On laptops and cell phones in the classroom

The academic side of my Twitter feed has been abuzz recently over this New York Times article, in which a University of Michigan economics professor explains why she bans laptops and other personal electronics in her classroom.  Laptops, she explains, are a distraction, both to those using them and to the students around them.  She also references an idea that has been around for a while, backed up by some research studies: that people retain more information when they write notes by hand as opposed to typing.

Much of the criticism of this article’s attitude focused on its treatment of students with disabilities.  The author allows laptop use as a disability accommodation, admitting that it singles out students who need such accommodation.  It also assumes that no student without a formal diagnosis would ever benefit from typing notes or Googling an unfamiliar term on the fly.

Me, I take notes by hand, because my brain likes it.  I have a very visual memory, and seeing words laid out on a page is much easier for my mind to deal with.  I kept handwritten research notebooks for my dissertation; I keep a physical day planner; heck, I wrote an outline for this post by hand.  I read the research about handwritten notes being good for learning and it makes sense to me.

But not everyone’s brain works like mine, a fact that is obvious in a multitude of ways.  Some people enjoy talking on the phone, some people like music without words, and some people learn better by typing notes.  So while I think it’s fine to encourage paper-based note-taking, university students should ultimately be allowed to take notes in whatever way works best for them.

The distraction factor is a trickier issue.  The internet is awfully distracting, and large screens spread that distraction around.  And it is kind of rude to be obviously on Facebook when someone’s trying to teach.

That being said, here is a partial list of internet-free things that I have done in university lecture halls: doodled; brainstormed projects; read the textbook; read journal articles; read the newspaper; done crossword puzzles; done Sudoku; done homework for that class; done homework for another class; planned my schedule for the next day/week; wrote notes to the person next to me; and tallied how many times the speaker said “um.”  It is incredibly difficult to maintain full focus through an hour-long lecture, even a good one (which, unfortunately, many are not).  It is especially difficult when you’re taking medication that makes you drowsy, as I was for several years.  I could doodle and read and whatnot, or I could straight-up fall asleep in the second row.

I had finished all my required grad classes by the time I became a parent, but was still attending various seminars and colloquia.  My cell phone came with me then, because I needed to know right away if something happened at daycare.  I am now firmly against “no visible cell phones” policies (exams excluded), because keeping my silent phone in view next to my notebook was less disruptive than tucking it away on vibrate.

In an ideal world, we could just trust university students to be adults, take responsibility for their own learning, and be politely discreet about texting.  I did very well in all my classes.  Occasionally I didn’t pay enough attention at the beginning and had to course-correct as the semester progressed.  However, I wasn’t always terribly discreet about doing stuff in class, and I can assure you from my experience as a TA that other students aren’t either.  We aren’t all as good at self-regulating as we’d like to think.

So I’m sympathetic to professors who just want students to stop playing on their phones already.  It’s not necessarily about ego and respect for them, either: plenty of instructors genuinely want to help their students learn and believe (probably correctly much of the time) that cutting back on internet distractions would help.  Instructors—especially those employed as adjuncts rather than full-time faculty—also face various pressures about grades and class performance.  And it’s frustrating when students seem to be ignoring you.  I get it.  Nevertheless, it’s not appropriate to completely ban devices in the classroom.

What has your experience been with laptops and cell phones, as a student and/or instructor?  Which classroom policies work really well?  Which don’t?