While it’s natural to assume that the use of laptop computers, smartphones and tablets in classroom settings is fairly universally accepted, given some schools are even supplying laptops for a small fee to students, this is not necessarily the case, especially in higher education.
There is strong debate amongst academics over whether to embrace and accept digital tools in lecture halls or get rid of them altogether.
Those who want to ban laptops from their classes say they want to put a halt to the distractions caused by the increasing levels of technology in the classroom. They say the temptation to post on and check social media is too much for many students. They cite studies that show students who take notes on devices with keyboards retain less information than those who write notes by hand.
But the academics that support use of technology by students say it's not laptops that are the problem, but boring, traditional teaching methods. They argue that to engage students, the way teachers and lecturers think, use and talk about modern day technology has to change.
Dr. Mark Morton, senior instructional developer of educational technologies at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, believes that although traditional, lecture-style classes work for many academics, there needs to be an integration of these traditional teaching methods and technology being used as both teaching and learning tools. He says technology can foster a more inclusive teaching environment.
“Consistently lecturing, that’s very, very difficult for students to stay attentive throughout a 75-minute lecture,” said Morton. “Or at least, it advantages some students who have that kind of attention and disadvantages others. Trying to create different kinds of learning activities can benefit everybody.”
McGill University's associate professor of natural resource sciences Chris Buddle says student distraction presented an opportunity for teachers to rethink their approach to teaching. McGill believe a distracted student, regardless of having a laptop or not, indicated a larger problem.
“We need to adjust. The profs I know who do adjust, and do have more active learning environments, don’t complain about technology in their classroom.” he said
Dr. Buddle cited cases where students checking facts on the Internet during class, often created spontaneous discussions on the subject being taught. Buddle integrates Twitter, using a lesson hashtag to share information and ask questions, and using a blackboard and chalk.
Assistant professor at York University in Toronto Sean Kheraj, says he hasn’t found banning laptops to be effective in getting the attention of students. He asks students who are easily tempted to use laptops for things other than note taking to sit in the back row, as a way of accommodating those students who say they are easily distracted by other people's screens which he says is a common complaint.
Kheraj says the use of technology in classrooms should not be banned or disapproved of because it is a part of the daily lives of students and something which follow them into the workplace .
“I don’t think compulsion is the best way to win students’ attention. It’s the best way to reflect on your teaching, the content of your course,” he said. “It’s a better experience to be drawn to the material than held hostage.”
Adaptive educational technologist at the University of Waterloo’s Access- Ability Services Department Susan Shifflett, says some students with disabilities need laptops, so banning them from classrooms was not an option. These disabilities, says Shifflett, are often “invisible,” so even asking students if they needed to laptops as a way of setting no laptop policy, even in individual classroom situations, rather than overall policy, was not going to work. She say it was an individual's right whether to disclose the disability to others or not.