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Banning laptops and all electronic devices in class

I have decided to ban all laptops and electronic devices from being operated in my classes this fall. (Our semester at Baylor begins next Monday). During my last semester at Baylor (Spring 2008) I had far too many students chatting, texting, surfing, and whatnot during class. Enough is enough.


Comments (46)

Yes, great idea. I have banned all personal electronics in my classes as well. Since I've done this, students tend to be more responsive and ready for discussion. I also scare them by threatening to take away all their participation points (15% of their grade)for the semester if I even see a cell phone in class.

As a student who once used electronic devices with reckless abandon in classes, I agree. Even if the device is being used to take notes, it lowers the ability of the user to focus on the instructor and class discussion. They can type their written notes after class if they wish.

You are following in the footsteps of most law schools. Well done.

I think that this is absolutely the correct thing to do. It is impossible for a student to be focused on the class while working with the computer at the same time. Computers definitely require a significant amount of attention to operate, whether we are conscious of it or not. I cannot support this move too much.

It has become a fad among colleges to "computerize the whole campus" including making sure that every student as a laptop, having wireless internet everywhere, etc. This all sounded so good when it was first broached, but I think that many schools that have invested huge sums of money are having second thoughts (whenever they can think in a non-PC mode). It does not enhance learning to anywhere near the degree it was expected to do, and in many cases it actually degrades learning because of the distractions that it provides.

There is the fundamental distraction of yet another thing to deal with, which is not insignificant. That might well be tolerable, but with it come the games, the e-mail, messaging, etc. that are pure distraction with no educational value at all. Overall, laptops are a gross negative for student learning on campus. Desktop computers, in the dorm room, in the library, etc., might well be an advantage because they cannot be carried into places where they are distractions such as classrooms. They can still be distractions in their stationary locations, but that is a somewhat different situation.

I have mixed feelings. I find it really handy to have a computer in class, however it is also a distraction even when I am paying attention. It's a small loss for what I'd imagine is much more gain. I think I' do the same.

As a recent college graduate, I know you have good reason to ban laptops. Out of a few hundred fellow students I saw with laptops, I think I remember four actually using them to take notes.

I did intentionally use my laptop to distract myself in many classes. I only brought it to ones which I found to be intolerably boring (i.e. professors reading Powerpoint slides to us, slides which themselves came straight out of the textbooks). Laptops were much more prevalent in those classes than in ones in which the professors actually went beyond the text, interacted with the students, and so on.

So as long as you're not reading Powerpoints to your students, I agree with your decision - most likely, a student with a laptop is a student who belongs elsewhere.

I haven't yet seen a good academic use of cell phones in class (aside from courses where the cell phones are part of the subject matter).

For a discussion-based class in almost all subjects, I think computers are more distraction than they're worth for the vast majority of students; your ban is almost surely the right move there.

For a lecture-based class in most subjects, it's not as clear-cut, but I'd guess you're still probably right most of the time. I'd think that whether banning computer use is a win depends on the level of network connectivity in the classroom and the maturity of the students, and you're going to get different results with different students (unfortunately, a student's desire to use a laptop in class can't be expected to correlate well with the student's ability to make good use of said laptop in class).

For my classes, banning computer use would be plain stupid, but I teach computer science :-).


Standard practice for me and almost all my colleagues here at Bryan. Go for it. :)

If students of previous generations,centuries,milleniums,etc. have been educable without such technologies,it should be possible for them to absorb the material without the gadgets. You are making the right decision. I also believe that for many students, writing notes helps in their overall ability to recall the facts. I don't know if the same can be said for typing. There just seems to be more of a kinesthetic(sp?) value to writing.

Oh, and here's an anecdote: My son noted that in a class where the prof said he didn't care if they had laptops out, not only did the students pay little attention in class, but it was quite distracting to him as he *did* try to pay attention. So it's not just the ones who use them that it's a problem for. I've not had any serious complaints; they whine at first and then don't say anything else. I have had one student with a physical disability for whom handwriting is seriously difficult, so of course she is allowed, but no one seems bothered by this.

Dr. Beckwith,

As a new transfer student who's been following your work for a number of years (hopefully I'll be able to take one of your courses in the spring), as long as courses aren't too heavily note-taking driven (text-laden powerpoint slideshows), I think I can do just fine with pen and pad. I may not be the best case example, however, as I generally am much more deliberate in my efforts to pursue a good education.

Good decision, Frank.

I see people checking football scores during class all the time. I think playing around with laptops tends to devalue the seriousness of the subject matter under discussion. This can be particularly disturbing when a serious ethical issue is being discussed in class or something like the Gospel are being read(as in a seminary). Here you have the greatest infamy in history being read out loud and discussed, and yet people are checking football scores.

Right on, brother. There is usually no need for them. The temptation for students to "multi-task" is too great. As a teacher, I am sometimes advised to let students who have "concentration issues" use them. How that will HELP them concentrate is beyond me. Class time does not magically become more effective simply because technology is being used.


Will you be pertmitting students who need laptops becasue of a learning disability e.g. dispraxia to use one?

I think Peter has the right attitude here: it depends very much on circumstances and what, exactly, you are doing. If it's merely distraction you're worried about, I'm inclined to think this a case of treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Students who can distract themselves with electronics can distract themselves with pen and paper; the major advantage will simply be reduction in how much they distract other students (and how much of an advantage that will be will, again, depend on circumstances). And it's entirely possible to turn their electronic itch to good use; I have a few colleagues who are maestros at making students use their computers in ways relevant to the class -- in-class reference tools, having them take notes on discussions and read them aloud so everyone could keep track, etc. That said, due to lack of space I once had to teach a philosophy class in a computer lab and I absolutely hated that classroom: it was designed to have students looking at computer screens rather than discussing things with each other. It was extraordinarily difficult to work around the fact that students couldn't just sit and talk to each other but had to constantly move around in a cramped space to do so.

I have mixed feelings about this as well. As a student, I admit it is extremely irritating to notice the person beside you texting on their phone or chatting on their laptop. School is an investment. To make the most out of his investment, a student should of course always come to class, and always pay attention in class, taking notes when appropriate.

The libertarian part of me though thinks, if some students want to waste their tuition by texting or chatting when they should be paying attention, let them. It's their money and their investment; they can do what they will with it. If they don't want to make the most of it, hey, it's their choice.

I suppose a professor could have a similar approach - it's his job to teach and cover the material as best he can. He's not responsible for babysitting and ensuring that the students pay attention and don't waste their tuition.

As far as laptops go, the best reason I could give for allowing them in class is the simple fact that most students (including myself) can type a hell of a lot faster than they can write! Sometimes it's extremely difficult to keep up with taking notes (especially if the prof is using powerpoint).

The above reasons notwithstanding, I admit that it wouldn't bother me at all, and I may even like it if a professor bans all electronic devices from class. Students would I'm sure pay more attention in class than they would if the devices aren't banned, knowing they don't have the option of texting or checking their facebook page.

And I must admit, it would provide me with just a little satisfaction to know that some students would have to go a whole hour or two (gasp!) without being able to play with their toys.

now for something completely out of subject: A question for Dr Beckwith. In Defending Life, you claim that all abortions are killing of the unborn...however Boonin and Walter Block have both tried to argue (not very convincingly, though one has to admire the casuistic effort) that some abortions are only cases of evictions followed by "letting die"....what is your response to such a charge?
( personally I don't think that the argument holds water since by Philipa Foot's definition of causation, A has caused B's death if, by acting in a particular way, A has put B in a situation of mortal danger in which B was not before. Thus A still kills B. Now the opponents of such a theory of causation may appeal to preexisting conditions but that line of thinking has its own limitation : while its true that the woman in Thompson's argument might not be causing the death of the violinist since the violinist infact succumbs to an ailment that existed before him being connected that is not the case in other situations. Hence, if you throw an unauthorised passenger off your plane at an altitude of 10 000m without a parachute, the preexisting condition that the passenger can't fly is laughable since it is an unjust and unreal expectation. )

A pox on PowerPoint ... and those who inflict it upon their audiences.

I would prohibit them in my classes too were I tenured, though I am considering buying a gizmo that disrupts mobile phone reception. If I could also find a way to block wifi access, I'd be all set.

After reading Frank's post and the comments it generated, I think his policy is pedagogically sound. I intend to follow suit this semester.

Your hardline opposition to comprehensive education reform is appalling, Mr. Beckwith. Without unrestricted computer access, how can our young people thrive in an information-based world where note-taking must include the error-free copying of every professor's word and gesture? Your antiquated methods show all Americans of open mind and good will that you will not be happy until you have mired our nation's future in a technological dark ages unseen since the...the Dark Ages. Enjoy your quill pens and segregated classrooms, you boorish Neanderthal Vaticanista. ;)

Bannnig computers from the classroom has nothing to do with opposing comprehensive education reform. It has everything to do with students checking email, shopping online, sending text messages, and playing Mafia Wars on Facebook during class -- all of which militates against education. Those activities have nothing to do with higher learning. Preserving them has does not reform education. It will deform education. When students engage in such activities, it injures their own education and that of those who sit near them and who are distracted by them, students who paid many thousands of dollars to hear what talented professors have to say, and who do not wish to be distracted by fellow students looking at pornography during class time.

Higher education never has, and does not now, require what you call "error-free copying of every professor's word and gesture. Dr. Beckwith made no such allusion in his post and has imposed no such requirement in his courses. That was your own laughable fantasy, which you tried to foist off onto others.

Dr. Beckwith's position is pro-education, not pro-Luddite. It springs from pedagogically sound principles and has nothing to do with your scurrilous reference to his Catholicism. The boorishness you attempt to descry is all on your side, not his.

Right on. When I was in seminary (and only about 10% of hip students had laptop in the class) I noticed a guy in front of me in one particular church history class spending a remarkable amount of time searching sports scores...

Why would anyone spend 3k on a class and play games/look up sports? Thank God I was too poor for a laptop. It was in this class that I discovered and fell in love with the writings of the church fathers, which, over time led me to a more robust understanding of my faith.

Whee! Knew I should have put more sarcasm tags than just the wink at the end. I was hoping you'd see the Mad-Libs I played with the standard pro-abortion rhetoric without me killing my own joke.

Ah well. Too subtle for an 8 am joke on the internet I guess. And sad but true that my little joke does sound completely true to form for certain idealogues.

I got it, Nyssan. But then my sarcasm detector tends to remain on all the time. :-)

Slightly off subject, but the other day I saw a TV preacher with his laptop sitting on the pulpit -- he was preaching from notes or a mss., but it was on his computer instead of on paper. Very strange.

Hi, Frank -

I think that's a wise policy decision, although I think this:


is a good candidate for an exception to the "ban all...electronic devices" rule. :-)



Aaron writes: "It's their money and their investment; they can do what they will with it."

Let's remember it's usually their parents money or taxpayers' money in the form of student loans.

Oh, and these wastrels are padding the income of the university. If the schools only attracted students interested in learning, most of them would have to close.

As for electronics, I now deeply love my digital voice recorder and wish I had it in school to complement my notetaking. Might that be allowed?

With the falling price of digital video recorders, how do you academics feel about students using them to thoroughly document your lectures? A good enough recording and students might not want to go to class. They'll designate a different volunteer to record each week.

(Imagine the efficiency of a dull lecture viewed at 1.4x speed!)

Get enough of those recordings, and people might have second thoughts about even going to school when they can learn on their own.

There is a classic story related to this.

Pompous Professor X at Prestigious U felt he was above teaching, so he'd have a TA bring in a portable stereo with an audio recording of a past lecture and press "play."

At the end of the school year, he finally glanced in the classroom in which he was supposed to be teaching and realized nobody was in the room.

On each of his thirty-five students' unoccupied desks he saw battery-powered cassette decks set to "record."

Professors are generally very skittish about recorded lectures. That's a record that can be used to challenge one's 'orthodoxy' in a given field. Obviously that's a much bigger deal in some fields than in others, but no laughing matter.

It also runs into the 'lazy student' problem...how well will I take notes if I know I have the recording to fall back on? Good note-taking (i.e., NOT writing down every word and gesture of the teacher) is a very strong indicator of intelligence, training, and academic success. It's one of the most important life-long skills a student acquires in school, as it is really training in listening and rapid analysis.

And the real learning often occurs if the student is forced to transfer his handwritten notes later that day by typing them into an outline at home on his computer, which he doesn't have to do if he typed it in the first instance. It's not the only way to do things, but it is a very good method for reinforcement and systhesis. Good policy, Prof. Beckwith!

Hammer 'em hard, Beckwith. Make them work up a sweat.

Kevin Jones, I'm pretty much opposed to students recording classes. Mine are discussion classes, so I don't ever allow it (even for learning disabled students; there are other ways to help them get what they need) -- it is absolutely wrong for anyone to have a recording of other students in the midst of learning, which is usually a pretty messy affair. And I would feel much less free to joke around with them or think out loud about their questions and comments if I thought it might be used against me in any way (including to make fun of me in the dorms; they have enough ammunition for that already!). I guess that's really the heart of my objection -- learning is a messy affair and both professors and students should feel that they can participate in it freely without wondering if some "stupid" comment will come back to haunt them. (And I am not naive enough to think that having them sign an agreement will keep them from misusing the recordings.)

Nyssan, you are so right about note-taking, too. A student who can take good notes has a tremendous tool for learning. Going back through a recording is not as helpful, and harder to find that one point that you sort of recall but want to check on.

Nyssan, I thought your sarcasm was dripping, so I wouldn't worry about it.

I think that you all may be missing something that Dr. Beckwith is trying to point out: In class, you are supposed to be THINKING. If you are busy taking down every word, you are being passive to the prof's concepts, instead of actively grasping them, shaking them out, testing them for failures, loopholes, exceptions, and limits. How can you ask clarifying questions if you aren't pushing the envelope of his thoughts? How can you contribute to the discussion, either?

Aaron, truth is a common good, not only in its possession, but also in its achievement. We come to knowledge together by common effort. A student who is playing on the computer during class is interfering with the pursuit of truth, and a student who isn't trying is being a drag on the class as a whole. We don't have to tolerate that as if it were some right.

Dr. Beckwith, I am all for your policy. My last prof made anyone whose cell phone went off bring in cookies for the whole class next session. I would do that for anyone whose cell phone is either visible or audible.

"Good note-taking (i.e., NOT writing down every word and gesture of the teacher) is a very strong indicator of intelligence, training, and academic success. It's one of the most important life-long skills a student acquires in school, as it is really training in listening and rapid analysis."

Not that I have anything against listening and rapid analysis, but I thought I'd throw in a monkey wrench. I was always told in high school that that note-taking was important, but I never thought it was valuable and it seemed to be more distraction than help. I quit somewhere around 15.

I'm finishing up my doctoral dissertation now and never took notes for an undergraduate or graduate class. I got good grades. I've done some teaching now too and found that using notes is pretty counterproductive there as well. I end up hardly looking at them at all in class.

I know that my methods--just listening carefully, or (when teaching) thinking carefully about what to say in advance--are not typical and not for everyone. But the prevailing study orthodoxy isn't for everyone either.

PS I'm all for banning electronic devices in class, for both teacher and student.

Greetings Frank. I've never used electronics in class, but at UC Berkeley, students with laptops and such frequently surround me, and it is always distracting for me. In a history class, every student (a dozen or so) in my row--except me--used a laptop. One fella on one side of me frequently played online poker, while the gal next to me frequently shopped online. Seeing fashion and pocket queens is pretty distracting when I am trying to glean the finer points of Roman history.

So, by all means, ban it all. I hope I get to see you again soon.

Pax Tecum


Fun to try:

1) Bring your Bluetooth-enabled laptop into class
2) during exam-time have the laptop scour the room for other blue-tooth enabled devices the students have that AREN'T their laptops
3) realize that the students are always one step ahead of you!

My last prof made anyone whose cell phone went off bring in cookies for the whole class next session.

Alas, this can get one into legal trouble if one of the students gets sick. My students have brought two 18 inch pizzas to review sessions and shared them with other students. I had to wipe the drool from my mouth because accepting a piece might be constituted as a bribe :(

I have recently taken to threatening my students with...clowns. Amazing how many people are afraid of them. Think about it: almost all clown make-up is made to resemble old men. I suspect that clowns have evolved to poke fun at our fear of aging and dementia.

The Chicken

Admittedly off topic, but one of you guys should do a post on how Scalia's recent opinion on Troy Davis squares with Catholic theology (if you haven't seen Scalia's opinion, it is rather chilling in how it puts procedure before justice).

Banning is a good idea. Not only does it cut down classroom distraction, it forces those who want notes on their laptop to go back and sift through the handwritten stuff they did, giving them a second review, reprocessing and refinement of the information, and maybe catch where they may have missed something.

Assuming, of course, they haven't gone off to consume a couple pints and get distracted.

I currently attend Grove City College, which gives all incoming freshmen a laptop for use in class.

Myself included, very few students use them for taking notes(much to your surprise, I'm sure), and at any given time I can watch multiple youtube videos on several different computers from my seat in the back of the class.

Curiously enough, the college recently "banned" proffessors from banning the use of laptops in their classes (or so I hear).

Curiously enough, the college recently "banned" proffessors from banning the use of laptops in their classes (or so I hear).

If that is true, it is a clear violation of the professor's academic freedom. Cutting a deal with a computer company and bribing students with the latter's product teaches Grove City's students precisely what about personal virtue and their professor's authority in the classroom? Why is that the "great text" schools are often the ones that seem to have learned nothing from "the great texts"? Edmund Burke is, apparently, cool, but whatever you do, don't act as if his insights are true.

Giving a student a laptop for the classroom is about as stupid as giving him a box of condoms for his dorm room. Both have the consequence of habituating disorder.

If that is true, it is a clear violation of the professor's academic freedom. Cutting a deal with a computer company and bribing students with the latter's product teaches Grove City's students precisely what about personal virtue and their professor's authority in the classroom? Why is that the "great text" schools are often the ones that seem to have learned nothing from "the great texts"? Edmund Burke is, apparently, cool, but whatever you do, don't act as if his insights are true.

Again, it may not be the case. I wouldn't want you to form a negative opinion of the college on the basis of something I happened to have heard from other students.

Regardless, I do agree with you, and in classes that I choose to use a notebook I do find it easier to pay attention.

I made this same decision last semester. It was totally worth it.

Good move, Frank. I, too, have banned laptops and all electronic devices. And following the example of a friend of mine who teaches at Hope College, I've also banned hats. Yes, hats. The inspiration ultimately comes from a nice little book entitled I'm the Teacher, You're the Student by Emory historian Patrick Allitt. For Allitt (and for me as well), students who wear hats in class convey an utter disinterest in and "aggressive detachment" from learning (think of the guy in the back row slumped in his chair, wearing his cap sideways). While banning hats may not make students more attentive and intellectually serious, the proscription can at least help preserve respect for what ostensibly occurs in the classroom.

Allit's book is excellent! Bryan already bans hats in class (except for ladies' hats worn as such -- they can't wear ball caps, for example), so it's never been an issue here. But at another school where this wasn't the case, I did so after the first two weeks and the entire atmosphere in the classroom changed; I was amazed at the difference it made. When they couldn't hide, they began to pay attention.

I am all for the ban. I took a political science course last year as a 'mature student' (ie, for fun) and most students who used laptops were either on MSN, Facebook, or playing a silly Flash game. And as others have mentioned, it's not just the student misusing the laptop that's suffering, but everyone else behind him too: Try focusing on an instructor with a several bright, 17" screens directly in front of you. It's not easy.

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