Deprogramming Students and Teachers

Co-authored with Evan Selinger.

For years, debates have raged about whether to ban or invite various technologies into our schools. Most prominent and still ongoing is the debate about whether teachers should ban laptops from the classroom. There can be little doubt that a classroom with laptops is very different from one without them. But which is better? Who decides? Is this ultimately a battle over teacher control and student freedom? Or are there more subtle issues to be considered?

Here’s an all-too-familiar script:

Teacher: I’m restricting your use of digital devices in the classroom. So, please turn off your smartphones and put away your laptops.

Student, one among many whose hands shot up: My handwriting is awful. And I’m terribly slow when writing things down. I strongly prefer taking notes on my laptop.

Teacher: Yes, I understand. But there are a few problems with laptops in the classroom. First, they’re distracting. There’s social media, games, videos, and …

Student: But we promise not to use those apps. We’ll stick to taking notes.

Teacher: Fair enough, and I trust that you would do your best to keep that promise. But even with the best intentions, it’s not as easy as it might seem. Many of the products on the commercial internet are designed to addict, to capture your attention and produce the insatiable cravings that we’re all familiar with …

Student: Why don’t you just penalize people who break the rules? Don’t take away our preferred means for taking notes. That’s throwing the baby out with bathwater. And, besides, there are always tempting distractions. We could doodle, pass notes, or just stare out the window and daydream. Of course, your class is so interesting that we’d never …

Teacher, with a smile: Well, OK. I take your points. But distracted behavior can spread like second-hand smoke. That’s why I don’t just prohibit networked devices. I also ask students to show up on time to class and frown upon sidebar conversations. There’s more to the story, too. Studies suggest doodling can enhance concentration and that note taking on laptops inclines people to transcribe things verbatim, which is a rather mindless way to take notes. If you ask a court stenographer what happened at a trial, she can read it back, but she can’t really explain anything.  

People who hear this conversation easily sympathize with the student. They believe it’s the teacher’s job to keep students engaged. If students tune out, the teacher is to blame, not the technology or the students. They also say that laptops don’t mandate verbatim note taking; it’s not inevitable or necessary. Hence, teachers should instruct students on how to use laptops appropriately or allow students to choose whatever note-taking methods work best for them, given the skills they have. Finally, they note empirical studies of laptops vs. handwriting are contestable or inconclusive.  

We, however, sympathize with the teacher’s perspective. The classroom environment is itself a critical tool that teachers use to shape the learning experience. A teacher who decides to ban laptops is doing her job by architecting the classroom to engage students. Insisting on handwritten notes slows down the note taking process and provides students with an opportunity to stop and think about what’s worth writing down. Teachers who deliberately engineer this type of friction are choosing to emphasize a particular style of engaged learning. In our view, this is a completely defensible form of paternalism and a better choice than the consumerist model that casts the teacher as an entertainer or mere commercial service provider. Teaching is much more than a performance, and learning is much more than passive consumption or entertainment. Engagement in the classroom is a social endeavor with mutually reinforcing responsibilities among teachers and students.

While laptops don’t force verbatim note taking, they enable the practice. Pen and paper, on the other hand, disable it. Endorsing the latter is an expedient way for teachers to focus their and their students’ attention on appropriate subject matter. Teachers often dedicate time at the beginning of a course to teaching and learning methods, and if teachers allow students to use laptops in the classroom, they probably should spend some time on appropriate note taking strategies. But it’s unfair and counterproductive to expect most teachers to take on this responsibility.

Finally, the turn to empirical studies about note taking isn’t as persuasive as it might appear. The teacher in our dialogue cites empirical studies but also makes several value laden judgements about what’s right for her classroom. There is so much variety in educational settings, teaching objectives, and student skills that it’s hard to effectively generalize about cause and effect relationships, evaluate outcomes, and offer broad prescriptions about what teachers ought to do. Further, there are many different values at stake in learning environments that are not necessarily amenable to empirical testing.

While it may seem unpalatable to many, a respectful paternalism in the educational setting allows teachers to structure the classroom environment to enable meaningful engagement and learning.  Respect for students and the educational institution requires mutuality and not just dictatorial commands. The script we opened with is all-too-familiar because it reflects a classroom conversation we’ve had multiple times over the past few years. One of us has experimented with a laptop ban that lasts for the first third of the semester and is followed by a classroom discussion about the experience and whether to continue the ban.1 At a minimum, students learn to appreciate the different affordances of analog and digital tools and the possible advantages of slowing things down so one can stop and think about what actually matters. As we explore in Re-Engineering Humanity, this turns out to be a valuable life lesson, one that extends well beyond the classroom.

1. Use of any type of electronic device (e.g., cell phone, tablet, laptop) is prohibited during class except for accommodations based on disability.

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