Friend or Foe? Evaluating your relationship with laptops in the classroom

For years, educators have debated whether they should ban students’ laptops from their classrooms. Proponents argue students use this technology in class to foster classroom discussion and strengthen the overall educational experience. Critics suggest laptops are nothing more than machines of distraction that disconnect students from the class and limit their success.

These critics have a little extra ammo in the form of a recent study at West Point. Economists at the school banned laptop use in randomly selected sections of a popular economics course. One third of the sections could use laptops or other technology to take notes, one third could only use it to look at class materials, and one-third couldn’t use them at all.

The investigators found that students who did use laptops scored worse on the final. Smarter students in this group especially struggled compared to their counterparts in the no-laptop groups. The researchers concluded that while they expected the smarter students to use their laptops effectively, they instead because the biggest victims of the technology.

However, for those of us teaching media-focused courses, taking laptops completely out of the classroom may not be the answer. More and more of our lessons plans involve topics related to social media, multimedia, and other technologies. Students with laptops can engage in material and be more active participants in class. So maybe it’s not a matter of eliminating the distraction, but instead turning the distraction into a classroom enhancement.

While there are countless ways you can do this, I would like to offer just a few suggestions to get you started, largely based on a report by the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan.

  1. Establish a clear, specific laptop policy.

Educators vary in the type of policy they establish – everything from a complete ban to no limitations at all. More and more are migrating to something more in the middle – such as allowing laptops but requiring students to turn off their wireless connection during class. Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to establish and enforce your policy from the first day of class.

  1. Establish a “laptop-free zone.”

If you do decide to allow the use of laptops within your class, you could consider establishing a portion of the class as a “laptop-free zone” for students who don’t like being distracted by classmates on their laptops.

  1. Set aside time for laptop use.

If you’re like me, you hesitate to completely ban the use of laptops in class

because there are student who genuinely like to use them to take notes

during class discussions. In an attempt to compromise, I will specify certain times when the laptops can be used for note taking and other times when they won’t be needed. Also, in many instances, I make electronic versions of my lecture notes available after class on our course website. This eliminates pressure my students may feel to write down everything they see on the PowerPoint. Along those lines, consider outlining on your syllabus calendar days that students will be using technology in class and/or days it won’t be necessary.

  1. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Some educators have found it is more effective to integrate students’ technology use into their lesson plans rather than ban them. They focus on getting the students engaged by employing a wide range of strategies, from using cellphones as clickers to assigning students to conduct on-the-fly research during class. So instead of fighting against the laptops, use them to your advantage.

  1. Be flexible.

No two classes are the same, and no class is the exact same from one semester to another. So you may find that you need to adjust your stance on laptops to best meet the needs of the class and your students. That’s okay. Just identify an approach that works best for the situation at hand, recognizing that it may need to change in future semesters.

Laptop use in the classroom will continue to create issues that are not going away anytime soon. They may even increase as the technology evolves. So it’s important that we as educators try to stay ahead of this trend as we work to provide students with the most valuable learning experience. It may require a change in thinking – abandoning the belief that laptop use is stifling our students’ learning and replacing it with the view that this and other technology use can help reform our teaching moving forward.

Kris Boyle is an Assistant Professor at the School of Communications at Brigham Young University and the Professional Freedom and Responsibility Chair

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