• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Why I’m Not a Fan of Laptop Bans

We don’t get to veto the future.

November 26, 2017

Susan Dynarski ignited quite a battle online this week when she wrote in the New York Times about why she bans student laptops from her classroom. The short version of the argument is that laptops tend to prove more distracting than useful, both to the person who brought it and to the people for whom the screen is in view.  

I can believe that easily enough. Multitasking is harder than single-tasking, and the temptation to check social media during what seem like lulls can be powerful. And it’s certainly distracting if the student in front of me is watching something visually interesting on Netflix. There’s evidence for the “secondhand smoke” argument, suggesting that students near students with laptops perform worse academically than students who aren’t. The “harm to others” argument makes an easy libertarian argument harder.

That said, the whole idea of banning them doesn’t quite sit right with me.

To be fair, Dynarski stipulates that the ban is her own, and not her university’s. That helps. And she makes an exception for disability-related accommodations. I’m not sure how that avoids shining a light on a few students, but for the sake of argument, I’m willing to accept that certain kinds of exceptions can be granted without compromising confidentiality. And I’ll assume that laptops and other tech would be permitted in classes in which their use is part of the subject matter. A tech-free computer science class just doesn’t seem plausible.

But I’m still uneasy, and not only because my handwriting is terrible. Which it is.

At one level, it it’s of a piece with professors who grade students’ notes. I’ve never been comfortable with that, either, because it assumes that there’s one correct way to take notes.  Notes, to me, are means to an end. They’re study aids. I have no issue with teaching note-taking methods that work for most people, but what works for some will not work for others, and students need to be able to develop the styles that work best for them. As a student, although I wouldn’t have used this term at the time, I saw my style of note-taking as a sort of academic freedom. If my notes don’t make sense to you, well, take your own.  

By the same argument, as they prepare to move into workplaces laden with technology, students need to develop styles of interaction with technology that help them be effective. That will necessarily involve trial and error, just as the development of writing skills does. Early on, they may be better at handwritten notes than at technologically enhanced ones. One reading of that is to consign tech to the trash; another reading is that it’s all the more reason they need the practice.

That typically happens when a new form of technologically mediated communication emerges. The visual grammar of movies had to evolve from filmed plays. Many early tv shows were basically staged versions of radio shows. My kids tell me that I show my age when I use punctuation in texts. New forms of fluency take time to develop.  I’d hesitate to declare laptop note-taking an exception to the rule.

Then there’s the question of technology altogether. Laptops, tablets, and even phones increasingly resemble each other.  If you allow phones on the grounds that people need to be reachable for family emergencies, then you might as well allow laptops, too; both can be distracting, and social networks work on both. If you ban phones and something happens, I don’t like where that leads. Worse, if you ban phones, you make them forbidden fruit. At some point, some student will make secret recordings on general principle.

I have no issue at all with professors advising students upfront about the benefits of handwriting their notes, or with banning irrelevant use.  I don’t even have an issue with professors relegating laptop users to the back row, in order to get around the “secondhand smoke” argument.  (A screen I can’t see isn’t terribly distracting.) But there’s a meaningful difference between “I don’t recommend using laptops” and “laptops are banned.”  

We don’t get to veto the future. Tech is part of the world for which we need to prepare students. Good or bad, it simply is. Rather than trying to reverse time’s arrow, I’d rather we devote our attention to finding more effective ways to use tech. We need to stop filming plays, and start making movies.


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