Rethinking my digital ban

I’ve long been a diehard “laptop ban” advocate. Basing this decision first on intuition and later Startup Stock Photoson 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-sizeStartup Stock Photos-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!

2 thoughts on “Rethinking my digital ban

  1. I require my students to ask permission to use a laptop once before they use it for the first time. They must approach me and ask verbally and I tell them they certainly can, but our agreement is that they will either be looking at the notes/presentation or video I might be using and have made available online or simply taking notes as they see fit. Any other use of the laptop while the class is ongoing would be a violation of this agreement. About 15-20% of my students ask for such permission. My classes typically have 35 students, which is the maximum permitted by the small Catholic university where I’ve been teaching for many years. I don’t walk around the class very much but I suspect that violations of this agreement are few and far between. When I announce this policy in the first class I don’t get any noticeable groans and I have the distinct impression that students appreciate the policy and don’t mind asking when they want to use the laptop for a legitimate purpose. It’s a little bit weird when two or three students “line up” at the beginning of the 2nd or 3rd class to ask for such permission but I make a bit of a joke about it and each “conversation” lasts about 3 seconds.

  2. Michelle, here I was happy with my decision to ban laptops and phones and now you’ve got me questioning it again. I have had the experience of students with accommodations requesting the use of iPads or laptops and granting it, and I agree that these students should not be made to feel as if they stand out as a result of these accommodations. Yet I still have all the issues with laptops that you cite and that made me adopt my strict policy in the first place. I used to have Art’s policy–ask and maintain good behavior and you can use a laptop–but then I found myself policing it during class, any time I suspected a student was violating our agreement, which doesn’t exactly build trust.

    Another issue I’ve had with laptop use is that I would ask students for their analysis or interpretation of some event, and they would look it up on google and share what they found, rather than thinking it through, which was the point of the lesson. Now, there are sometimes when the ability to look things up is quite useful, and even desired, but not when it inhibits the actual learning activity.

    I’m sticking with the ban for now but I am going to put some more thought into a happier medium. I agree that not singling out students with accommodations requires a more balanced policy.

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