When I announced to second-year education with psychology undergraduate students that I was banning the use of laptops in my unit, they reacted just as you might have expected. Even though I carefully outlined my rationale – to foster critical thinking by promoting active class participation – my students remained sceptical.
The decision to ban devices in class was the result of a succession of events. For a few years, I had been tinkering with relatively small modifications to my teaching practice which were helping increase students’ active participation… but these changes never seemed powerful enough. After hearing a colleague talk about how her laptop ban led to an increasing in students’ engagement, my interest was piqued. A few weeks later, I invited a social worker to deliver a guest lecture to my class. Moments before starting, she gasped at how prevalent laptops had become since her university days. That was when I decided to take the plunge and go device free.
I should clarify I am not a technophobe. I have nothing against laptops or technology in the classroom. My problem with laptops is they are the physical manifestation of students’ deepest fears: the fear of not being able to write everything down. This anxiety is the consequence of an education system which treats learners as robots who should take copious notes to then regurgitate them in exams. Given the current generation of undergraduate students are ‘digital natives’ who can type faster than they can write, laptops have become a fundamental survival tool. To help them grow as learners, I banned devices.
There was more to my laptop ban than simply prohibiting devices; I also made a series of pedagogical alterations. Before class, I provide students with handouts that contain all the key information we will cover. During each session, we gradually unpack the contents of the handout through discussions (which I capture on the whiteboard) and exercises were students apply theoretical concepts to real-world examples. If I had to summarise this approach in a sentence, it is a “less is more” ethos: we think about fewer concepts and theories, but we make sure to a) explore them thoroughly, and b) apply them to real world scenarios.
The result of the laptop ban has been overwhelmingly positive. My students’ participation in class soared. They focused less on writing and more on thinking. They asked insightful questions and became more comfortable sharing ideas in front of each other. They accepted that, at times, simply listening and thinking is a perfectly reasonable part of the learning process. Ultimately, they become more confident knowing that their ideas were valuable and worthy of being discussed.
I should clarify that reaping these benefits requires a conceited effort on the part of the teacher. The act of removing laptops, without altering how class is delivered, is unlikely to result in the outcomes outlined above. If the purpose of a session is for students to ‘download’ material from the lecturer into their notebooks without the opportunity for reflection and dialogue, no amount of laptop bans will work.
I encourage you to give this approach a try. Seeing students grow in confidence as critical thinkers capable of overcoming the fears that our education system engenders is the highest reward a teacher can receive.
About the Author
Ioannis is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath. His research focuses on young people and non-formal education within charities, out-of-school activities, and youth groups. He teaches students at undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctoral levels.
This article was originally published in the Times Higher Education