Laptops and internet bans

After the (very mild and minor) fuss about me using a laptop at last week’s Making Connections, I said we have a mountain to climb in embedding technological change across the university.  It’s reassuring in some ways to see that our mountain is not, perhaps, quite as huge and daunting as some other people’s.  The University of Chicago Law School has removed Internet access in most classrooms, and some professors even ban laptops.  According to the Dean, Saul Levmore, the problem is that students

may overestimate their ability to multi-task during class and that some students have expressed distraction due to their peers’ use of computers during class time

The latter is a very reasonable concern, and I think it can and should be addressed through policies about acceptable usage of computers during f2f teaching sessions (which is apparently what Stanford have done).  But the former is more contentious. Levmore sums it up by saying the question is “How do you best learn? That’s for the faculty to decide.

Prawfsblog spots a certain amount of paternalism in the announcement, and urges them:

Be honest, and admit that you’re banning wireless access because the plugged-in student is usually a disengaged one and has sucked the fun out of the classroom experience.   Students are more likely to accept a top-down policy change if it’s justified based on faculty morale than student learning.

B2fxx goes a bit further (and links back to me, spurring this post) and says:

Banning laptops in class is a bit like the education sector’s equivalent of the entertainment industry wishing the Web had never happened.

That’s more what I’m thinking. It does seem like a panicky over-reaction to an irreversible technological change, which will harm both the legislators and the punters.

I do buy Levmore’s argument that the question is “How best do you learn?”.  I completely reject the idea that the faculty (or teachers or whatever) know the best answer.  Particularly if they think the answer is traditional lectures, which we’ve known since 1972 (Donald Bligh’s What’s The Use Of Lectures) are no better than other methods for information transmission, and almost entirely useless for getting learners to think.

Almost any teacher can help a student learn more effectively than the student can alone, and a good teacher will help the learner understand and improve their own learning processes.  But the idea that the teacher knows how best their learners learn is … wrong.  How can you possibly know that?  You can have a lot of good ideas about how your learners might learn, and if you teach the same topic over and over again, you can accrete a comprehensive toolbox of ways of helping learners learn those particular subjects and a lot of experience in judging which are likely to help which learners with which aspects.  But that’s a very long way from what Levmore is saying.  And all of that presupposes that what you’re teaching (or should be teaching) hasn’t changed profoundly as a result of new technologies – and there are few if any courses where that’s true.

Stephen Heppell has long lamented that most (British) kids have great access to some of the most extraordinarily powerful learning tools (e.g. mobile phones, word processors), but are banned from using them in (many parts of) the formal school system.  It’s a bit depressing if (parts of) higher education are heading down that same “Teacher knows best” route.  At just the time when teacher is freed from having to know best!


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

2 thoughts on “Laptops and internet bans”

  1. Indeed – as ever, improving provision for people with particular access challenges makes things better for all! (And conversely, restrictions can fall particularly hard on people with particular access issues.)

    Using technology (appropriately) can make students cleverer. This ban is making them less intelligent. I don’t think teachers should be aiming to do that.

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