College Unplugged: The Merits (and Limitations) of Banning Computers in the College Classroom

Let’s face it – computers and devices with internet access present a considerable source of temptation for even the most self-disciplined person. Besides the myriad of games and videos, computers let us work, shop, and share our thoughts. This all seems well and good except when your undivided attention is expected in a given time and place. According to an article on Boston.com, several college professors, alarmed or annoyed by their students’ tendencies to hide behind their computers and not engage in the class, have banned bringing laptops into the classroom.

It is tempting to assume that these professors teach large lectures full of freshmen students, giddy with the freedoms college life brings. Surely upperclassmen, who are well-versed in the rigors of college courses as well as common courtesy, would know better. However, the professors featured in the article taught courses ranging from first-year law classes at Harvard and graduate seminars with a total of eight doctoral students. In other words, this problem does not confine itself to students who are new to academia.

As a teaching assistant, college instructor, and doctoral student, I have seen many students who come to class and immediately pop open their laptop and log into Facebook. I’ve also had students continually check and respond to texts, oblivious to the class discussion going on around them and even to the fact that I was standing right in front of them as they texted. However, even as I support the professors’ decision to not allow their students to bring computers to class, I have a more complicated view on the matter.

Asking students to not have computers or check cell phones in the classrooms definitely has some benefits. As one of the professors reports, banning laptops has helped foster class discussions because “students are making eye contact and listening to each other more.” Without Facebook and other sites to tempt them, students have a greater chance at connecting with their fellow classmates. The other advantage of this is that it allows the professor to focus on the task at hand, namely teaching the course and fostering discussion, rather than having to police students and try to assess whether they are actually typing notes or are checking ESPN.com for the latest scores. Finally, asking students to go without checking their phones or accessing the internet for a few hours seems like a reasonable request that can teach students real-world etiquette. Computers and phones have more of a presence in various careers, but it is also important to know when and where to focus all of your attention to a person or task.

However, even as I recognize these benefits, I also know that computers do have a place in the classroom. Many classes (including the ones I have taught) put readings and presentations online. While students can print these out, some students opt to save their print quota (and trees) by reading the articles and referencing them on their computers. Online and electronic texts are not likely to go away, particularly since many schools are going to electronic textbooks to replace their heavy and expensive print counterparts. Since I would rather have students bring an electronic version of the readings to class than none at all, banning computers isn’t always a viable option.

The other problem with banning computers in the classroom is that computers are a significant learning tool that can enhance the course and the students’ knowledge. Beyond taking notes, students can research concepts and see how abstract ideas work in the real world.

What’s your take on computers in the classroom? Do you take computers to your college classes, and if so, do you find it too easy to check out from class and get lost online? What steps have you taken in and outside of class to keep yourself on task and away from mindless surfing?

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