A Brief History of the Laptop Ban

"Laptop Toss" by The B's

“Laptop Toss” by The B’s

By Sean Kheraj

In recent years, several scholars have expressed a desire to ban laptop computers and smartphones from the classroom. This urge to prohibit the use of computing devices, however, may be a reflection of our own shortcomings as educators. It may also be a future liability for higher education. What are the implications of excluding technologies that have revolutionized information gathering, analysis, and communication from our teaching?

As a historian, I am all too familiar with the sentiments expressed in a recent article on NewYorker.com, “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom,” by mathematics and computer science professor Dan Rockmore. To support his case, Rockmore points to a handful of studies of student performance, comparing students with laptops to students without. For example, he looks at an often-cited 2003 paper in Journal of Computing in Higher Education titled “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments” [PDF], which found that students who multitasked on laptops during a lecture had poor performance on subsequent quizzes. A 2013 study by a team at York University found similar results. According to their conclusions:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

Some university faculty have since relied on these kinds of studies as scientific evidence that proves that computing devices are detrimental to learning. Their solution? Ban computers from the classroom!

In recent years, some academics have publicly bragged about their respective laptop bans, proclaiming victory over a perceived classroom intruder. In 2010, Washington Post profiled David Cole’s Georgetown University law class for its noticeable lack of laptop computers. Cole implemented his laptop ban as early as 2006 arguing that the devices were an “attractive nuisance.” In that same year, Paul Thagard, a professor of philosophy at University of Waterloo, explained his decision to ban laptops from his classes as follows: “According to reports from various students I’ve asked, the vast majority are doing things that are not class related: surfing the Web, sending text messages, checking email, and pursuing other social activities such as Facebook. I’ve even heard of cases of students watching movies or engaging in video chat.” He also cited a list of studies of cognitive science that examined the impact of digital distractions on learning. In October 2013, James Loeffler writing for Time.com proudly admitted “I’ve now gone on to ban laptops in several courses. And the result? Many students are relieved.” Rockmore himself has drawn much attention for banning laptops in computer science courses. He confessed, I banned laptops in the classroom after it became common practice to carry them to school.” Rockmore’s article has even inspired others to copy his laptop ban.

Some academics seem to be prone to hostility toward computing technologies in the classroom. In fact, university educators have been doing this for over a decade now. For example, in 2002, Tim Lougheed warned readers of University Affairs that “The Internet has many merits as an educational tool, but it can be a disruptive presence in the classroom.” In 2006, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story about a law professor at the University of Memphis who banned laptops in her classroom. She said, “The computers interfere with making eye contact. You’ve got this picket fence between you and the students.” [1] In that same year, Dennis Adams from C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston claimed that the internet in the classroom, while a wonderful thing, “can also be a barrier to learning.” In 2007, a professor of strategic communication at University of Missouri exclaimed that her laptop ban was a great benefit to students who “have even mentioned that they feel like they are doing better without the laptop.” And in 2008, the law school at University of Chicago tried to shutdown wireless internet access in its classrooms in a bid to win back student attention.

"The times they are a changing" by Brett Jordan

“The times they are a changing” by Brett Jordan

This attitude toward laptops and the internet in the classroom was not always the case on university campuses. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when universities struggled to achieve “ubiquitous computing” on campus and implemented mandatory laptop computing programs for their students and faculty. For example, in 1995 Wake Forest University started a mandatory laptop program for students and professors. After initial faculty and student reluctance, according to one report, “the prevailing mood here is that the program is worthwhile. Professors are trying out new teaching methods; students do more work outside class, mostly by participating in on-line discussions; computer costs can now be figured into financial-aid calculations; and everyone in the program has equal access to computers.” [2] In Canada, Acadia University was a pioneer in the integration of computing and the internet in the classroom. In 1996, the university introduced a voluntary laptop program for first-year students called Acadia Advantage. According to a 1998 report on the program in Globe and Mail, “Lectures are spiced up with the use of CD ROMs, internet scoping and Power Point lectures that enable students to focus on the discussion and download the classnotes later.” Although attitudes toward these programs were not universally positive, there was a deliberate effort on the part of faculty and administrators to encourage both the integration of new technologies and experimentation in teaching methods. [3]

The optimism for computing and the internet in the classroom from the 1990s waned by the turn of the century. In 2001, Duke University rejected a policy of requiring students to use laptop computers in the classroom, primarily due to issues of costs and classroom distraction. In response to this decision, Julianna Gilbert (Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at University of Denver) and Ken Stafford (Vice Chancellor for University Technology Services at University of Denver) wrote the following to The Chronicle of Higher Education:

We have learned that for the university to move forward effectively into the arena of technology-assisted learning, faculty members must be involved from the ground up in exploring the uses of computers in the curriculum, and sufficient support for them to engage in this activity is a necessity.

If classroom time is primarily characterized by lectures, then laptops are probably a distraction, and if students bring them to class for note taking, it is quite likely that some will use them for activities unrelated to the class (e.g., surfing the Web, using e-mail, etc.). [4]

As campuses introduced wireless networks and laptops became low-cost, mass consumer commodities, universities across Canada and the United States eventually achieved ubiquitous computing without deliberate programs or initiatives. The advent of smartphones (essentially multi-sensory, geospatial networked pocket computers many times more powerful than the laptops that Acadia and Wake Forest distributed in the 1990s) has only further transformed university campuses. The primary difference between the initiatives of the 1990s and the present seems to be a lack of coordinated programs and resources to assist in the integration of these technologies into our teaching.

Not all scholars have jumped on the “ban”-wagon. In 2007, Terence Day wrote a thoughtful piece on different approaches to integrating computing technologies in the classroom. Berlin Fang, writing in Educase Review Online in 2009 argued that the issue of technological distractions in the classroom“gives educators a reason to reflect on their own teaching or, rather, the instructional process as a whole. Viewed this way, distractions caused by computers might be the result of a failure to involve students in the classroom rather than the reason they are not engaged.” Similarly, J. Ellis Bell, a professor of Chemistry at the University of Richmond wrote about this issue in 2010, suggesting that student laptop distractions might be the result of boring lectures and poor teaching approaches. “Rather than talking about banning laptops from class,” he argued, “we should be talking about how to constructively use them to engage students in classroom activities and active learning.” And Robert Talbert recently challenged some of Rockmore’s arguments and suggested that “The real problem is not laptops per se but the unstable mixture of a certain kind of technology with a certain kind of pedagogy – namely, lecture.”

One of the stumbling blocks to getting faculty to rethink the use of computing technology in the classroom has been the persistence of the “myth of the digital native.” Too many faculty assume that students are somehow naturally adept at the use of computing technologies and the internet by right of birth within the past twenty years or so. As such, they fail to recognize a need to integrate computing skills into their teaching. Eszter Hargittai’s research at Northwestern University over the past few years has shown this assumption to be false. Instead, it finds that “even when controlled for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.” Such findings suggest that students do not enter the classroom with innate and uniform computing abilities. Rather than relying on the tired stereotype of “digital natives” faculty should be thinking about ways to integrate computing technologies and the internet into scholarship and learning as way to provide students with a broader range of the computing skills.

Strict prohibition and regulatory compulsion has never struck me as good pedagogy. For more than a decade, reactionary prohibition of computing devices in the classroom has failed to restore the traditional lecture in much the same way as severe litigation against music piracy failed to save the recording industry. We cannot compel our students to learn by tossing their smartphones and laptops out the window. We should not seek to create artificial havens from information technologies and pretend that computing and the internet have not changed learning and education. University administrators should provide the programming and resources to encourage and support adaptation and experimentation with computing technologies in the classroom, as some did in the 1990s. We might be missing opportunities to improve student learning and make university education more responsive and relevant to our students. Banning laptops may seem like the simple answer, but it does not absolve educators and administrators from the difficult challenge of changing our teaching approach in the context of a changing world.

The internet has revolutionized information gathering, analysis, and communication, the very skills at the heart of scholarship. Yet, too many scholars view this technology as an impediment to education rather than an integral component of teaching and learning. I am regularly astonished by academics who express hesitance, hostility, and ignorance when it comes to computers and the internet. We should expect (and encourage) scholars to demonstrate intellectual curiosity about new computing technologies and their implications for human knowledge and understanding. When we see students use such powerful technologies as nothing more than tools of distraction and frivolity, we should strive to teach them how to harness those technologies in better ways.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor of Canadian and environmental history at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

[1] Brock Read, “A Law Professor Bans Laptops from the Classroom” The Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 31 (April 2006): A43.

[2] Jeffrey R. Young, “Invasion of the Laptops: More Colleges Adopt Mandatory Computing Programs” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44, no. 15 (December 1997): A33-A35.

[3] Meg Murphy, “Living the Acadian Experiment” Globe and Mail, 22 June 1998, p. C3.

[4] “Letters to the Editor: The Educational Benefits of Laptops” The Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 24 (February 2002): B22.

15 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Laptop Ban

  1. Fascinating.
    Two comments: one, computer technology (particularly smartphones and wifi) has changed enormously since 1995 — and its use has been geared to social needs rather than learning. We may need to rethink learning as social endeavour, (rather than a group of individuals) to properly capture that energy and potential.
    Two: I would like to hear more success stories of integrating digital with learning practices! Sean, what works for you?

  2. Merle:

    Thanks for posting your feedback here.

    First, I agree with your statement about rethinking learning as a social endeavour. I think there are a lot of lessons from online social networking and community development that we can apply to the integration of web technologies in the classroom. For example, I try to set up my course websites (we use Moodle at York) as hubs where students can interact with one another outside of class time. This is especially valuable in large courses where students may only have direct interaction with classmates in their smaller tutorials. The course website allows students to potentially interact with everyone in the class. This kind of use of web technologies in teaching is not new. What I try to do is to foster online discussion like a community manager would on a website. One of the problems with course websites is that they often feel like empty, dead spaces online. It’s up to the instructors, I think, to be in there and to respond to student comments and questions in a timely fashion. This is something I learned with I taught an online environmental history course years ago. I think we sometimes assume that students will develop their own online communities through a course website organically. While this happens sometimes, anyone who has used an online forum knows that the best communities on the internet are served by thoughtful community managers and moderators.

    Second, I also agree that smartphones and wireless networking (WiFi and mobile data) have changed the equation for computing in the classroom. I definitely noticed this in the articles that I pulled up for this post. Around 1999/2000, faculty began to write about wireless networking as the next frontier for classroom computing. There were a lot of optimistic articles about how university campuses would be able to have computer labs outside. Very soon, however, the tone of the writing shifted toward calls for laptop and internet bans in the classroom. Your point still stands. Wireless networking combined with portable computing present a whole different set of challenges for university educators.

    Banning wireless networks, however, is a losing gambit. Turning off WiFi in the classroom will become a completely obsolete tactic (if it hasn’t already) as more students gain access to high-speed mobile networks. Up until recently, the WiFi network at York was slower than an HSPA+ mobile data connection and certainly slower than an LTE network. I often preferred to use my mobile data over the campus WiFi prior to its recent upgrade.

  3. I TAed a course that required students to bring their laptops to tutorials, which I found had the unintended consequence of “outing” those students who don’t have their own computers or, at least, their own laptops. Rather than integrating computers into the class, it served to mark out those from less privileged backgrounds who may be struggling to meet tuition, rent, and other expenses, creating unintentional awkwardness in tutorial sessions.

    To get around this, I searched out the closest computer labs and ensured there was at least public access to them during class time so those students wouldn’t be left out–though they definitely lost the experience of working together with their peer groups (small group activities, sometimes with online components, was central to the tutorials).

    While this may be less prevalent in today’s classroom than it was when I started my university career in the early 2000s, it’s important to remember Tom Peace’s point from about a year ago about the barriers to access that a reliance on the digital can unintentionally create: http://activehistory.ca/2013/07/digital-history-isnt-for-everyone/ In my case, in 2013 and 2014 I had a handful of students without access to a machine they could bring to class.

    I wouldn’t ban laptops (though I have let students know that browsing social media won’t help their participation grade), but I also think it’s important to be aware of what going all the way in the opposite direction by mandating them could and does mean for some students.

  4. Is scale a factor? Getting 400 people to do anything – with or without laptops – is a near impossibility. Integrating instruction (and hopefully discussion) about digital tools into a course with 15 or 25 students seems much more plausible.

  5. Pete:

    I’ve had similar conversations with others about the affordability issue when it comes to the integration of computing into the classroom. This was a primary concern of faculty and students in the 1990s when some universities started to introduce laptop programs. While I agree that the use of computers in the classroom has the potential of raising issues of equitable access to education (tuition, of course, is the far greater issue), I think the precipitous drop in the cost of mobile computing can help overcome this challenge.

    I think our concerns about the affordability of mobile computing might be based on false assumptions about computing costs. I came to this realization when I bought a laptop that cost less than my introductory biology textbook from years ago. While laptop computers may have been premium luxury consumer goods in the early 2000s, the rapid drop in prices has brought computing within reach of a broader range of students. This is all the more important given that “analog” options for completing coursework in a humanities education simply no longer exist. Research and writing in history courses went digital long ago. Analysis of research findings increasingly depend on digital tools (GIS, text mining, etc…). With cheaper mobile computing, we now have the opportunity to teach digital research, analysis, and writing skills in our classrooms instead of assuming that our students will pick up these skills somewhere else.

    I think your solution of using campus computer labs is terrific. You could also design computing activities that can be done at home (for students who use desktop or family laptops in the home). I end up designing activities where students can share available laptops or tablets. And in the past couple of years, I’ve tried to develop exercises that can be done on a smartphone or any other web-connected device. Most of the uses of computers in humanities education do not require high-capacity computing.

    I think a good teaching computer lab is far more preferable to a classroom with a random set of laptops. My dream seminar room has a teaching computer lab on one side and a conference table for discussion and group work on the other. I’d love to see a physical teaching space that facilitates both the use of computing technologies and student-student/student-teacher interaction. Ah… to dream.

  6. Claire:

    Scale is absolutely a factor. Just as we tend not to try to facilitate discussion tutorials of 400 students, we wouldn’t design activities that integrate computing that are not appropriate to the class size.

    I see possibilities for the integration of computing and the internet in both large and small classes. I have found tool-based workshops work best with smaller classes (tutorials and upper-level seminars) and broad online communication activities work well in large classes (online forum discussions, Twitter sharing).

    When we do get around to writing up a few posts on activities that integrate computing and the internet into teaching, we should definitely keep scale in mind.

  7. The use of computers in teaching and the use of laptops in the classroom seem to me as two different, although related, issues. Yes, we should strive to incorporate new technologies into the way we teach and to train students to use those technologies. But the main criticisms of laptops in the classroom is that laptop use tempts students with easy distraction, that transcription is a less effective form of learning than note-taking, and that students distracting themselves often inadvertently distract others. Banning laptops might seem to be micromanaging student learning, to force them to be engaged, but many professors still become irritated if students come in late, leave early, or sleep in class.

    That said I’m curious to hear about what possibilities people see for in-classroom computing in history courses (although I have to agree- based on conversations with students in my classes and tutorials – that even at current pricing there remain very real barriers to access).

  8. Peters:

    There was some discussion on Twitter today about writing some posts with examples of activities that incorporate computing into history teaching. I’ll be writing one of the posts and there were others interested in submitting their own suggestions.

    Stay tuned!

  9. ***UPDATE***

    Yesterday I received a lot of feedback on this article outside of this comment thread and I just wanted to acknowledge and respond to that feedback here.

    One reader pointed out a very important flaw in my article (among many, of course) that I wanted to address. I should have added a caveat that the prohibition or regulation of computers and the internet in the classroom does not necessarily imply that the instructor is ignoring the integration of technology into her/his teaching. There are certainly many faculty who prohibit laptops while also using digital technologies in their teaching. While I do not agree with the policy of laptop bans, I should have acknowledged the great variety of types and purposes of laptop regulations in the classroom. And I certainly did not intend to imply that all faculty who set restrictions on the use of computers in the classroom lacked innovation and creativity in their teaching. This is obviously not true.

    While these instructors may be the exception, I still believe many university instructors have an impulse to restrict computer use in the classroom in order to preserve older teaching methods and avoid addressing the impact of computing and the internet on higher education. This was the issue I was trying to address with this article.

    Finally, Adam Chapnick posted some thoughtful remarks about this article on my website where I also have it posted. You can read that discussion here:

    http://www.seankheraj.com/?p=1689#comments

  10. Echoing Adam Chapnick’s comment on Sean’s website, I think it is really important to not force learning disabled students to publicly identify themselves as the only students allowed to use a laptop in a classroom. At this point in my life I’m happy for people to know I’m dyslexic, but at 19 I was happy to have some privacy.

  11. Hey Sean – Nice, thoughtful post. I’m glad you added the later update about faculty who might like to ban laptops/smartphones from some parts of the classroom but otherwise use digital technologies in the teaching. This certainly is how I feel. I’m not hostile to technology and like to use it in my teaching. But, as with everything, there is a time and a place. When the job is to listen and take notes, then technology is a distraction. When the job is to talk, technology is a distraction.

    I organized Trent’ big first year class recently, and regularly sat at the back of the lecture hall as my colleagues lectured. At every lecture, the students at the front on laptops were taking notes and this became progressively less so the further back in the lecture hall you went, to the point where at the back, almost no one was taking notes. Plenty of Facebook, scanning iPhoto, video games, etc.

    Now, these were lectures pure and simple – some were exceptional and done by great award winning teachers. They didn’t incorporate interactive activities into the lectures. So there was no chance to test out what might happen in that context. But, as it was, the laptops were clearly a distraction for many.

    Perhaps the same students at the back wouldn’t have been paying attention even without laptops. Perhaps they’d have been dozing or daydreaming. That’s possible. This is where some nice standardized, evidence-based, control group research would come in handy.

    But your main point, which is I think about the need for faculty to themselves take the initiative and get to work rethinking their teaching methods to figure out how to rework technology into their own teaching, is a good one. I’ll look forward to future posts on what people have done.

  12. Chris:

    I assume much the same happens in the back rows of my own classroom. I also assume, as you note, that students who aren’t interested in my lectures would find other ways to get distracted without laptops.

    I will be putting together a future post on techniques and strategies that take advantage of Internet-connected laptops in the classroom. It will be posted here or on the NiCHE website or on my website. I’ll post the link to Twitter (but don’t check it during lecture!).

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