Do you allow laptops in class?

As we gear up for the start of the semester (we don’t start until next week), I am once again considering whether to allow laptops in class. My recent musings on this were sparked by Anne Curzan’s post in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where she explained why (and how) she asks students not to use laptops in class. This, and the subsequent twitter discussion on this piece, has me wondering what others do.

I initially allowed laptops, but was convinced by talking with students who worked in my lab that it was really distracting to neighboring students, so started banning them in my large lecture course. The Curzan piece links to this study that supported the anecdotal reports of my students. To me, this is probably the most compelling reason to not allow laptops in class.

I know some faculty who allowed students to use laptops, but only if they sat in the back row of the lecture hall so they couldn’t distract other students. (You could also make the argument that they have to sit in the front of the room, to encourage them to stay focused on lecture material.) And I know some professors who allow them, but will close the laptop if they see the student using it for non-lecture-related tasks in class, but that requires a lot of in-class policing. When I got here to Michigan, I co-taught Intro Bio, and allowed laptops, since that is what my coinstructor did. But I’m reconsidering it for this semester. In my smaller course, I encouraged use of laptops so students could collaborate via Google documents. Digital distractions were definitely a downside of that approach. This semester, when I’ll be teaching Intro Bio again (but this time with a different coinstructor), we’re planning on strongly discouraging use of laptops. This is in part a logistic issue — the students will get portions of slides that they have to heavily annotate, which is much better done by hand. But it is also to reduce distractions for students. We don’t intend to make it a full ban, though; instead, students who want to use laptops will have to sit in the balcony area of the lecture hall, where they can’t distract other students.

What do you do? Do you allow laptops? Has your opinion on laptop use changed? And, if you ban laptops (or strongly discourage their use), how have students reacted?

11 thoughts on “Do you allow laptops in class?

  1. Why not? As long as people using laptops are not making noise (as with cell phones) there is hardly any problem. Students feeling distracted by the screens might prefer to sit towards the front.
    Compare this to the case of some scientists that sit at conferences with their laptops, writing papers, programming, answering e-mails and doing other things not exactly related to the theme of the actual talk. If you are bothered by this you might choose not to look at their screens and focus your attention to the speaker.

    • To me, the big “why not” is the distraction to neighboring students. The lecture hall I teach in is completely filled — enrollment is capped due to fire code/lack of physical space in the room. So, if we don’t restrict students using laptops to the back of the room, a lot of students could be distracted by a nearby laptop, simply because they couldn’t find a seat away from a laptop.

  2. I’ve always allowed them without a second thought, basically taking the view that anyone doing Facebook or whatever was merely hurting themselves. But in light of this post I may rethink a bit.

  3. I will change my rules this year. I have earlier thought of it as Jeremy, “if they want to hurt themselves, feel free”, but given the disturbance to others, that is hardly reasonable. Other students complaining over disturbances by phones or laptops are common now in my course evaluations. Also, many of the teachers teaching on my courses are quite disturbed by the lack of contact with students obviously using laptops for activities not related to studying. That many of “us”, myself included, use laptops for other activities when on meetings or conferences actually enforces my decision, as it is pretty clear that no one doing so will be very much in touch with what is being said. Finally, lately I also find it quite rude towards the lecturer or the colleagues in a meeting to openly prefer activities outside the lecture or the meeting agenda. Probably I will even enforce closed computers on eating I head during the coming year. It will be interesting to see how the response is.

  4. As a student I can attest to the claim that other peoples’ laptops distract me during class. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were actually taking notes but more often they’re on Facebook or just browsing other websites. I can understand allowing laptops in a class that might involve collaboration, computing, or some sort of interactive demos, but they certainly aren’t necessary for taking notes. This article suggests that people typing their notes don’t really absorb the material compared to those who handwrite it.

    • Yes! We cite that study in our syllabus when explaining why we strongly discourage use of laptops. (We also cite the study showing it distracts neighboring students.)

  5. This is a tough one. I can see how laptops would be really distracting to others, especially if students are on facebook/browsing the web… but as a painfully slow writer, I found having my laptop in class hugely increased the amount of information I could get down in undergrad, and the quality of my notes. I really do think I would have struggled if it was banned. That being said, I mostly used my laptop in large, lecture based courses where it seemed like constant note taking was the norm. In smaller, or more interactive/discussion based courses I put the laptop away, since it wasn’t necessary to be doing a lot of fast note taking.

  6. In large lecture classes I have always banned the use of laptops except for students that ask for an exemption. As you suggested, I either have them sit at the very front or very back of the room. I have done a lot of teaching observations in which I have sat at the back of the room. With virtually no exceptions, if a teacher allows laptops in class what I see from the back of the classroom is a sea of online shopping, Facebook, and instagram. If you are a particularly charismatic or engaging teacher (particularly if you are using a lot of in-class activities), you can probably prevent this, but I imagine most students in large classes where laptops are allowed are being distracted by students nearby surfing the internet.

  7. I have banned laptops, but recently allowed tablets. That way, they could access articles that they’d annotated on their devices and take notes electronically, but I can still see their faces and the temptation to watch the screen rather than engage with the class discussion is much smaller I try to use active class discussion rather than traditional lecture as much as possible, and having students zoning out online is a huge distraction/downer for me and also for their peers. Plus, it makes it easier to hide from participating.

  8. HI Meghan,
    I’m an allow-at-the-back person, but I’m finding only a small fraction of students use them.. THose that do are often not paying any attention whatsoever to lecture, but I figure that is their choice.

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