While phones seem to be a pretty obvious item to ban (and are banned in my class), I am more conflicted about laptops. Without question, laptops introduce the potential for added distractions. Email, social media, games, and even videos often prove too tempting a distraction for some students. (In an extreme example, one friend told me that she was interrupted during a 150-person lecture by the sterotypical and all too obvious sounds of pornography coming from a laptop that the user forgot to mute.) Yet, despite the potential for distraction, I have often reasoned that there are benefits to having laptops in the classroom. Many of my students claim that they can't read their own handwriting, thus typing notes solves a variety of problems. Several have noted that typed notes are easier to organize after class. Others note that they can type faster than writing by hand. For my part, I appreciate that having laptops can enable activities in class that would be difficult without reserving a computer lab --- such as asking students to seek out data on a specific issue. Also, I remember how expensive it was to print out journal articles for each of my classes when I was a student. Being able to read and bring digital copies of articles to class is one less expense for students already struggling to finance a university education.
The author of the op-ed points out a growing literature on why the problem of laptops in the classrom is not just about distractions. A growing volume of literature suggests that laptop use diminishes students' understanding, praticipation, and retention. In addition, when students are able to take down more notes, they often become less selective about identifying the important points and instead take down everything. Being able to evaluate the relevance and importance of pieces of information is a key skill that students need to effectively prepare for exams and that will serve them well after they have graduated.
I have tried to alter how I teach to minimize some of these problems. For example, I have moved away from using Powerpoint whenever possible. Instead I write on the board. Not only does this slow me down in my presentation of information, it also decreases the amount of text I present and gives students more time to take notes and think about what they are writing down. In addition, at the beginning of each semester, I inform students of the findings in research such as that identified by the author of the oped and encourage them to ditch the laptops in class as much as possible.
The main question for me is should I be a benevolent dictator. My students are all adults. I'm not yet convinced that it is my right and/or responsibility to decide how they should engage in their education. In addition, I wonder if it is too late for some of my students. Many students here at Tech enter undergraduate education without a variety of skills --- including, but not limited to, readable handwriting, organization of notes, paraphrasing, simplifying, and winnowing information during notetaking, etc --- for which laptops help them compensate. Banning laptops might force them to improve these skills, but if I'm not willing to expend class time or slow class down to help teach them these skills, is it fair to kick their crutch out from under them at this point in their education? And if I did, would the benefits to them outweigh the costs?
I haven't banned laptops in my classes yet --- but I consider it every year. Maybe next year I'll join the ranks of "mean" professors.