The Problem with Classroom Laptop Bans

It’s an experience that I have almost every semester. I walk into the room on the first day of class, wait patiently while the professor finishes presenting the syllabus, and, finally, raise my hand to ask one simple question: “will we be allowed to use our laptops?”

Coming from a high school that assigned students their own MacBook Pros and required us to bring them to school every day, my first few weeks at Gettysburg were a bit of a culture shock. Sure, some professors tolerated my preference for typing out lecture notes on a computer, but many simply told me no.

The methods of learning that I had perfected during high school were so connected with technology that it was strange to rely on a pencil and paper to take notes and work on classroom activities again. My hand cramped, my writing speed became markedly slower, my words smeared together, and I left class with graphite stains on the side of my palm.             

To be clear, my intention isn’t to complain about having to adapt to a new academic culture when I started college. Everyone has to do this at some level when they move to a new institution and, as a junior, I am now very well-adjusted to taking notes by hand. However, my biggest objection is that no one ever gave me a good reason why I (or anyone else for that matter) had to stop using my laptop in the first place.

Image via Writing Full Tilt

The main argument that professors offer for not allowing computers in class is that these devices are just too distracting. We won’t be able to stop ourselves from looking at social media or answering emails during lecture.

Although I understand the concern, this sounds like a comment a teacher would use to chastise a group of middle schoolers, not to address a class of college students who are supposed to be treated like adults. Can’t professors trust us to control our impulses? 

Yes, there are people who would abuse the privilege of having a laptop in class to watch a video or start their holiday shopping. But those people would quickly learn that zoning out during class is a great way to fail the next exam. And I would argue that they are not in the majority. Most of us recognize that we invest a lot of money in each of our classes, so if we don’t pay attention, it’s our loss. 

Image via The Gavel

In contrast, the second reason for laptop bans may seem more logical, but, in reality, it is just as problematic as the first. It goes something like this: “studies show that students learn more effectively when they take notes by hand instead of on a computer.” I’ve heard it repeated, almost verbatim, by virtually every professor I have ever taken a class with and I’ll admit that it is founded on legitimate research

However, just because something tends to slightly improve learning for participants in a few studies doesn’t mean that it will work for every individual in every situation. Good education is all about recognizing and respecting these individual differences. 

Plus, the research condemning virtual note-taking is not as conclusive as many would have you believe. There are opposing studies that suggest that, in certain environments, classroom laptop usage can increase engagement and even improve academic performance. 

For people like me, typing out notes is just as effective and far less of a hassle than writing out each word by hand. Some people write too slowly to keep up with a fast-paced lecture. Others have illegible handwriting. Finally, others simply don’t need to write by hand in order to keep their notes concise and engage in active listening, which are some of the main purported advantages of using a more traditional note-taking style. 

All of these issues aside, the most insidious aspect of laptop bans is that they “out” people with learning disabilities and writing problems. Although this may not apply to me personally, I have seen it single out people who suffer from a number of conditions including dysgraphia and arthritis.  

It works something like this: the professor announces a laptop ban to the entire class, but then immediately follows it with a caveat that they will exempt those with special academic accommodations. When someone with a disability comes to the next class session and pulls out their laptop, they find their desk illuminated by one of the only computer screens in the room. Everyone else notices and knows why. 

Image via The Chronicle of Higher Education

As a result, whether they like it or not, students are forced to publicize that they have a disability in order to take advantage of the accommodations that college policy entitles them to. In effect, students are forced to choose between their learning and their privacy. It’s simply not fair.   

Here’s my suggestion: what if we allowed everyone to learn in the way that comes most naturally to them? Let students who prefer or need to type their notes use their laptops and allow those who do not enjoy typing to take notes any way they like. Make students aware of research concerning the effects of laptop usage on learning, but don’t wield these studies as a weapon to tell students what to do. Trust them to know their own learning style and limitations. 

If the presence of laptops becomes a distraction for those who are not using them, simply designate a special part of the room (maybe the back or one side) as a seating area for people who want to use their computers. This would create an environment of respect where students have the autonomy to engage with the material in whichever way they choose.

It’s not too much to ask. It’s just about inclusion.