Laptops in the classroom: a virtue or vice?

Students with using laptops in a classroomLaptops, tablet PCs, PDAs, and even smart phones all have great potential as classroom learning tools: many students use them to take class notes, while others use them to record lectures for later review. Instructors can further leverage the learning potential of laptops by encouraging students to make use of specific electronic documents during class. For example, an instructor might upload a skeleton outline of a lecture to the online course management system; the students then open that document and add the missing information as the lecture or class proceeds. Studies have shown that when an instructor provides this sort of partial outline, which is to be filled out by students during class, it results in more learning than when an instructor provides either a full transcription of the lecture or no lecture notes at all (see the Resources cited at the end of this tip sheet).

However, laptops and similar electronic devices also have the potential to disrupt classes. For example, some students might be distracted by the tapping of numerous keyboards. Wireless connections, too, might tempt students to check their email, post to Facebook, or watch videos on YouTube during class. Not surprisingly, many instructors have questions about how to manage problems that can arise from students using laptops in the classroom:

Can I ban laptops from my classroom?

According to the Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate developed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, individuals with disabilities have a right to appropriate accommodation that "meets individual needs, [and] best promotes integration and full participation" (4.3). For many students with physical disabilities or learning disabilities, a laptop is an appropriate accommodation. Banning laptops would therefore violate their rights.  

Can I ban laptops from my classroom for everyone except students registered with AccessAbility Services?

According to The Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate developed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, an appropriate accommodation is one that "ensures confidentiality(4.3). Banning laptops for all students except the ones registered with AccessAbility Services would essentially put some students in a position where their disability would be "outed" to the rest of the class. Moreover, many students with disabilities choose not to register with AccessAbility Services but are nonetheless protected by the provincial legislation regarding appropriate accommodations. 

Can I ask students to close their laptops during certain class activities?

Yes, within reason. You can require laptops to be closed during quizzes or midterms, just as you can require textbooks to be closed or packed away (in such circumstances, students who are registered with AccessAbility Services, and who require the use of a laptop, would have made alternative arrangements for writing the quiz or midterm). It's probably also reasonable to ask students to close their laptops for short times during other activities, such as during a small group discussion.

Some of my students have complained that it's hard to concentrate in the midst of all the tapping being made by classmates who are taking notes with laptops.

You can minimize this distraction by asking technology-users to sit in a designated section of the classroom. A general practice is to designate an outer side section (or sections) of the room as the zone for technology-users. In large classrooms it is not advisable to designate the back of the room for technology-users because it can be difficult to read the screen from the back of the room.

What can I do about students who habitually use their laptops (or other mobile devices) during class to check their email or to go on social networking sites like Facebook?

Even if banning laptops were an option, it still wouldn't be a very good solution. After all, how would an instructor who has banned laptops compel students to comply if they didn't want to? A much preferable approach is to have a discussion with students, near the beginning of the term, which explores the pros and cons of students using laptops in class. During the discussion, the instructor should ensure that the following considerations are raised:

  1. That for many students, laptops are an effective learning tool when they are used to take notes and engage in other activities related to class. Moreover, for some students they are an essential tool. 
  2. That students using laptops in class for purposes unrelated to class (such as checking Facebook) are diminishing their own learning and thus wasting their own time and tuition. Countless studies have shown that splitting one's attention between two task reduces learning. Share this study with them. 
  3. That students using laptops in class (for whatever purpose) might also be detracting from the learning experience of their peers: the tapping of the keyboard and the visuals appearing on the screen can be distracting. Share this study with them or have them listen to this seven-minute interview

Out of this discussion, guide the students toward a protocol that aims to accommodate the competing desires, needs, and rights of everyone in the classroom. 

I've had several students complain about inappropriate visual content that a classmate is accessing through his laptop during class.

University Policy 33 ("Ethical Behaviour") states that "no member of the University community (faculty, staff, student) may unduly interfere with the study, work or working environment of other members of the University or any aspect of another's University activity." The policy adds that "A 'poisoned environment' (or one that is intimidating, hostile or offensive) can be created based on any of the prohibited grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and can be described as comment or conduct that is contrary to the aims of maintaining a supportive, respectful and tolerant environment." Using a laptop to view potentially offensive or inappropriate images during class could certainly contravene this policy, and an instructor would therefore have the responsibility to direct a student to refrain from this activity during class. Similarly, if a student is using a laptop in class to view material that is not offensive per se but merely distracting to others -- for example, a video of a high-speed car-chase -- it might reasonably be deemed to "interfere with the study, work or working environment of other members" of the class.