When I announced to second-year undergraduate students that I was banning the use of laptops in one of my units, they reacted just as you might have expected. Even though I carefully outlined my rationale – to foster critical thinking by promoting active class participation – many students remained sceptical.
I quickly discovered that the source of this unease had less to do with the devices themselves and more to do with the fears that our education system engenders. Students are academically weighed and measured so frequently that their concept of “learning” entails taking copious notes to ensure that the information delivered can be regurgitated in an assignment or exam. These students are digital natives who can type faster than they write, so laptops are their survival tools – and I had just banned their use for a semester.
I am not a technophobe, and I have nothing against laptops or technology in the classroom. By removing a crutch that many students relied on unthinkingly, my aim was to help students realise that they did not need it. As I told my class, “Thinking and participating during our two-hour sessions is more valuable than taking notes.”
To ensure that students did indeed learn without their laptops, I altered the teaching environment, the teaching materials and my interactions with students. In what follows, I illustrate what I did, how I did it and the lessons I learned – in the hope that they may serve other lecturers.
The teaching environment must be one in which the goal of the lecture is to get students to engage critically with content. If the purpose of the session is primarily for students to “download” information from the lecturer without actively engaging with it, a laptop ban will be for naught.
Students need to be encouraged to challenge and question their peers and the lecturer alike. This is achieved by treating students as knowledgeable individuals whose opinions are valuable and by taking a less-is-more approach to content. Instead of introducing five theories in a two-hour session, discuss only one or two – but in great depth.
To facilitate an interactive teaching environment, I used a range of resources. The core concepts, definitions and examples were provided to students on a handout, which they were asked to read in advance and encouraged to bring to class. I then worked through the handout via a dialogue with all the students, which I captured on a whiteboard.
During this lively conversation, I asked students to make sense of theory and also to identify real-life examples that could help us do so. I drew on PowerPoint to show students scholarly quotes, which we dissected as a group. Finally, I incorporated into the sessions half-hour workshops in which students worked in pairs to apply the theory that I had previously introduced to a real-world case.
The core ingredient for a successful laptop ban is student engagement. I actively developed relationships with my students and ensured that they felt cared for. This attentive and sympathetic approach was particularly important to support students with disabilities.
Before emailing the class to tell them about the ban, I contacted each student with a disability access plan to indicate that they could continue to use a laptop if they wished. They were enthusiastic about trying to do without laptops and decided to bring their computers to class for the first few weeks as a fail-safe. None of them ever took it out of their bag.
The end-of-semester student evaluations showcased overwhelming satisfaction with the laptop ban. Students felt that their critical thinking skills had grown in the same way that their learning (in both my and other units) had improved. This feeling was succinctly captured by one student who said: “Thank you for the laptop ban. I finally learned how useless writing everything [down] is.”
I now enforce a laptop ban on all the modules I teach. While the effort to alter the teaching environment, draw on multiple teaching resources and develop relationships with students is significant, the reward is even greater. 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.