Blog Post

Laptops in class: menace or scapegoat?

More news of professors banning laptops from class in The Washington Post this week:

The breaking point for me was when I asked a student to comment on an issue, and he said, "Wait a minute, I want to open my computer,"' says David Goldfrank, a Georgetown history professor. 'And I told him, "I don't want to know what's in your computer. I want to know what's in your head."

The number of distractions has certainly proliferated since laptops were originally introduced in schools. (Maine first introduced iBooks to all seventh- and eighth-graders in 2002). But I pointed out on NMDnet that efforts to integrate laptops into the classroom haven't kept pace with this proliferation--a failing I blame as much on outdated teaching models as on Facebook and texting:

"Just last week, a colleague of [Georgetown professor David] Cole's unwittingly demonstrated how thoroughly the Internet has colonized the classroom. When Professor Peter Tague told students a canard about Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stepping down, students promptly spread the news into the blogosphere. Later in class, Tague revealed that the tip was false, part of a lesson on credibility, according to the blog Above the Law."

Was this a lesson about the undue credibility students attach to blogs, or about the undue credibility they attach to professors?

Cathy Davidson summed up the situation nicely in a 2009 article on HASTAC:

The professor now has a choice, according to Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson. He can either ban laptops from his class, or he can reconsider why he is standing at the front of class, reading aloud in the first place.



i am one of those people who ban laptops in class. i have mentioned this months before on HASTAC, but in my class (public speaking) the kids need to engage with themselves and others, not computer screens (and i don't read from a book, b/c i have only ever had one prof who did that and it frustrated the heck out of me). even in the classes i have proposed to teach on ethnic studies, the emphasis is on discussion and not computing. so i wonder if this debate can be - or should be, or needs to be - parsed a bit more to examine the field in which one works or the particular goals the professor has for class? I have found my students spend more time writing down my words than actually thinking about how to create their own arguments. I use technology in the class as much as possible, but I administrate it and on my end, that makes all the difference.


I attend a smaller school, and most people in my classes attend lectures with a good old-fashioned notebook and pen (myself included). A few people prefer to have their laptops, but this never seems to cause a problem. However, my teachers will occasionally have assignments where a computer is required. For example, some of the best learning experiences in my Biochemistry class were case studies. All of the students worked in groups and looked up information about diseases, nutrition, or metabolic enzymes on our laptops to learn about a Biochemistry topic. It allowed us to apply the textbook material to real-word issues, and actively engaged us in acquiring the Biochemistry knowledge. It also allowed us to work in the student center lounge, a more comfortable setting that promoted discussion.