I’ve long been a diehard “laptop ban” advocate. Basing this decision first on intuition and later on empirical evidence, it was rarely an issue beyond the initial student grumbling. Among hundreds of student evaluations, a very small handful (less than 5) mentioned it as an issue. Although I included the caveat of “if this is problem for you, please talk to me,” no one ever did. Case closed, or so I thought.
As I’m getting ready for a new term, I read with interest this piece in the Chronicle on starting the semester. Basically, I read the whole piece, nodding along until he got to his critique of the laptop ban. I didn’t think too much of it at first; I have always stated that I’m willing to make accommodations, just no student ever asked. But then I read the piece from Digital Pedagogy Lab he linked to and I’m already singing a different tune.
Two points stand out the most from the Digital Pedagogy Lab piece. First, students may not want to disclose disabilities. It’s not that I never considered the need for students with disabilities to use laptops, but I assumed that students share that with me to get the necessary accommodations. But, students may not want to be singled out (as being the only student allowed a laptop in a small class would do). Additionally, some students may not have documented/diagnosed disabilities and requiring documentation disadvantages them. I never said I required documentation, so I hoped students would come forward if they needed help; this piece helped me see how naive that was. Second, this piece makes a strong case that just because the empirical evidence suggests hand-written notes are better for most students, there isn’t evidence that it is best for all students. A one-size-fits-all technology ban stems from, in a sense, an ecological fallacy.
At the same time, as the article points out, allowing laptops in the classroom has disadvantages for students with and without disabilities. The distraction – long one of my main reasons for the ban – can be particularly problematic for some students.
So, what’s the solution?
I don’t have much time to consider a new strategy before classes start in a week and a half. I have heard some instructors allow laptops in a specific section of the class. Laptops in the back row only mean that students who are using the laptop for other reasons are only hurting themselves and not distracting others. Laptops in a section of the room more visible to the instructor might minimize temptations if the screen is visible to the instructor. One attraction of an outright ban was that I didn’t have to be the “laptop police” – “no laptops” is a pretty easy policy to follow and enforce.
If anyone else has solved this problem, I’m all ears!