Laptops in the Classroom – Pros, Cons, and Policies

With the beginning of the semester approaching, some of you may be thinking about the age-old question of how to approach the issue of student laptops in class. The answer to that question depends on a lot of factors, of course — your teaching style, the class size and structure, the physical space of the classroom itself, the course’s subject matter, etc.  There’s no right answer, but there are many strategies that faculty have tried and considered when thinking about this question.  Below I’ve come up with some reasons for and against laptop usage in class, as well as some tried and true strategies for laptop policies.

Why You Might Want Laptops in Your Classroom

  • Students can look things up during lectures and discussion, and share what they’ve found with the class
  • Students’ readings and notes are more accessible (and they don’t have to print everything out)
  • Some students take notes more effectively on their laptops
  • Laptops can allow for different and potentially more effective in-class learning activities, especially for small group work and other collaborative exercises
  • Laptops can let allow students to engage differently in the material, which might help them learn better

Why You Might Not Want Laptops in Your Classroom

  • Students can look things up during lectures and discussion, which can sometimes be distracting or lead to authority conflicts
  • The odds are good that some students will probably use Facebook, IM, email, and other non-academic things during class
  • Students who don’t use laptops might find them distracting, and you might also
  • In a discussion section or seminar it can be off-putting to have several students around a seminar table with their laptops open
  • I’ve found that sometimes a lot depends on whether there’s a critical mass of students using their laptops — in which case it detracts from the atmosphere in the classroom, and it feels like there’s a bunch of individuals on their computers sitting in a room rather than a group of invested students in a room.

Some Strategies for Laptop Policies

I’ve heard about and discussed laptop policies with a number of faculty and graduate students, and here are a few things that I’ve heard of people doing:

  • Require all laptop users to sit in the back row of the classroom, or require them to sit in the front row.
  • Ask students to keep their wifi turned off
  • Forbid laptops in discussion sections, but allow it during lecture sections
  • Have specific times during class when laptops are permitted, and others when they’re not (i.e. not during discussion, but allowed for note-taking during lecture)
  • Having one student per class period serve as the note-taker for class, and that student can use their laptop.  Other students as well as the professor can ask this student to look up questions/information on behalf of the class

My most recent strategy for my own courses has been to have a strict no laptop policy in the syllabus, then on the first or second day of class we’ll have a discussion about using laptops in class and I’ll let them use them (without their wifi turned on) as long as they don’t become a distraction.  This has worked relatively well, but it does seem to depend on the group of students in the particular class.  I think that ultimately the best way to approach a laptop policy is a rule I learned early on for teaching in general — being flexible helps a lot, since what works for one person and one group of students might not work for someone else — figuring out what works specifically for you and for your particular classes and groups of students is key.

I’m curious what you all do for laptops in the classroom – if you have any strategies or ideas that have worked well, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.