Interested in this topic? There is still time to register for our March 22 SoTL talk on “Helping Students Learn in an Age of Digital Distraction” by Katie Linder from Oregon State University. Register here.
If you’ve ever faced a room full of students who seem to be paying more attention to their laptops or phones than to you, the question inevitably arises: to ban or not to ban technology? Should you bar students from using their devices? Or should you allow them with no restrictions, hoping you can be engaging enough to override the digital distractions? Or is there some middle ground?
In this post, we’ll consider reasons to ban or not ban devices in the classroom, as well as consider a range of potential classroom policies and ways to manage the use of devices in the classroom. Armed with this information, you can establish an effective policy about devices for your teaching context.
Arguments for Banning Devices
Here are some reasons to ban most devices in your classroom. (Note that even if you ban all devices, you must allow them for students with disabilities.)
- The main reason most faculty ban the use of devices in their classrooms is the distraction factor. Research on student use of laptops in class (both self-report studies and studies that monitored actual internet use by students) have shown that when students access the internet during class, they may be accessing academic information—but they may also be using social media, chatting, reading email, shopping, sharing photos, or watching videos (Ravizza 2017; Seemiller 2017).
- This distraction effect involves not only the students using their laptops; other students may be distracted as well, if a student’s screen is visible (Sana et al. 2014). Indeed, you may have experienced this yourself if you have attended a lecture or listened to a guest speaker when a colleague nearby is working on their laptop.
- This distraction may be detrimental to learning; students who try to multitask using laptops in the classroom may learn less and have lower test scores than those who don’t (Sana et al. 2014; Ravizza 2017).
- There is some research suggesting that even when students use laptops solely for taking notes, they may learn less than if they take notes by hand (Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014). Other research (Morehead 2017) has failed to replicate this finding, however, and has suggested that it may not be so much how the notes are recorded (on a device or on paper), but rather how (and whether) the student reviews the notes after class.
While it’s unclear whether banning laptops to take notes leads to better learning, the findings on the distracting effects of laptops is clear: they affect not only the students who use them, but also other students who can see the laptop screen. So, regardless of your classroom policy on device use, it’s a good idea to ensure that students can avoid the distractions of a peer’s laptop use.
Arguments against Banning Devices
While the distraction factor can be significant, there are also some good reasons to allow device use in the classroom.
- If students with learning disabilities need to use laptops to take notes in your course, and your policy bans all devices, you will instantly “out” those students to others in the class. This is not only a violation of students’ privacy rights, but it also sets a rather unwelcoming tone for students with disabilities in your classroom, and some students may forego use of a needed device in order to avoid stigma.
- If you use student response systems (“clickers”) in class, you can’t ban devices completely, because students need to access their devices to respond to clicker questions.
- Many students are more accustomed to take notes on laptops than by hand. In fact, devices are being introduced into classrooms as early as middle school, and students are being taught to take notes on them (McClurken 2016).
- Students may learn more if they can access digital sources in class. If your class uses e-texts, students may need to access them during class. This is the case not only in disciplines that use technology heavily (e.g., computer science or business); it may apply equally to disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
- Allowing students to access online information in class gives you opportunities to promote students’ information literacy and their ability to critically evaluate online sources.
- Allowing students to use devices in class—but helping them understand when it is (and isn’t) appropriate to do so will teach professional skills students can use after they graduate.
So, the bottom line on banning or not banning devices in the classroom may be “it depends.” It depends on the nature of your discipline, the course you teach, and your answers to questions like these:
- Are there times in your class when it would be beneficial for students to access digital resources?
- Do you want to help your students learn the professional skill of using devices responsibly?
- If your course involves a lot of graphs, diagrams, or other visual information, would you prefer that students draw them by hand? Or would it be better for students to access them online?
- Do you have strategies for addressing the distracting effects of off-task device use in class?
It isn’t possible to completely ban ALL devices in your class, because some students with disabilities require laptops to take notes. And as noted above, if you ban all devices except for students who need them as accommodations, you essentially force those students to “out” themselves to the class, something they may not want to do. So since you have to deal with some laptops in your classroom, how can you manage them to minimize their problems and maximize their learning potential?
- Discuss the issue with your students early in the semester. You might even poll your students to see if they find their peers’ use of laptops distracting. Collectively generate a list of expectations for classroom behavior that specifies when it is—and isn’t—okay to use a device.
- Share with students the research on multitasking—that people can’t do it—and the potential consequences of distraction for their learning and their grades. (Better yet, have students find those studies and related articles from their own fields.)
- If you allow laptop use in the classroom, announce to students that they can notify you if they’re distracted by another student’s laptop use. In that case, you reserve the right to ask the offending student to close their laptop for the rest of the class period.
- Set aside one area of the class where students using laptops must sit. This will help minimize the distracting effects of laptops on other students.
- If your students are using their devices in the classroom for distraction rather than learning, consider how you might engage them more in their learning so that they don’t have time for digital distractions.
- Set aside certain times in every class, or certain class periods, when laptops are banned. For example, you might ban laptops for the first or the last 10 minutes of class while students are doing Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). Or you might ask that laptops be closed for certain activities, such as small group work. You might ban laptops entirely for classes in which students will give presentations to the class or listen to a guest speaker.
- If you’ve decided to ban devices, you might give students permission to use their devices after they’ve finished a task, as a reward.
- In classes that meet for a long class period (e.g., those that meet once a week for several hours), tell students that they’ll have “digital breaks” during the class, when they’re allowed to use their devices.
- Help your students learn how to take notes, whether it’s on a device or on paper.
Whatever policy you choose about devices in your classroom—whether to ban or not to ban—share the research and your concerns (if any) about device use with your students, and encourage them to share their concerns with you. This kind of transparency can help you craft a policy that works for everyone, and can contribute to a positive classroom atmosphere.
Ravizza, S.M., Uitvlugt, M.G., & Fenn, K.M. (2017). Logged in and zoned out: How laptop internet use relates to classroom learning. Psychological Science, 28(2):171-180.
Seemiller, C. (2017). Curbing digital distractions in the classroom. Contemporary Educational Technology, 8(3): 214-231.
Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N.J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62: 24-31. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003.
Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, online. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581.
Morehead, K. Dunlosky, J. & Rawson, K.A. (2019). How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, online. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09468-2.