Tips for Managing Laptops in the Classroom

News flash: Student laptops and phones can be annoying in the college classroom. Old news, right? But still news that instructors have to deal with more and more. We can ban devices, allow them, or figure out something in between — there’s no shortage of advice and policies in managing their use. Over the past few months, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles, blog posts, and other bits on the Web about laptop policies, and I’ve found some excellent advice on figuring out what might work best for you.

It’s All About Attention and Distraction

Students looking very attentive to their work in the pre-laptop era.

Students looking very attentive to their work in the pre-laptop era. Though it’s possible that they’re all just doodling in their notebooks. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Attention” (and its corollary “distraction”) are the major players of the difficulties with managing laptop use. As we all have experienced by now, laptops have the potential to distract the student using the device, the students nearby, and the instructor, eroding that most important piece of being able to learn: Focus.

NYU professor Clay Shirkey suggests that laptops and phones are devices engineered to distract, since their operating systems and social media platforms depend on getting consumers’ attention.  Shirkey, who teaches social media theory and practice, sees himself as unable to compete with these objects and their software’s ability to snag a user’s attention while in the classroom. He says:

I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction.

People, he suggests, are biologically unable to resist the ways that our devices are designed to get our attention. As a result, he sees “student focus as a collaborative process,” and that it’s part of his job to help increase students’ chances of being able to focus on the course materials and what’s going on in the classroom, rather than what’s going on out in the ether of the Internet.

So, what is one to do if we’re up against corporate-designed distractions that we cannot hope to compete with?

Make Your Device Policy a “Teaching Moment”

Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan (and a blogger for The Chronical) gives her students a brief explanation of her device policy on the first day of class. She identifies with the students (because who isn’t tempted to check their phone or laptop if it’s out during a meeting?) and explains the rationale for not allowing laptops, including recent studies about how students tend to not process information as well when typing notes versus handwriting them.

I’ve also heard of faculty/instructors having discussions the first week or two of class about the course’s device policy in order to let students be in on the decisions about using these kinds of technologies in the classroom. I’ve had this approach (having a discussion with students) work well for other kinds of classroom management issues, so I suspect it would also work for device policies.

Another way to turn class device policies into a teaching moment is to assign articles about the relationship between laptop use and student performance as required reading at the beginning of the term. Dan Rockmore, who’s a computer science and math professor at Dartmouth, does this in his courses, and shifts the issue from that of students having laptops out in class or not to the broader objective of having students “think critically about the use of technology in their lives and their education.” Enabling students to understand why they might not want to have their devices out during class helps model the kind of critical thinking that instructors want students to develop during their time as students.

So…What Kind of Device Policy Should I Have?

Of course, the answer to that question is up to you as an instructor. I’ve had success in my own courses with requiring students who still want to use laptops to speak with me privately about why they need to do so. If a student does this, I’ll let them use their laptop, but for all students who use them in class, I tell them that they must have their WiFi turned off. Others who are more tolerant of laptop use might require students who want to use them to sit in the back of the class (in a lecture) or sit all on one side of the classroom, to minimize the “second-hand” distraction of laptops. I think it’s best to be flexible, and of course, be more strict on paper via the syllabus and relax the policy if need be. I did this in a discussion course that had a lot of readings up on Blackboard to save students the cost of printing everything out. That ended up working well, even in a discussion, especially since this meant more students accessed the readings to make their points.

Ultimately, laptop and device policies come down to thinking about how instructors can provide students with the most effective learning environment — and what that environment is depends on the course, the type of school, the students of a particular class or section, and, of course, the instructor’s philosophies about teaching and learning. So, the question is: What’ll help you help the students learn the material best and how can you help them help themselves?

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.