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.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 15th 2013, 12:58 AM
Comment by: Steve C. (Glenmont, NY)
Good luck with the implementation. I fully agree with the idea put forward by Prof Baron. How to implement?
Tuesday January 15th 2013, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
No rating stars availible, so here's high fives all around. "where fun goes to die"; rol!
Tuesday January 15th 2013, 2:18 PM
Comment by: Chris (Orange County, CA)
The bans are as it should be. In the business world, I am challenged to keep my composure.... I literally can fly across country, or even to the Asia and as I train a classroom of individuals, they all have their laptops open, or looking down @ their smartphones and not giving me the respect of their attention.... it's maddening and disrespectful.
Tuesday January 15th 2013, 3:49 PM
Comment by: LEE (VA)
Thank you! I am so disgusted with our education system dumbing down the people who will be educating future populations, all for the purpose of advancing electronics. Now the topic is to eliminate cursive writing from the curriculum in schools. How will the future generation be able to identify one signature X from another's X in authenticating a signature? After awhile, won't all signatures look the same. It seems that the future generations will not have to honor contracts because they'll be able to claim that isn't their X as their X is written like this... X.
What happens to our future as individuals. Identification is being transformed to digits. I get text messages from friends, and I have to send a message back, fully spelling out all words, of course, asking them... What did you say... Don't understand, is that misspelled, or abbreviated shortcuts, already abbreviated. Our life is becoming abbreviated links to nowhere. Why handout diplomas at graduation, when they can easily print a shortcut of a diploma the size of a business card. The dumbing down of education is dumb!
Wednesday January 16th 2013, 1:34 PM
Comment by: Michael M.
Classroom dynamics continue changing, probably much faster than many educators are comfortable with. Details aside (the only time I use cursive writing is for my signature- and that is questionable), electronic devices are shifting cultural norms and threatening some deep seated beliefs. My classroom is focused on learning. What that looks like will change. What won't change is that we have learning targets and proficiency levels to reach. My students can often research topic questions faster on their smart phones than I can with my old classroom computer. Why lose an opportunity to learn? Behaviors perceived as disrespectful must be addressed as at any point in time, not just now. I will use this article for my final this semester in ESL. Just imagine the language we can generate!
Wednesday January 16th 2013, 6:17 PM
Comment by: Dan D.
Banning digital devices is absolutely not the answer. As opposed to stunting the growth of technology's evolution you need to have more control of your students. A simple tweak by the support team of the university can stop students from visiting URLs that are on a restricted list. I have been a technology consultant for 40 years now. Be careful about banning tools that are designed for education. Education is on the radar screen and it is Advancing Really Fast. In the past I have seen whole industries loose of thousands of employees just because they don't adapt to the technology that's optimizing their workflow. The technology is here to stay. It is not going anywhere but up. This may sound cold hearted but the reality is a very large percentage of today's educators either need to be re-tooled or they will be replaced. I consult the entertainment industry and there is a saying to the dinosaurs "Get Ready to Adapt or Die" I know of a lot of unemployed professionals just because they refused to embrace the writing on the wall. It is impossible to stop a freight train when it has such momentum, it is better to just get on board.

Example of technology moving forward.. I just bought a house with 90% of my signatures being digitally recorded. No cursive, no leaving my office, . Anyone can copy a had written signature. Try hacking a digital signature system. Sorry if this was harsh but so was the attack on technology. Wake up boys and girls, smell the coffee, then check your email. I will not send my children to a school that has banned digital devices.
Thursday January 17th 2013, 2:36 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
As long as mind control is to be found only in science fiction stories, we'll never be able to ban inattention, which is what the banners of laptops, etc, from the classroom are aiming to do.

If a teacher wasn't actively holding my attention, I was quite capable of daydreaming the lesson away - especialy if the classroom had windows. One teacher (this was back in the 50s) had his own method of holding our attention which would cost a teacher their job now: he roamed round the room as we were (supposed to be) intent on reading some classic work of literature and randomly pricked us with a pin. Another teacher's preferred method to break a wandering student's illicit train of thought was to throw a piece of chalk at him - escalating to the blackboard duster, a hefty wooden and felt item which the student certainly felt if his disruptive behaviour warranted such a desperate measure.

Sometimes it was the teacher's attention that wandered - in one teacher's case so badly that we used to hold a poker school in the back row - using poker dice, not cards. If he did notice, he never let on.

The real problem is not any given individual's inattention - students are, after all, as Prof Baron reminds us, in school whether they want to be or not - it is whether one individual's decision to mentally quit the lesson disturbs the attention of others in the class who would like to benefit from the teacher's wisdom.
Thursday January 24th 2013, 1:51 AM
Comment by: Virginia S. (LUZERN Switzerland)
Very interesting perspective and since I also use computers, etc. at work, I cannot ask my students not to. However, their attention span is limited and quite frankly, it disturbs me, if not the rest of the students. If teaching is communicating, then, I want my chance, as well. Talking to a group of bent-on-the-screen heads is not my idea of communicating. It feels quite lonely sometimes.

May I suggest the ban of certain websites from the central system? It may give students the chance to consider participating in class rather than check their Facebook status constantly.
Thursday January 24th 2013, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Virginia wants her chance to contribute to the conversation, which is only right - not only because she is the teacher but because of the way we traditionally expect a conversation to be conducted.

But traditional ways of behaving in a conversation are changing. I would bet that when a group of students are hanging out and talking, some of them are checking their social network sites - indeed, maybe all of them at certain points!

Just as people of previous generations learned to do homework while watching television, and more recent generations do *everything* with wires dangling from their ears, today's youngsters expect never to be separated from their online cosmos, even when some of those friends are there in the flesh with them, or their teacher is in full flow. It may not be disrespectful in their eyes, but just the way youngsters live and breathe in their world now.

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