What? You don’t allow laptops in your classroom?

No, I don’t.

But you’re a tech professor!

Exactly. Which means I understand what effective technology use entails.

I’ve had a no-device policy in my classes for about two years. After I realized that non-users were clearly distracted by users (watching their eyes drift towards others’ screens, which assuredly were not occupied by the compelling interface of Microsoft Word), I started to corral users in a certain area. But I got tired of a whole section of averted eyes that never so much as looked up when I posed a question to the class. I watched as responsive students tried to articulate answers to questions to the tune of others clickety clickety clacking away on keyboards—a din clearly not a result of dutiful transcription of their classmates’ contributions.

The proverbial straw actually manifested in another classroom. I went to observe a class–an interesting, relevant topic that was presented in an engaging fashion by a skilled an enthusiastic instructor. Multimedia clips, clever slide images, questions posed to the  I sat in the back and watched as 75% of students (I counted) multitasked. Those on laptops surfed Facebook, shopped online, read celebrity blogs, and watched sports clips on YouTube. Others texted compulsively throughout the lecture, not putting their phones down until a new slide appeared.

In the meantime, the instructor’s questions dangled midair. The same two or three students jumped in to salvage the vain attempts at discussion, to resolve the awkward silences peppered with a persistent clickity clickity clack.

Not okay.

So, I banned devices outside of specific classroom activities, and the first day of class I tell my students why. Students multitask on devices (Ragan, Jennings, Massey, & Doolittle, 2014, found 2/3 of time on laptops was spent on nonclass activities). We have known (for a while now, actually) that classroom multitasking is bad and can lead to diminished learning and academic performance (Fried, 2008; Hembrooke & Gay, 2003; Junco, 2012; Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013; Ravizza, Hambrick, & Fenn, 2014; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013; Wei, Wang, & Fass, 2014; Wood, Zivcakova, Gentile, Archer, de Pasquale, & Nosko, 2012). And of course there is evidence that taking notes by hand is better than using a computer (Aguilar-Roca, Williams, & O’Dowd, 2012; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014; Wood, Zivcakova, Gentile, Archer, de Pasquale, & Nosko, 2012). Importantly, devices are also distracting not just to users, but to the students sitting near users (Fried, 2008; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013).

But it’s more than that for me. Here are my reasons for keeping my classroom device-free:

1. Fostering a respectful environment for dialogue. I never hesitate to tell a friend to put the phone away when we’re at dinner or ask a colleague if we need to meet at another time because they are preoccupied with their device. As an academic, there is so little time for socializing that any human interaction is valuable, so I expect and want their attention.

I also see a classroom as a place for important dialogue. To participate in the conversation, you need to be attentive. Further, to have a cohesive discussion, students need to listen not just to the instructor, but to each other. Research shows that the mere presence of devices can tarnish social interactions (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). I want students to feel free to communicate in an environment where they will be listened to and respected, not just by me, but by their peers.

My classes are not so rigidly structured as to have lecture time vs. discussion time, so I don’t permit devices throughout. I wouldn’t allow them only for the lecture portion anyhow  (a compromise many endorse), because even when classes are structured that way, attention during lecture is often necessary for students to make meaningful and informed contributions to the discussion or subsequent in-class activities.

2. Meta-lessons about our relationship with technology. I tell my students if they can’t stay off their phones for an hour or two during class, then they need to seek counseling. I am not being flippant; rather, this behavior is indicative of problematic use.

Further, some students are unaware of the nonverbal messages they send by clinging to devices. (I have an excellent in class activity for this, by the way.) In environments where phone use is considered inappropriate, this lack of self-control will be interpreted as disrespectful and inappropriate by others, and it is likely they will be judged as ignorant, immature, or just plain rude. Who wants to work with, or hire, or befriend, or date someone who can’t put their phone down and listen? The classroom is an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness and to also train oneself to have a more healthful relationship with their devices in general. (See Alex Pang’s great book The Distraction Addiction and his blog on contemplative computing for more on mindful use of technology.)

3. Instructors have rights, too. There also seems to be some hesitance in addressing the other side of the equation. I find inappropriate tech use annoying and disrespectful to me and to other students, and thus it is disruptive to my teaching. I care about my job, and I care about doing it well, and I can’t do my job effectively when I’m distracted. I have the right to insist that students allow me to do my job without disruption.

4. Students don’t mind as much as you think they do. In fact, some of them want it. The other thing is that professors tend to generalize (dare I say stereotype) students. They assume that they are all tech addicts who can’t possibly survive without their machines. Yes, some students do have problematic relationships with their devices, but it’s insulting to suggest that they’re not smart enough to figure out how to manage without them. It’s also one-sided to think that students themselves don’t recognize the detrimental effects technology can have in the classroom and that they don’t appreciate a tech-free policy. Here are some comments, collected anonymously, from my final course evaluations, which students complete online. I’ll add that students are not asked to comment specifically on the policy; these are just from the open-ended portion.

“I’ve never had a teacher prohibit the use of technology in class, but I’m glad that she did because it forced me to come to class and actually pay attention and write out my notes.” (Class of 70)

“Dr. Fox created an excellent learning atmosphere and I highly appreciated the no electronics policy. It really helped me from getting distracted in the middle of class and others distracting me as well.” (Lecture class of 160)

“I really liked that she didn’t allow electronics to be in the classroom because it helped me focus better in class and for the exams.” (Lecture class of 160)

“I really like her no technology policy in the classroom. This helps the general learning environment.” (Lecture class of 160)

“I actually like her “No technology” policy because i am able to pay better attention.” (Lecture class of 160)

“I really enjoyed the in class environment [without laptops]. I have taken more notes and paid more attention in this class than any other class that I have taken.” (class of 40)

I do field comments from a handful (I’d say 5 or 6 out of 300+) of students who say they would prefer taking notes on a laptop, but they have never been resentful (and most mention that they understand why the policy exists.) They are also far outnumbered by the students who are thankful for the policy.

“Not being able to follow along on my iPad was a little difficult but I understand her reasoning.” (Class of 160)

“While I disagree with her “no computer” policy because she feels it’s a distraction, I respect it.” (Class of 40)

Different instructors have different approaches and of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion and practices. (Just please don’t be that person who argues that your students are so devoted to your class that they would never, ever multitask improperly on their devices. They do. All the time.) I do, however, encourage instructors to take the time to think about whether you have accepted devices on face without truly evaluating their contribution to your classroom environment, or have tolerated them only because you fear student backlash. Consider: Is this a good practice for your class? Is it enriching the experience in your class, or is it creating more distractions? Is it helping foster a constructive learning environment for your students? And is it making your experience as an instructor more or less enjoyable? Those answers will help decide what’s best for you, your students, and your classroom.

Other readings on the matter:

Why a Leading Professor of New Media Just Banned Technology in Class from Clay Shirky @ The Washington Post

Why I’m Going Device Free (Sort of) in the Classroom from Katy Pearce (h/t to Katy for sharing the Ravizza et al. article above)

Best Practices for Laptops in the Classroom from Mark Sample @ The Chronicle (with links to related blogs)