the eternal September of the no laptop policy

It’s the time of year when academics like to talk about their syllabi and inevitably the no-laptop policy arises. It is evidence of a recurring theme: we do not know how to live, let alone learn, in a digital networked environment. It’s hard to blame the faculty, though it’s difficult to figure out who else might be responsible. The classes we teach are in the same rooms and buildings, follow the same schedules, and are essentially understood in the same terms as they were 30 years ago. Yes, there’s wi-fi now, as well as 4G LTE signals, permeating the classrooms, and yes, almost everyone has some device that links to those signals. (As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, at UB anyway students bring an average of 5 wi-fi enabled devices to campus.) However, students don’t know how to use these devices in the classroom to support reaching the learning objectives, and the learning objectives remain based in a pre-digital world, as if what and how we are learning hasn’t been transformed by our new conditions, so faculty don’t know how to use these devices to define and achieve learning objectives either.

The Chronicle (of course) published a piece recently in which one professor, Ann Curzan, offers her explanation of her own no laptop policy. I appreciate the thorough explanation she offers to her students in her syllabus, including citing research on multitasking, effects on test performance, and so on.  It’s a very old  story, right? New technology affects our ability to think, nay, remember things. Just like the Phaedrus. Sure that’s just some old myth about Thoth, while with laptops we’re talking scientific research. Sure, except that people living in an oral society do have memory capacities that are different from ours. What do we imagine that distributed cognition means? It means that we think in conjunction with tools. It means we think differently in the context of digital networks. And that’s scary and difficult. Obviously, because these are the recurring themes in our discussion of educational technologies.

Curzan and the many, many other professors with similar policies have educational objectives and practices that have no place for emerging media. It makes perfect sense that if the purpose of coming to a class is to take notes on a lecture then a laptop is of limited utility. Yes, you can take notes on a laptop but that’s like driving your car at the speed of a horse-drawn carriage. If the purpose of class is to engage in class-wide discussion or group work then maybe those devices have a role to play but that depends on how the professor shapes the activity. For example, a typical pre-wifi class/group activity I did was to ask students to look at a particular passage in the reading, figure out what it means, and discuss what they think about it. Today, depending on the particular reading, there’s probably a good deal of information online about it and that information needs to be found, understood, and evaluated. It’s also possible to be in real time conversation with people outside the classroom, as we know. So that activity isn’t the same as it was 10-15 years ago. It’s possible that the laptops could distract from the activity, but distraction is always a problem with a group activity.

Can we imagine a liberal arts degree where one of the goals is to graduate students who can work collaboratively with information/media technologies and networks? Of course we can. It’s called English. It’s just that the information/media technologies and networks take the form of books and other print media. Is a book a distraction? Of course. Ever try to talk to someone who is reading a book? What would you think of a student sitting in a classroom reading a magazine, doodling in a notebook or doing a crossword puzzle? However, we insist that students bring their books to class and strongly encourage them to write. We spend years teaching them how to use these technologies in college, and that’s following even more years in K-12. We teach them highly specialized ways of reading and writing so that they are able to do this. But we complain when they walk in, wholly untrained, and fail to make productive use of their laptops? When we give them no teaching on the subject? And we offer little or no opportunity for those laptops to be productive because our pedagogy is hinged on pretending they don’t exist?

Certainly it’s not as easy as just substituting one media for another. (Not that such a substitution is in any way easy, and in fact, the near impossibility of making that substitution will probably doom a number of humanities disciplines, but that’s a subject for another post.) To make it happen, the entire activity network around the curriculum needs to be rethought, beginning with the realization that the network we have is built in conjunction with the legacy media we are seeking to change. We need to change physical structures, policies, curriculum, outcomes, pedagogy…

It is easier to just ban laptops.



9 thoughts on “the eternal September of the no laptop policy

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  1. Thanks for the great article Hard to believe we are still talking about banning laptops (or, by extension, mobile devices) from dynamic learning environments. Might be far more useful and positively transformative to be helping everyone learn how to effectively incorporate those tools into the learning process in ways that support that process–and much more. (And while we’re at it: isn’t it far more useful for those of us with good typing skills to be able to produce legible notes by using our laptops instead of struggling with hand-written notes that are difficult to decipher when we return to them for review purposes?)

    Hope your article inspites a bit of rethinking on the subject.


  2. Mariana Funes pointed out this article about using “Google jockeys” during lecture. I think “search jockey” would be a more appropriate name. This is a good idea. We still have a lot of people who ask questions when web search could give them an instant answer. Search jockeying wouldn’t have to be presented live. They could just make their search history available later, with the search terms they used, and the links they decided to follow.


  3. Which five are the average wifi enabled devices that students bring to campus? I have my laptop, phone, and iPad, but I don’t use the laptop on the same days that I use the iPad, so I am amazed at this bit of data. What five devices does the average student carry with them to classes?


    1. Good question Carolyn. “Bring to campus” isn’t quite the same as “bring to class.” Sorry if that was unclear. However there are a number of other devices students might bring to their dorm rooms on campus, e.g. a streaming video device (e.g Roku) or a gaming console (e.g. xBox). Even things like desktop computers, printers or digital cameras might be wi-fi enabled. As far as classroom wi-fi devices phone, laptop, and tablet are the major categories, along with maybe an e-reader (e.g. Kindle).


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