Sunday, May 01, 2011

Banning Laptops in the Classroom

[First published in The Teaching Professor.]

The classroom should be a consecrated place—a dedicated space for attending to ideas not normally addressed as ardently elsewhere. Strange, good, and serendipitous things happen there. Questions are newly formed, puzzlement gives way to intellectual pursuit, and insights arrive serendipitously. On the other hand, even after earnest preparations, professors can be greeted with vacant stares, wandering eyes, stupefied silences, or irritatingly inept comments. We struggle to win, keep, and enrich our students’ attention.

The classroom the environment should be ripe for teaching and learning. (Neil Postman observed that one is not teaching if no one is learning.) This requires earnest preparation for the professor, but students also need to attend and respond rightly. Critical thinking is imperative for philosophy (my discipline) and does not happen automatically. Teachers can encourage critical thinking in several ways: by giving quizzes, showing appreciation for student’s apt comments, and even by letting them stew in their culpable ignorance. But there is another element changing the classroom and threatening its positive prospects: the laptop and similar portable Internet-connected devices. Academics have weighed the pros and cons of this situation, but let me offer some battle-scarred reflections.

I teach two different kinds of students at two institutions. I teach philosophy full-time at the graduate level at a theological seminary. Here most students can afford expensive technologies. I also teach as an affiliate faculty member at a large city college in downtown Denver. These students are younger and less affluent, and almost never bring laptops to class. Still, they can be distracted by hand-held devices. In this setting, my syllabus states that no device should be used to get access to any outside source, although I allow students who have laptops to them for taking notes.

One of these undergraduates stands out. A young Latina woman sparkled with philosophical curiosity and asked some bang-up questions. After I raised a seeming contradiction concerning atheistic Existentialism’s difficulty in asserting any moral meaning for conduct in a meaningless world, she asked, “Is there any worldview that doesn’t contradict itself?” A philosophy professor can live a few weeks on such utterances. That comment came when did not bring her laptop. With laptop in hand, she sat in the very back of the room, said nothing, and all but disappeared into the machine—another case of the “absent presence” that technology easily affords.

My graduate students are a different story. About ten years ago, laptops began to appear in the classroom here and there. Those busily typing seldom looked at me or at other students or at their books. One student spent the entire semester gazing exclusively at her laptop. In recent years the percentage of laptop users surged to over fifty percent, and the classroom began to change radically in ways I had never before experienced. As Postman would have put it, the changes were ecological, not merely additive. That is, the very nature of the classroom was changing, not just a few isolated elements of it. The laptop users were often absorbed in their machines, and their activities often distracted others. I vainly tried to counter this threat of the absent presence by calling for “laptop down” interludes. When I came to a particularly important point, I would ask that all laptops be closed, so that the students could look up and listen more intently.

But matters worsened. Many students in my Ethics class were sending and receiving emails, shopping, and even checking their eHarmony accounts. This violated the conditions of the syllabus. So, I gave a fifteen-minute lecture (perhaps sermon) on the ethics of the classroom: We are here to learn together, to reflect on the texts, to pursue truth through rationality. We need to attend to each other, develop dialogue, and create a “truth zone.” Laptops threaten all of this.

This impassioned message did little good. My spies reported further infractions. I then drew up a short “covenant” for students to sign, stating that students would only use their laptops for taking notes. As I handed this out, a student publicly rebuked me for being so heavy-handed. We later reconciled, but this short-lived, one-man student insurrection deepened my resolve to do something serious about the creeping plague of digital distraction. (I have since gotten more ammunition from John Medina’s Brain Rules, which argues that our brains are simply not designed for multitasking, in the classroom or elsewhere.) I put the following statement (somewhat edited) in my syllabi the next term, where it has remained in all my subsequent courses.

No laptops are allowed in the classroom. While many students will use them responsibly, many will disappear behind the screens. For this reason, I am banning them from the classroom. The classroom needs to be a zone for knowledge and inspiration. Knowledge needs students and students need knowledge. We need to breathe ideas together without the distraction of alien mediation. Therefore, please print out the class notes for the day and be ready to take notes and discuss the material face-to-face, voice-to-voice, soul-to-soul.

The break was now complete. I would no longer compete with those thin, powerful, and distracting devices. Many students had abided by the rules and only typed class notes. But even then, something was lost in the classroom.

My ban did, however, foreclose some good possibilities. Students would sometimes search on line for items that were pertinent to class. When I mentioned that a Hindu priest had opened a session of congress in prayer for the first time recently, a student asked, “What exactly did he pray?” I gave a rather inadequate summary. Then another student replied, “I found it. May I read it?” He did, and it contributed to our discussion as we analyzed the theology of the prayer. Those kinds of episodes enriched our environment; but they were all too rare. Nor could they offset the significant losses caused by digital diversions. However, if a disabled student needed a laptop to compensate for a sensory difficulty, I would gladly allow for that.

It has been three years since I banned laptops. No complaints have appeared on the anonymous student evaluations. Students say they are less distracted and more focused in class. I note that without laptops they are more engaged with both me and other students. I believe that my step backward into the pre-laptop era was really a step forward into a better classroom. Consider joining me.

  • Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and Affiliate Faculty in Philosophy at Metropolitan State College of Denver. He is the author of The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997).


Grace from Brazil said...

What you say is true. My daughter is getting ready to go to a strong Evangelical university where I think the presence of a laptop is almost expected. I will certainly have her read this article for her to consider the ramifications. I would hate for her to miss one moment of interaction that can take place in a classroom setting where the Holy Spirit is working. (Don't these students who multitask realize that they are paying for these classes?)

I teach at a Bible college in Brazil. Our students don't bring laptops to class because they don't have them. I never saw this in such a positive light as I do now. They are able to get their assignments printed from computers so they have access but they don't have portable ones. I never realized what a blessing that was for me as a teacher and for them as students. Thanks for the insights. And if in the future it comes to that, each student bringing a laptop, I know exactly what I am going to do. : )

Anonymous said...

I would encourage you to read "Everything Bad is Good for You" by Steven Johnson. It just may give you a different perspective on multi-tasking and internet use in today's culture.

I am finishing up a doctorate now and have 10 years of post high-school education under my belt. I am very much an auditory learner and sitting for lectures has never proved a problem - I learn best through this format. There are others, however, that do not learn best through this "you sit and listen to me" teaching style. Often, these students do just as well on tests because they are visual learners (they read the book and learn the material).

Unfortunately, most of my professors have used the lecture format exclusively in their classrooms. This is great for auditory learners but not as effective for visual learners!

Mark said...

So how do you deal with our post-laptop society? Will you amend your policy to ban tablets as well?
I've been considering applying to the philosophy program there and were I to take seminary classes, I would probably invest in something like the HTC Flyer which would let me record and take handwritten notes and keep them in sync together. Just curious what your take on this would be. Do you allow audio recorders in your class?

Alan E. Kurschner said...

I think at least PCs, not Macs should be banned. I am serious. When I attended lectures at seminary it was the PC's cacophonous keyboards that were distracting. Mac keyboards are very quiet but PC keyboards broke my concentration all the time. It was annoying.

Laura Springer said...

At the beginning of my time in seminary, I took notes on my laptop. Now, this was before our campus got wifi, and I am of a good sort, so the outside distractions were minimal. But I began to notice that concerns over the formatting of my notes distracted me to the point that I could no longer pay adequate attention: I banned myself from laptops. I now take notes in a Moleskine and my smartphone is in my pocket. As a result, class time is much more productive. Good to hear of a prof helping students put down the distractions.

Bill Honsberger said...

I think I am going to join you in the outright ban Doug. More mischief than help is what is happening and I think the suggestion from your one commentator is excellent - with the advent of so many smart phone apps almost everyone can record the class. So if there is any problem with taking notes the student can have the opportunity to catch up later. Of course the phone rule will have to be almost as strict - set it on record and leave it alone, lest the text monster eat the student whole!

Francis Beckwith said...

Here's the problem for the laptop supporters: Why is that people in the past--with none of the technology we have today--were better thinkers, reasoners, and writers?

Glenn Hendrickson said...

How's this for irony. I read this article in my Greek class!


Griffin Gulledge said...

I think saying people in the past were better thinkers, reasoners, and writers is a bit arrogant Mr. Beckwith. There are many brilliant young minds writing and reasoning at incredibly high levels with use of a laptop. Originality of ideology is no indication of intellectual capacity. Students who want to learn will always learn. Those who do not, will not.

I am a university (philosophy major) student and I use a laptop in every class. I just don't connect to the internet is all. My ability to type fast allows me to take notes incredibly quick and then think about what's being said and ask questions without worrying about missing notes.

With that said, I'm also perfectly comfortable with a notebook and pen. Good article. I love Postman's book, and agree with the sentiment for the most part, though I do see advantages from my laptop.