Technology in the Classroom
May 26, 2015 8:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm curious about bans on technology at the college level. I've read previous threads on this topic but they predate the widespread introduction of iPads and tablets. If you're a student or instructor are there particular types of classes that ban electronics or is it more or less random based on the instructor? For "no laptop" classes are tablets allowed?

I've seen the more recent thread on Clay Shirky, but it focuses on whether or not technology should be prohibited. I'm more interested in understanding which types of classes actually ban technology. For example, maybe bans on technology are more common for certain disciplines, or maybe it's the class format, or maybe it's more of a generational issue.
posted by Jeff Howard to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Here's my thing on it
posted by k8t at 9:01 AM on May 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

This is my colleague's take on it.
posted by k8t at 9:04 AM on May 26, 2015

As a non-traditional student I have taken classes where instructors had laptops or tablets allowed: if you wouldn't interfere with others, but phones are more annoying in classes then anything else.
posted by Upon Further Review at 9:07 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a librarian who knows a LOT of professors, it's random based on the instructor. Friends debate on Facebook every couple of semesters or so whether they should try a technology ban or discuss how it's working out for them if they already have one.
posted by MsMolly at 9:07 AM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've never had a class with an electronics ban as long as the students are using it responsibly (as both an undergraduate and graduate student). As a student with a disability, any ban wouldn't apply to me as I have the use of a computer as a part of my accommodations. It doesn't matter if it's a tablet or computer as the exact language uses the word "note-taking assistance based technology" with examples (but not an exhaustive list). I also have a smartpen that records all my lectures.

I agree phones are much more annoying, and most of my syllabi say these should be on silent or vibrate and any calls should be taken by leaving the classroom.

There is a definite difference between undergrad and grad school though. In my grad program, these things are much less of an issue as we all are here because we want to work in this field, "goofing off" is restricted to shopping amazon or checking facebook inbetween taking notes not actually being disruptive or not paying attention.
posted by Aranquis at 9:20 AM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know a professor of psychology. She hasn't banned devices, but I think that is primarily because she doesn't have tenure and student evals are a significant chunk of her tenure review portfolio.
Here's the problem with using a tablet/computer in class (even just for note taking): it isn't as effective for retention as writing (see here) and, invariably, students - and in particular: undergrads, are NOT using them just for note taking.
As a person who also knows many professors: it doesn't seem to be completely random to me, but I've got a self-selected group (social associations, rather than professional). The trend seems to be youngish (late 30's - mid40's) professors who have tenure and are comfortable with technology. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are a couple in Communications (interactive media types), a couple of CompSci folks, a few psych (I/O, Social, and Bio), a Math, and some Library Scientists.
posted by mfu at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2015

My experience is that it really is all down to the professor. I've worked with profs who ban them and more commonly profs who restrict laptops to certain parts of the classroom or authorize TAs to step in and tap students on the shoulder when doing stuff on their screens that isn't note-taking. (FWIW laptops for disability accomodation are pretty much always okay.) I have also worked with profs who really do not care at all.

Generally speaking, laptops are more likely to be banned than tablets because of the orientation of the screen--the emphasis that I have seen is on people who are using laptops to do non-class related stuff like scrolling on Pinterest or Tumblr, which then catches the eye of other students and makes it harder for them to focus. A student messing around on a tablet is probably not quite as visible or distracting for students behind them.

For what it's worth as a student, I basically never brought my laptop to class unless I knew damn well I could good off and let my attention fade in and out from class, usually because the material was something I already knew pretty well or because it was a bullshit psych class. (My much more intensive genetics courses--yeah, never.)
posted by sciatrix at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a math professor, and as far as I've noticed I haven't had trouble with students disrupting class with laptops, etc. I've had a couple students use laptops in class, last semester I had a student who took his notes on a tablet, and occasionally I'll have students who occasionally or regularly snap photos of the whiteboard (I write really fast, and sometimes the diagrams get complicated).

Interestingly, when I'm working at a board with others in research, we definitely record the state of the board via a snapshot on someone's phone.

I have colleagues who definitely do not allow laptops/phones/tablets in their classes, though. It really depends on the instructor.

We don't allow calculators on exams in Calculus or precalculus, though, which annoys lots of students.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:44 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

As others have said, this is decided by each professor. That said, I never encountered a "technology ban" in my 5 years of undergrad or 6 years of grad school, and would have been shocked and annoyed enough to remember it if I had. So I guess it's either rare at my (Canadian) university, or I just lucked out with my profs. Smartphones and tablets weren't really around during my undergrad (2004-2009), but laptops were everywhere. Sounds were strictly forbidden, of course, and people caught watching videos were occasionally snarked at, but otherwise nobody cared.

Typing may not be as effective as longhand for the overall population (at least for 7-15 minute lectures in a closely-supervised test setting), but typing is absolutely more effective for a subset of students in real life. And not all of those students have an official disability status to protect them - I didn't get my ADHD diagnosis until grad school, but it was just as problematic in undergrad. Reading the internet while taking notes let me endure sitting through the boring required classes I would have otherwise skipped - so the relevant comparison for me wasn't typed vs. longhand, it was typed vs. no notes, or even no attendance. If the students aren't hurting anyone, leave them alone...they're adults, and they're paying major $$$ to be there taking notes in whatever way works best for them, or wasting their money instead if that's what they prefer.
posted by randomnity at 11:35 AM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've run my undergraduate classes both ways - laissez faire and technology ban. Philosophically I prefer laissez faire, but practically and pedagogically I prefer the technology ban. Traditional age undergraduates in general just don't have the staying power to resist the distractions that devices offer even if they mean to, and my undergraduate classes are just big enough and just boring enough (at times, I do my best but hell this isn't entertainment) that I can't keep everyone's attention where it needs to be. A laissez faire environment means that 60% of the students have their eyes on their screens the whole time (no, not notes) and the other 40% are half-involved and half-glancing around. Since I actually care about the learning, a technology ban gets it back to 95% involved or at least zoning out in a non-distractable manner, although there is still 5% who fiddle with their cell phones under their desks and have NO idea what that looks like to me. Grades noticeably go up with a technology ban, although yes course evaluations go down. But I have tenure, so I can pay the price to have a better learning environment.
BTW, I don't think it's a lack of maturity, self-discipline or attention span with the undergraduates, and it's not a generational thing (lord knows I would have been a mess if I had a computer in class back then), I think it's more that traditional undergraduates haven't had the boredom training that comes with a 9-5 job. Laissez faire works much better with graduate students because they seem to be much better at knowing how to zone out without actually turning their attention to something else.
posted by dness2 at 1:43 PM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

In my experience it is dependent on the professor. Syllabi can be very specific about the course policy regarding technology and its uses. The main thing is being sure that the rest of the class is not distracted. I had a case where a graduate student was viewing porn in class. It was uncomfortable for all involved and the sheer willfulness of the student was appalling.

In my particular courses I mandate that phones be on vibrate and that calls be taken elsewhere. I am relaxed about the use of laptops BUT I do make note of students not focusing on the course and dock points for participation, in particular, for non-academic surfing.
posted by jadepearl at 2:36 PM on May 26, 2015

My wife recently went back to college as an adult. At 3 different institutions in 2 states, it definitely appears to be a random policy thing, based entirely on the professor teaching that class.
posted by hootenatty at 5:03 PM on May 26, 2015

I started college in 2004. Almost everyone had a laptop. Mine had no wi-fi access, which put me in the minority. There was wi-fi virtually everywhere on campus except the dorms, but that was a relatively new development. I had one professor my last year ban laptops in class on the grounds that you goofing off on Facebook was distracting to the people sitting behind you. The laptop/electronics question was moot in most of my classes--the lecture courses were overwhelmingly in math and very few people can LaTeX at lecture speed. (I knew one person who did it with endless shortcuts in emacs. He still had to go back and re-format afterwards.)

In grad school, a few of us experimented with taking notes on tables. Laptops in class were moot because of math. Officially, university policy gave the instructor the ability to set whatever policy they wanted, but, like leahwrenn, I think people only really ever addressed calculators.

As an instructor, the most annoying thing known to man was people texting under the table as if I can't see them. This was not distracting as a student, but people on Facebook was.
posted by hoyland at 7:12 PM on May 26, 2015

Not sure this fits what you're interested in... I teach college programming classes in computer labs, where everyone is sitting at a school computer. On the first day, I explain the school's academic use only tech policy, and then tell them I'm not the Facebook police, and I don't care if you occasionally look at stuff not related to class.

But every once in a while (like maybe once a semester), the Facebook/inappropriate picture/live stream of the big game viewing gets out of hand, and I turn on nanny software (School Vue) that allows me to control everybody's machine and limit what apps they can open.

I feel like some kind of kindergarten hall monitor when I do this, however.

I do ban personal devices (phones, laptops, tablets) during exams, which are online, and can only be taken from a school computer in my lab. That way, I can turn on School Vue if I suspect someone's googling the answers.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:23 AM on May 27, 2015

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