Banning laptops doesn’t solve the distraction problem

To ban or not to ban laptops in classrooms? What about cell phones? And calculators? Before we hand students a list of technologies to leave at home, let’s consider the real problem: attention vs. distraction. If you’re going to ban everything distracting students, you should consider what you’re wearing, how you talk, the guy in the front row who hasn’t called the girl in the 7th row, etc.

After teaching for several years, training teachers, and studying learning, I’ve developed a few strategies for maintaining student engagement. Of course, nothing is full-proof and there will typically be someone who falls asleep, looks clueless, glares at you during lecture, leaves after 15 minutes, or stares off into space. Try not to take it personally. After all, intentionally or not, I’ve been that student, haven’t you?

I just posted the following list on Facebook in response to a question on Metafilter and am re-posting it here:

  • Call upon people randomly. On the first day of classes, let students know that at any point in the lecture, you may call upon them. Cut up your roster and, when participation reaches a low point, randomly pull a name out of a hat. Ask them to concisely summarize something you just said, or discuss implications for a different scenario, etc. The point is to let them know that there’s rewards for paying attention…and consequences for not paying attention. I did this pre-laptops in the classroom and it improved discussion. It’s also a non-confrontational way of ensuring participation/attention.
  • Turn to someone next to you. One strategy I find highly effective in teaching is to identify a concept from the readings and say, “For the next 3-5 minutes, I’d like you to turn to someone next to you and discuss what you think the term participative media means. Think of a few examples from the readings/your own experience and be prepared to share them with the larger group.” I usually either walk around to hear people’s conversations, or meet with a student close by who hasn’t found a conversation partner. While everyone is meeting, I pick a particularly chatty group, or volunteer the person I’m speaking with, and ask them if they’d be willing to go first. As people share their ideas, I write them on the whiteboard, or insert their insights into my slide presentation and use our discussion as a springboard for the next part of the lecture.
    Having people speak in smaller groups primes them with ideas for sharing in the larger group and so accomplishes two goals: engages them in the discussion and empowers them to participate.
  • You can have “laptops down” moments, where you ask everyone to close their laptops to help them think and focus.
  • I start the quarter off being honest and saying that it’s really tough to speak to a large crowd and tougher still when you have to compete for their attention (e.g., talking in class, or using tech to tune out), so to make it easier on me and more interesting for them, I’ll be asking questions throughout the lecture and if I see someone not paying attention, I will most likely call on them.
  • Have students present some of the info, where appropriate. Each class period, I have a 5 minute block for student presentations — students definitely seem more interested in information from their peers. If the students get the info wrong, I use it as a teachable moment.

Audience from Napoleon Dynamite spoof posted on YouTube

  • I also do fun things, like take pictures of the audience when they look the most bored and include it in the next class period’s powerpoint, just to let them know what my view is like. Then I use the image as a background for some of the slides. People love to see themselves.
  • Or, the best scenario is to incorporate the laptops into instruction. Even in a lecture, you can have scavenger hunts or discovery moments. For every class period, I assign a couple bloggers to report on what they learned. You get a record of the class, students who missed have a useful resource, and students with restless finger syndrome have somewhere to focus their energy. Here’s a link to course blogs from past students:

There’s a misconception that in lectures we should be the only ones talking. An ideal learning scenario is one in which we empower students to feel responsible for their learning experience and create an environment in which the technologies, no matter how seductively distracting, can be used as part of their learning.

5 thoughts on “Banning laptops doesn’t solve the distraction problem

  1. Thanks, Bertil. I guess that’s my approach to technology & learning — look at the history and consider the human factor, since the technologies frequently change, but our basic needs stay relatively constant. For learners, distractions existed before current technologies were introduced to the classroom and good teaching involved finding ways to keep students engaged. So, many of the strategies for classroom management and student engagement that were developed decades ago remain applicable to the current setting.

  2. I agree with all of the points here. Many times it is the lecturers fault that that they are not engaging the students properly. However, many times it IS the students fault! As for “banning” technologies, I think the only one that is a large scale nuisance is the laptop. However, it is rather obvious when a student is doing something other than taking notes on a laptop. With a quick glance around the room during a pause in speech, those students whose eyes remain glued to the screen are not paying attention! An even more effective way of determining this is with a lap around the room (though this may not be feasible in a large lecture hall). It pains me to see faculty blindly continuing a lecture when many students are clearly playing in “internet land”. Use your authority and tell them to put away the laptops! I am actually NOT an advocate of required class attendance, but if a student does come to class, it is extremely rude to not pay attention, and even worse, become a distraction to other students who did come with the intent of paying attention.

    In summary, I agree that there are plenty of other kinds of distractions, but “banning the laptop” is an easy way to stop one of the obvious ones!


  3. Good points, David. It IS obvious when students are using their laptops for non-course related activities. I agree that instructors need to use their authority to manage laptop use in the classroom. In addition to the content we teach, we’re also teaching students how to effectively engage with others/be contributing members of a community beyond themselves, so pointing out when their use of technologies is inappropriate prepares them for future interactions. I’d rather have these “teachable moments” than ban technologies entirely.

  4. Pingback: Stop letting students play online during class! »

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