Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
No Laptops: Classroom Bans on Digital Devices are Spreading
The new semester is starting, and a colleague proudly announced on Facebook that he is banning laptops, tablets, and cell phones in his classes because students are using them to go on Facebook. Other colleagues, who seem always to be trumpeting their support for the digital revolution on their own Facebooks, promptly "commented" their own plans to institute classroom bans on these attention-sapping devices.
Yes, digital devices can be misused in class. Although many students take notes with them or use them to fact-check the lecture, others shop online, read the news, look at porn, or worse yet, from the academic perspective, buy their assignments from online term paper mills. Surely they can wait till after class to do that.
Such unwelcome multitasking is why it's common for teachers to ban internet devices from classrooms. In 2008, the University of Chicago Law School shut down its classroom wifi to try to regain students' attention — and if students at Chicago, where fun goes to die, are slacking off, imagine the toxic effect of mixing in-class wifi with smartphones at a real party school. But notebooks can be misused too — my own college notes from the pre-digital '60s consisted of cartoons and doodles, not high-minded thoughts — and no one's proposed banning notebooks.
I've been using educational technology as a way hide my inattention ever since I can remember. First I brought a book from home and hid it behind a bigger textbook, pretending to read the assignment but instead immersing myself in Treasure Island or something equally transgressive. Then there was the weekly radio-hour in fourth grade. FM was going to revolutionize education, but radio offered us a much-needed rest period: the teacher read quietly at her desk and the rest of us daydreamed while a voice droned from a large black box wheeled to the front of the room.
Filmstrips were even better for those of us with rich interior lives or a strong need to nap, because the teacher had to turn out the lights to show them. The only thing that woke us from our reveries while "watching" filmstrips was when the film jammed, overheated, and melted in a spectacular hallucinogenic onscreen display. Lots of oohs and aahs then.
Normally I don't police my students' in-class activity, but a couple of years ago I did ask a student to stop doing paper-and-pencil homework for another class while seated right in front of me, because I found it distracting. "But I'm multitasking," he cheerfully insisted, adding, "I have to do this so I can pay attention to you." The other students chimed in. "We have to multitask to pay attention," they insisted. "It's a generational thing."
So I took out my iPhone and began texting while I continued with the lesson. The students became visibly upset — it was fine for them to divide their attention between me and what was really important, but teachers had to stay on task. It was part of the social contract. "Besides," the student working on his chem assignment quipped, "You're not really multitasking. You're texting too slow." And he was right about that.
I don't text in class any more. But like many teachers I know, I can natter on about the subject matter while carrying on a completely unrelated interior monologue. Pretending to pay attention is one of the most valuable skills I learned as a student.
It's another commonplace to compare schools to prisons. As I once wrote,
Both schools and prisons have populations who would rather be elsewhere; both regulate the mental and physical lives of their inmates in minute detail; and regardless of their mission to provide education and rehabilitation, both have crowd control as their primary day-to-day objective.
Banning laptops in class offers one more parallel between education and the criminal justice system, because digital devices are often banned in courtrooms for a variety of reasons: they have cameras, a common courtroom taboo; they permit jurors or potential jurors to find out about or discuss the case on their own, another court taboo; and judges don't understand how these newfangled gadgets work. Here's an explanation I never would have thought of: announcing a new ban on smartphones, tablets, and laptops in the Cook County Criminal Courts, Chief Judge Timothy Evans said,
We understand this may be an inconvenience to some, but our primary goal is to protect those inside our courthouses and perhaps save lives in the process.
None of my colleagues mentioned the intriguing possibility that banning digital devices could protect our schools and save lives (perhaps it won't be long before the NRA trots out that argument). Yet I find it odd that teachers, whose main job is communication, should want to ban technologies which facilitate communication. Isn't that why we all get upset when we read about internet censorship in China?
But what am I thinking? One Fall, long before the digital age began, the cafeteria in the Student Union at my university banned reading at the lunch tables. Each table had a little card with a stylized graphic of a book inside a barred red circle, and text that advised no reading would be allowed between 11 and 2 so people could eat their lunch untroubled by disruptive readers. When I pointed out that this might seem antithetical to the university's educational mission, the no-reading program was quickly dropped. Now the cafeteria has free wifi, and its management is happy if students sit and laptop all day long, buying the occasional snack or soda.
My colleagues can set whatever rules they want in their classrooms, but since I can't conduct a class without my laptop, I'm going to let my students bring their MacBooks, smartphones, and tablets too. Plus in my experience, it's harder for students to fall asleep over their keyboards than over their notebooks. And staying awake in class, whether at the University of Chicago or at a party school, must be a prerequisite for learning anything at all. And even if you're not learning, you could always send a tweet.