention, but disallowing computers in class is unlikely to alleviate that inattention. 

Next, there is the oft-cited study showing that those who hand write notes take better notes and learn more than those who type notes. Okay, but submit the study or the articles written on it to scrutiny and you’ll see that laptops aren’t the culprits, and there is nothing magical about hand-writing notes. The problem was that students who type notes type verbatim, because it is faster to type than to hand-write. Students who hand-write notes paraphrase, because handwriting is less efficient, but coincidentally, paraphrasing is a great learning strategy.

The solution here isn’t to ban computers; it is, first, to teach students how to take better notes. Instruct them that paraphrasing is generally a better strategy because it requires them both to think about what the speaker is saying, and to actively listen with an ear for what information is important. (My somewhat flippant suspicion is that we’d find students with laptops getting the same result as students handwriting notes if we tied one hand behind the backs of typing students. You’d make typing less efficient, giving typing all of the virtues the study attributes to handwriting.)

Another reason students may be writing verbatim when they get the chance is that they might be confused about what exactly from your 50+ minute lecture counts as ‘need to know’ and what doesn’t. The surest way for confused students to cover their bases is to write it all down and (so they think) sort it all out later. Maybe a solution would be to start your lecture with an indication of what four of five big things they will really need to know from what you are about to say.

One of my concerns is that some professors will use banning laptops as a way not to look at how they can improve engagement in the classroom. There are at least two ways to get and keep student attention. The first is the easier one; you can demand it and ban anything that might come between you and student attention. But the other is doing the hard work of inquiring about why students are willing and able to blow off what you are saying. First, lectures aren’t generally the most engaging things in the world, and while some do them really well, I suspect most of us overestimate how interesting our lectures are. Second – and remember, I’m talking about a class of 30 or so – it might be asked why your students have the ability in your class to surf on their computers anyway. Is there no discussion or activity going on? Are you busy lecturing in a way where students sort of know you aren’t paying attention to what they are doing? Is your class the type of class where students’ primary role is to write down what you are saying, giving them ample ‘free time’ to check facebook while you lecture? The professor who wants to become a better teacher will ask these questions and work on necessary tweaking. The others will ban laptops and cell phones.

I am also a bit concerned that if we ban laptops and cell phones, we are giving up on the idea of teaching students for the world they will be entering beyond the ivory tower. There are cell phones and laptops everywhere in that world. And while our job is to teach our subject, and not how to avoid distraction, there is something to be said for teaching the subject in a way that uses the technology that is so common in the every day world. I personally use things like Socrative polling software (which requires a cell phone, tablet, or laptop), and it has proven to be a fruitful pedagogical tool I’d miss out on if I prevented students from bringing technology in. Same with google searches and activities that require students to look up things, have access to Blackboard (our course management system) in class, etc. I haven’t formally studied the results, but comments I get from students indicate that they appreciate having classes where they are allowed to use the technology they can use everywhere else in the world except the movie theater and your classroom. 😦

Last and quick point. For those who are concerned that students’ use of technology will distract other students, an honest suggestion: do as I do (Professor Mike Munger gave me this tip) sincerely ask students who insist on surfing the web in class to sit in the back row. If you do this in a “no questions asked’ honest sort of way, my experience is that the problem takes care of itself.

For the time being, I will allow laptops, cell phones, and other computer technology in my classroom. I’ve never had bad luck with this policy.


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