Laptop bans and the assumptions we make

Laptop bans and the assumptions we make

Perhaps as an effort to stir the pot just before Fall semester kicks off, the Chronicle tweeted an article with a familiar theme yesterday:

I am not going to give a full rebuttal to the concept of banning laptops here. This has been done time and time again, wonderfully, by people who know more than I do, like James Lang (at the Chronicle, in fairness to that publication) and Kevin Gannon at his blog. I just want to highlight some rules for how to read articles like this critically, and what we might find in this Chronicle article when this is done.

Before I even do that, I will point out that the Chronicle article, although it was tweeted this week, is actually from April 2015. This is old news, in other words, strategically tweeted to start conversations (I guess). Whenever these ban-the-laptop articles come out --- and they come out with eerie regularity --- I feel a sense of deju vu, but perhaps that's because it's the same 2-3 posts recycled over and over again, like songs on a bad pop radio station.

Anyway: Whenever you read an article like this, whether it's pro-lecture or pro-active learning or anything else, you need to start asking questions, starting with these:

  • What are the students doing in the class?
  • What is the professor doing in the class?
  • Why are they doing those things?

If the article doesn't give clear information on 3 out of those 3 questions --- including the "why" --- it's not telling you the whole story, and you need to be suspicious of what it says. This was the problem, for example, with this study from West Point which went to great lengths to demonstrate that students do better in courses without laptops but never once mentioned the actual instruction in the class. An educational study with literally no mention whatsoever of pedagogy is not worth your time.

And let me be clear, I feel exactly the same about an article purporting to show the awesome advantages of flipped learning, or some other pedagogical practice in which I am deeply invested. In fact, unfortunately I see such muddled articles all the time as a reviewer and uniformly turn them down for publication. We are talking about the education of students here and we cannot afford to be uncritcal fanboys/fangirls about one technique or another.

So what about this article from the Chronicle?

  • What are the students doing in the class? The primary activity of the students during class time appears to be taking notes (at least that's what they are supposed to be doing).
  • What is the professor doing in the class? The primary activity of the professor during class time is lecturing. She says she is an "engaging lecturer" but what does this mean? Does it mean that she is including active engagement as a way to break up her lectures? Does it mean that she has an engaging personality when she speaks? I have no idea and neither do you.
  • Why are they doing those things? We don't have much information on this either. The author herself gives conflicting signals about what she expects from students. On the one hand she references a popular study that purports that students retain more from a lecture when they are not multitasking with laptops. So, retention is the reason for the activities, apparently. But, later, she says that the no-tech note taking rule "would help students engage in the lectures and also pay off later in their careers". So, is the purpose of the note-taking retention or "engagement"? And what exactly do we mean by "engagement", and how do we know when it's happening? Do we know "engagement" is happening when there's better retention? Or vice versa?

I'm confused about the "why" here, but the real problem is the "what". The primary activity of the professor during class is transmitting information and the primary activity of students in the class is taking notes (evidently in hopes of retaining that information). Given what we know now about active learning and its benefits for students --- all students, especially those on the margins of academic life --- this simply isn't good enough. If we're running class this way, we're doing it wrong.

That gets me to the second point I want to mention. The author writes: "Although I am an engaging lecturer, I could not compete with Facebook and YouTube, and I was tired of trying." I totally get this. I think all lecturers, even the 1%-ers who are consistently outstanding lecturers, struggle to win the battle for attention. But, when you reach this point --- which you will, if you teach for any length of time --- you cannot just question the technology. You also need to question your teaching. By simply banning laptops when you get to this point, you're saying: Everything I am doing is OK. It's that darn technology that's messing it up.

So when you reach this point (and you will) where lecture simply can't compete any more, go ahead and think about sensible technology use agreements (like James and Kevin mentioned in their blog posts) but also ask:

  • What is it I want students to learn in my lesson?
  • What evidence can they generate in class that will help me know if they are learning?
  • What activities can they do in class to generate this evidence?

This helps keep lecture in its place, as one tool out of many that can serve the larger good of helping students learn, rather than assuming that lecture is the right tool --- the only tool. When your only tool is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. When lecture is uncritically assumed to be the best or only tool, every problem becomes one of information transfer and retention, rather than learning. Which get us back to the question of "Why are students and the professor doing what they are doing?" The fact that this question is inconclusively addressed in this article, and the fact that there is never a question that lecture is the right pedagogy here, are related and it's not coincidental.

So maybe the answer here isn't to ban laptops but to back away from instructional methods that are obviously going to invite distraction, and instead do class differently with the above quesitons in mind. We can even conceive of such classes where technology is part of the engagement process if we just try a little.

There's another point here about this article that Josh Eyler made:

Josh's tweet is not some lame exercise in virtue signaling. He goes on to point out in followup tweets, a significant portion of students need laptops and other tech as assistive devices during class. As such, Josh notes, laptop bans given down by fiat without consulting with students first could very well be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All of these issues arise from making too many assumptions: That class time is best used in passing along information and retaining it, that lecture is the best way to do even this, that laptops are the problem and not pedagogy, that all students who use laptops are using them for the same reasons. As scholars, rule number 1 is to check our assumptions. That also goes for teaching.

One last point: We're all aware of the study that claims that students remember more when taking notes longhand versus on a laptop. This study forms the nucleus of the article at the Chronicle. But two things on this. First, taking notes on paper and having a laptop present are not mutually exclusive. As I sit here, I am typing into my Macbook but have my trusty Moleskine sitting right next to me. Different tools for different jobs. How many jobs are present in the classroom? Second, "longhand" doesn't mean "on paper". I have plenty of students who take notes longhand on their Surface Pro tablets or on iPads. I don't care for the fussiness of tablet note-taking software but I've done the same myself. Again, these are just more assumptions about tools and problems that we need to think through before just banning things.

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Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.