I am teaching my first class as a seminary professor this October. I’m sure I’ve already made one unpopular decision.
I am not allowing laptops (or tablets or phones for that matter).
I know there is a case to be made for allowing computers into the classroom. Students can type faster than they can write by hand. Digital notes can be accessed across multiple devices. It’s easier to edit notes electronically. Our hands will cramp up. We won’t be able to read our own writing. The lead on the pencil will break. I’m sure there are more sophisticated reasons too. I don’t judge the thousands of teachers who allow, or even encourage, computer use in the classroom. I know my position is a minority one.
But here’s my thinking:
1. I wasn’t a student all that long ago, and I know what I did on my laptop. No, nothing sinister. I was a good student who worked hard and paid attention. But I also took my computer to multitask. And this was before easy access to the internet. All I had were a few games and my other assignments to keep me busy, but I still found ways to be distracted. How can an hour of lecture possibly compete with catching up on email, texting with a friend, and getting the latest “breaking news” from Twitter and Facebook? Will students daydream and doodle and draft other compositions even without a laptop? Of course. But at least they won’t have the world at their fingertips and world-class entertainment a minimized screen away.
2. The studies that suggest students are better off without a laptop in the classroom ring true to me. Taking notes by hand forces students to slow down, be more selective, and integrate what they’re learning. And students aren’t just sneaking a peak at other things here or there. They are spending more than half their time texting friends and using their computers for nonacademic purposes. Even smart students learn less because they love to multitask and accomplish as much as possible.
3. We all could use a break from the ubiquitous pull of technology. Seriously, I’m probably as addicted to my devices as my students are. So why create (let alone encourage) another venue where we can be tethered to the screen? Wouldn’t a little device detox do us all a little good?
And that leads us to the heart of the matter. Suppose we could really be sure that students would be absolutely true to their word, and they would never get on the internet and never toggle to another assignment and never chip away at solitaire. Suppose a self-policing policy actually worked (as you hope it would in seminary of all places). For pedagogical reasons I would still be against laptops. I don’t want students glued to the screen. I’m not trying to get the students to guess what my lecture notes look like. I’m not trying to test their note-taking abilities by quizzing them on the most obscure bits of every lecture. I am not aiming to develop court stenographers. If the goal is to produce an exact replica of my notes, I can give them my notes! But I want them engaged with me. I want eyeballs. I want ears. Can I be so bold as to say, I even want hearts.
It may be the case that some professors are dry as toast and do nothing more than read old conference papers or plow through too much material with no mercy on finite brains (or finite bladders). That’s an output problem and not one that an input device is going to solve. I want my lectures to be interesting. I want them to be edifying. Forgive me for sounding like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but I want them to be inspiring. And that means I don’t want to see 30 illuminated Apple logos. I want people to be thinking and feeling and ruminating and wrestling as I speak, not staring at a screen trying to type every word I say.
Which means I want students to do more than leave their laptops at home. I want them to approach the lecture as a listening-digesting-pondering event. I may not be good enough to pull this off, but I’d love for students to come to the conclusion, paradoxical as it may sound, “This material is too good for me to try to get it all down on paper.” I want people caught up in listening, not frantic about getting the perfect notes that lead to the perfect grade. And if worse comes to worse, and they end up moderately bored for an hour instead of infinitely distracted, that’s not bad either.