Why my students won’t be using laptops in class anymore

A few months ago, I posted about my first semester inviting each of my classes to join me in crafting a policy on the use of portable electronic devices. Well, all that’s about to change.

This past fall, I took time during the first day of class to present the downsides and upsides of using electronic devices for course purposes. While I mentioned that we may remember things better when we write with pen and paper, I focused our discussion of downsides on the issue of learning in community. Research shows that when we use electronic devices for non-course purposes, we don’t just distract ourselves, but we also distract our neighbors. And we distract others whether they know it or not. That is, learning outcomes are poorer even among neighbors who don’t think that they were distracted. Our discussion of upsides to taking notes on a computer (in Word, in Evernote) focused on the ability to search through everything in the weeks, months, and years afterward.

After presenting these drawbacks and advantages, I let them choose between two options:

  1. Forbid the use of portable electronic devices in class.
  2. Allow the use of portable electronic devices for course purposes only, with the provision that any violation of that policy would result in banning the devices altogether.

Half of my fall students chose #1. Half chose #2. Those that chose #1 seemed to thrive. Of the classes that chose #2, I never got the impression that anyone violated our honor code limiting the authorized use of electronic devices to course purposes.

All of my fall classes were small, and this may have been one reason that compliance was so high (at least it seemed high); the same could not be said of my spring courses. Yes, some of my spring courses were small, and the policy seemed to work well again in those classes. But one of them started out with more than 50 students and dwindled to just under 50 after the first exam, and those students voted to allow portable electronic devices in the classroom. (Yes, at Wheaton that is pretty big. I know I’m lucky.) As the term wore on, two or three students in that class seemed to be distracted by whatever was happening on their laptops, though it was more difficult for me to have any confidence about that due to the large number of students and the layout of the class. Eventually, though, I issued a warning: “Unless you all want to be the ones walking around here warning all of your classmates that Dr. Toly is serious about this policy, I suggest that those of you using laptops right now be sure that you’re only taking notes.” That seemed to get the attention of at least one student, who closed and put away his laptop and didn’t get it out for the rest of the semester. While that seemed like a small victory, I was a bit uneasy about the policy as we finished the course.

Then my course evaluations came in. More than one student noted that two or three students had been using their laptops for non-course purposes. One student put it bluntly: “Dr. Toly, the honor system of technology usage isn’t as effective as you’d hoped! The [students] who emailed with questions about things we had addressed extensively in class were probably also the ones who watched wrestling, football, and played 2048 on their laptops during class.” (Pause a moment with me… Wrestling?!?! What?!?!) So for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been rethinking this approach and wondering how to handle it next year.

Today I decided that I won’t allow the use of any portable electronic devices in the classroom. Why is that? Because, as Ruth Graham points out in an article in today’s Boston Globe, using electronic devices can compromise retention and learning by turning students into mere transcriptionists. As it turns out, a certain level of difficulty and resistance is desirable. Stenography, taking verbatim or nearly verbatim notes, is too easy. But taking notes by hand adds meaningful challenge to “encoding” what students are learning:

Taking notes by hand, by contrast, forces students to grapple with the material enough to summarize it, since they aren’t physically capable of writing down every word. The constraints enforced by the rudimentary technology of pen and paper force a deeper engagement with the material,

According to recent research, retention and learning is improved when students must meet the challenge of grappling with and summarizing material on paper. Even students who take a larger volume of notes on a computer and can search them later may be at a disadvantage when compared to students using pen and paper.

So using electronic devices to take notes tempts students to undermine the learning community by pursuing non-course related interests in class, and this is true even when others don’t think they’ve been distracted. Now it’s clear that laptops don’t necessarily advantage the students who do use them for course purposes.

So until further notice, portable electronic devices will not be allowed in my classes. Perhaps the advantages of the laptop and pen and paper can be merged (maybe by using a tablet and stylus, as Graham points out, or maybe through something like Moleskine’s Evernote Notebooks, if your printing is sufficiently clear to be OCR’d), but for now my students will have to content themselves with some old-school notes.

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