Banning laptops in classrooms is a mistake, despite the intuitively compelling and research-supported reasons for doing so. These reasons highlight the ways that laptop misuse hurts learning, suggesting that instructors must ban laptops if they care about student learning. Banning laptops treats the symptom (the misuse of laptops) and not the problem (ineffective learning techniques). If we care about students learning professional and social skills as well as academic ones, we must allow students to use their laptops in the classroom and train them how to do so effectively.
But first, the case for banning laptops. In June, Dan Rockmore published “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom” in The New Yorker. He did a great job of summarizing the arguments for banning laptops and supporting those arguments with empirical research. His arguments were:
Argument 1. Laptops are distracting because they promote multitasking. If you aren’t familiar with the research findings on multitasking, they aren’t promising. When a person multitasks, they’re rapidly switching their attention between several individual tasks, which typically results in worse performance on all tasks. It’s like blinking or moving your eyes; technically, you’re blind for a split-second, but your brain fills in the gaps so that you don’t notice. You could miss something and never know there was something to miss. Rockmore cited the Hembrooke and Gay (2003) article “The Laptop and the Lecture” from Journal of Computing in Higher Education, which reports that students who did not use laptops during class performed better than those who did on a post-lecture pop quiz.
Argument 2. Laptops enable mindless transcription of the lecture. Laptops allow students to take notes so rapidly that they can almost copy a lecture verbatim. This transcription doesn’t require students to integrate information and select the most important information (strategies that people taking notes by hand must employ to keep up with the lecture). Rockmore cited the Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) article “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard” from Psychological Science, which argues that students process information more shallowly when they take notes on a laptop rather than by hand.
Argument 3. Text editing software makes it difficult to copy non-text notes. Rockmore also argued that, without specialized software, students taking notes electronically will find it difficult to copy graphs, drawings, formulas, notations, etc. I’ll also add that using specialized software can make it difficult to integrate electronic notes, and if multiple software packages are needed for different classes, staying organized can become quite cumbersome.
Argument 4. Off-task laptop use is distracting to the user and other students in the class. A 2008 Computers & Education article by Fried titled “In-class Laptop Use and Its Effects on Student Learning” found that laptop users spend a significant amount of time multitasking in lecture-based classes. Most importantly, Fried found this multitasking negatively affected the learning of people who sat behind laptop users. Though Rockmore did not include this argument in his article, I find it the most compelling. I’m in the camp that college students should be able to make their own decisions, but when one person’s behavior distracts other people, it becomes my responsibility as an instructor to stop it. Just like I wouldn’t allow two students to carry on a private conversation during a lecture, I shouldn’t allow distracting laptop-use to affect other students’ learning.
These arguments highlight the downsides to taking notes with laptops, but they don’t address the downsides to taking notes by hand. Furthermore, the circumstances that lead to misuse of laptops depend highly on the course design (which Rockmore seems to assume is primarily lecture-based) and the students’ learning techniques. For these reasons, I believe that none of the arguments presented above justify a ban on laptops.
Counterargument 1. Students don’t need laptops to be distracted. About a week ago, Nicole Short published “Don’t Ban Laptops in the Classroom” in The Chronicle, and she made several good points that address this issue. As Short argued, students can find plenty of ways to distract themselves during class (albeit, laptops are a much more engaging tools for distraction than, say, passing notes). Her point was that students should learn strategies for managing these distractions or discover the consequences of being distracted. We can’t follow students throughout their lives and force them to pay attention, so instead we should teach students how to single-task despite the distractions. This skill is especially important for online lectures that are delivered through computers.
Counterargument 2. Laptops reduce writing time. Mindless transcription is a result of the strategies that students use to take notes, not the tools they use. Banning laptops to combat shallow transcription does not ensure students are taking good notes. If students are using effective note-taking strategies, then using a laptop should not diminish their learning. Assuming the student is a competent typist, then taking notes on a laptop reduces the time required to write notes. Reducing writing time should only enable students to take better notes if they are using effective strategies. This also reduces the need to slow down lectures to allow students time to write.
Counterargument 3. Copying figures and formulas by hand is also difficult. Unlike spoken language that is easy to chunk (by the time students are in college anyway), figures and formulas often have many unfamiliar elements that students must copy one at a time. If instructors want students to have a copy of a graph, drawing, formula, notation, etc., then they should provide copies before class. This way, students can pay attention during the description of the object, and they can then make additional notes about that object.
Counterargument 4. Laptop use can be beneficial to the user and other students in the class. As the Hembrooke and Gay (2003) article states, students also use the internet to explore lecture topics in greater detail. The trick is creating a course that encourages students to use their laptops for good and not while they should be listening to a lecture. As you might imagine, this is not easy to accomplish with lecture-based courses, even if the instructor is engaging. However, students commonly use laptops constructively in application-based courses (e.g., problem-solving- or discussion-based courses). Encouraging students to look up additional information on the internet empowers students to explore areas that interest them. The internet also enables students to learn about and discuss topics that the instructor doesn’t know much about. Moreover, laptops enable students to use professional software (such as a statistical analysis program) and sophisticated active learning tools in class.
Laptops are tools, and many of the problems with laptops come down to students misusing them. Laptops can be enablers for problematic learning techniques, but banning laptops isn’t the solution. Instead of shunning laptops, we should help students develop strategies to deal with those problems, not sweep them back under the rug. For students who insist on errant laptop use (and there’s usually at least one), a good laptop policy is a must.
Some additional benefits of laptop use: I value the fact that electronic notes that are stored in the cloud are available anywhere. Students no longer have to carry around binders full of notes or deal with forgetting a set of notes when they go home for the weekend. Electronic notes can also be easily shared or compared with classmates. This sharing can be abused, but used responsibly, it can be beneficial.
I’m not planning on banning laptops in my classroom (assuming no new research counters my counterarguments). For lecture-based class days, I’m planning to give students a few minutes of break every 10-20 minutes of lecture. During this break, I’ll ask students to review their notes and ask any questions this review might uncover. But if students want to spend this time surfing Instagram, I’ll consider that a deserved break and time well-spent.