A Brief History of the Laptop Ban

"Laptop Toss" by The B's
“Laptop Toss” by The B’s

In recent years, several scholars have expressed a desire to ban laptop computers and smartphones from the classroom. This urge to prohibit the use of computing devices, however, may be a reflection of our own shortcomings as educators. It may also be a future liability for higher education. What are the implications of excluding technologies that have revolutionized information gathering, analysis, and communication from our teaching?

As a historian, I am all too familiar with the sentiments expressed in a recent article on NewYorker.com, “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom,” by mathematics and computer science professor Dan Rockmore. To support his case, Rockmore points to a handful of studies of student performance, comparing students with laptops to students without. For example, he looks at an often-cited 2003 paper in Journal of Computing in Higher Education titled “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments” [PDF], which found that students who multitasked on laptops during a lecture had poor performance on subsequent quizzes. A 2013 study by a team at York University found similar results. According to their conclusions:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

Some university faculty have since relied on these kinds of studies as scientific evidence that proves that computing devices are detrimental to learning. Their solution? Ban computers from the classroom!

In recent years, some academics have publicly bragged about their respective laptop bans, proclaiming victory over a perceived classroom intruder. In 2010, Washington Post profiled David Cole’s Georgetown University law class  for its noticeable lack of laptop computers. Cole implemented his laptop ban as early as 2006 arguing that the devices were an “attractive nuisance.” In that same year, Paul Thagard, a professor of philosophy at University of Waterloo, explained his decision to ban laptops from his classes as follows: “According to reports from various students I’ve asked, the vast majority are doing things that are not class related: surfing the Web, sending text messages, checking email, and pursuing other social activities such as Facebook. I’ve even heard of cases of students watching movies or engaging in video chat.” He also cited a list of studies of cognitive science that examined the impact of digital distractions on learning. In October 2013, James Loeffler writing for Time.com proudly admitted “I’ve now gone on to ban laptops in several courses. And the result? Many students are relieved.” Rockmore himself has drawn much attention for banning laptops in computer science courses. He confessed, I banned laptops in the classroom after it became common practice to carry them to school.” Rockmore’s article has even inspired others to copy his laptop ban.

Some academics seem to be prone to hostility toward computing technologies in the classroom. In fact, university educators have been doing this for over a decade now. For example, in 2002, Tim Lougheed warned readers of University Affairs that “The Internet has many merits as an educational tool, but it can be a disruptive presence in the classroom.” In 2006, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story about a law professor at the University of Memphis who banned laptops in her classroom. She said, “The computers interfere with making eye contact. You’ve got this picket fence between you and the students.” [1] In that same year, Dennis Adams from C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston claimed that the internet in the classroom, while a wonderful thing, “can also be a barrier to learning.” In 2007, a professor of strategic communication at University of Missouri exclaimed that her laptop ban was a great benefit to students who “have even mentioned that they feel like they are doing better without the laptop.” And in 2008, the law school at University of Chicago tried to shutdown wireless internet access in its classrooms in a bid to win back student attention.

"The times they are a changing" by Brett Jordan
“The times they are a changing” by Brett Jordan

This attitude toward laptops and the internet in the classroom was not always the case on university campuses. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when universities struggled to achieve “ubiquitous computing” on campus and implemented mandatory laptop computing programs for their students and faculty. For example, in 1995 Wake Forest University started a mandatory laptop program for students and professors. After initial faculty and student reluctance, according to one report, “the prevailing mood here is that the program is worthwhile. Professors are trying out new teaching methods; students do more work outside class, mostly by participating in on-line discussions; computer costs can now be figured into financial-aid calculations; and everyone in the program has equal access to computers.” [2] In Canada, Acadia University was a pioneer in the integration of computing and the internet in the classroom. In 1996, the university introduced a voluntary laptop program for first-year students called Acadia Advantage. According to a 1998 report on the program in Globe and Mail, “Lectures are spiced up with the use of CD ROMs, internet scoping and Power Point lectures that enable students to focus on the discussion and download the classnotes later.” Although attitudes toward these programs were not universally positive, there was a deliberate effort on the part of faculty and administrators to encourage both the integration of new technologies and experimentation in teaching methods. [3]

The optimism for computing and the internet in the classroom from the 1990s waned by the turn of the century. In 2001, Duke University rejected a policy of requiring students to use laptop computers in the classroom, primarily due to issues of costs and classroom distraction. In response to this decision, Julianna Gilbert (Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at University of Denver) and Ken Stafford (Vice Chancellor for University Technology Services at University of Denver) wrote the following to The Chronicle of Higher Education:

We have learned that for the university to move forward effectively into the arena of technology-assisted learning, faculty members must be involved from the ground up in exploring the uses of computers in the curriculum, and sufficient support for them to engage in this activity is a necessity.

If classroom time is primarily characterized by lectures, then laptops are probably a distraction, and if students bring them to class for note taking, it is quite likely that some will use them for activities unrelated to the class (e.g., surfing the Web, using e-mail, etc.). [4]

As campuses introduced wireless networks and laptops became low-cost, mass consumer commodities, universities across Canada and the United States eventually achieved ubiquitous computing without deliberate programs or initiatives. The advent of smartphones (essentially multi-sensory, geospatial networked pocket computers many times more powerful than the laptops that Acadia and Wake Forest distributed in the 1990s) has only further transformed university campuses. The primary difference between the initiatives of the 1990s and the present seems to be a lack of coordinated programs and resources to assist in the integration of these technologies into our teaching.

Not all scholars have jumped on the “ban”-wagon. In 2007, Terence Day wrote a thoughtful piece on different approaches to integrating computing technologies in the classroom. Berlin Fang, writing in Educase Review Online in 2009 argued that the issue of technological distractions in the classroom“gives educators a reason to reflect on their own teaching or, rather, the instructional process as a whole. Viewed this way, distractions caused by computers might be the result of a failure to involve students in the classroom rather than the reason they are not engaged.” Similarly, J. Ellis Bell, a professor of Chemistry at the University of Richmond wrote about this issue in 2010, suggesting that student laptop distractions might be the result of boring lectures and poor teaching approaches. “Rather than talking about banning laptops from class,” he argued, “we should be talking about how to constructively use them to engage students in classroom activities and active learning.” And Robert Talbert recently challenged some of Rockmore’s arguments and suggested that “The real problem is not laptops per se but the unstable mixture of a certain kind of technology with a certain kind of pedagogy — namely, lecture.”

One of the stumbling blocks to getting faculty to rethink the use of computing technology in the classroom has been the persistence of the “myth of the digital native.” Too many faculty assume that students are somehow naturally adept at the use of computing technologies and the internet by right of birth within the past twenty years or so. As such, they fail to recognize a need to integrate computing skills into their teaching. Eszter Hargittai’s research at Northwestern University over the past few years has shown this assumption to be false. Instead, it finds that “even when controlled for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.” Such findings suggest that students do not enter the classroom with innate and uniform computing abilities. Rather than relying on the tired stereotype of “digital natives” faculty should be thinking about ways to integrate computing technologies and the internet into scholarship and learning as a way to provide students with a broader range of the computing skills.

Strict prohibition and regulatory compulsion has never struck me as good pedagogy. For more than a decade, reactionary prohibition of computing devices in the classroom has failed to restore the traditional lecture in much the same way as severe litigation against music piracy failed to save the recording industry. We cannot compel our students to learn by tossing their smartphones and laptops out the window. We should not seek to create artificial havens from information technologies and pretend that computing and the internet have not changed learning and education. University administrators should provide the programming and resources to encourage and support adaptation and experimentation with computing technologies in the classroom, as some did in the 1990s. We might be missing opportunities to improve student learning and make university education more responsive and relevant to our students. Banning laptops may seem like the simple answer, but it does not absolve educators and administrators from the difficult challenge of changing our teaching approach in the context of a changing world.

The internet has revolutionized information gathering, analysis, and communication, the very skills at the heart of scholarship. Yet, too many scholars view this technology as an impediment to education rather than an integral component of teaching and learning. I am regularly astonished by academics who express hesitance, hostility, and ignorance when it comes to computers and the internet. We should expect (and encourage) scholars to demonstrate intellectual curiosity about new computing technologies and their implications for human knowledge and understanding. When we see students use such powerful technologies as nothing more than tools of distraction and frivolity, we should strive to teach them how to  harness those technologies in better ways.

[1] Brock Read, “A Law Professor Bans Laptops from the Classroom” The Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 31 (April 2006): A43.

[2] Jeffrey R. Young, “Invasion of the Laptops: More Colleges Adopt Mandatory Computing Programs” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44, no. 15 (December 1997): A33-A35.

[3] Meg Murphy, “Living the Acadian Experiment” Globe and Mail, 22 June 1998, p. C3.

[4] “Letters to the Editor: The Educational Benefits of Laptops” The Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 24 (February 2002): B22.

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