On Banning Electronics from the Classroom

A post appeared on The Daily Nous, today, taking up a question raised by an editorial in The Washington Post: Should an instructor at the university level, as a matter of explicit policy, forbid students to have or use their own electronic devices in the classroom?

I used to have such a policy, as I was tired of seeing students absorbed in social media or online videos while I was trying so desperately to engage them.

It did not go over very well with students and, in any case, left me feeling uneasy. As some of my students protested, the policy comes across as condescending, patronizing.

When I switched to problem-based learning (PBL), though, I dropped the policy: the internet can be a resource for students working in groups in the classroom, though I do try to help them reflect on their use of the internet and the relative value of various sources they may find there.

Here is the comment I contributed to the thread following the post on The Daily Nous:

I tried this, and it went very badly: students were resentful and sullen about it, and became, if anything, even less engaged. I became The Adversary.

So, I went entirely in the other direction, though for a wider range of reasons: I stopped lecturing altogether and switched to problem-based learning . . . so that students’ internet access became a resource for groups working on complex problems in practical ethics, and peer pressure kept students from becoming (too) distracted by other kinds of media.

I’m still refining the approach. One issue I now have is students using Google Docs as the medium for collaborative work, so I might have a group of six students, each looking at her or his own screen, with six cursors moving around, adding and editing text at once. I’m working on ways of addressing this, including having students try out different ways of collaborating (paper, white board, one screen, etc.), then reflect on the difference the medium makes in the way they work together.

Following the discussion has been interesting, as it has brought out a number of distinct considerations that should enter into any decision regarding students’ personal electronics in the classroom:

1. The Standard Model
Many contributors to the discussion seem to take it as read that what happens in the college classroom is lecture and (maybe) discussion. Anything that would keep students from paying rapt attention to the instructor or, more generously, to the proceedings of the whole class, must be excluded.

Now, to be fair, there may be areas of learning in which lecture is appropriate, and there may be times during which students should be paying attention to what’s happening in the classroom as a whole.

My question: Why should lecture and discussion be taken as the standard model, as opposed to just one option among many?  And, since the original piece in The Washington Post cited “the research”, what of research that suggests lecture is, of all pedagogical approaches, among the least effective in fostering student learning?

2. The Authority of Instructors
In the background of the discussion is a very basic assumption: instructors have a responsibility to create an environment conducive to learning, and so they have the authority to set policies aimed at that end.

I should say we have authority within reasonable limits to set policies, and those polices ought to be stated explicitly in the syllabus.

My question: How far does our writ run? What are the limits of our authority? How do we avoid becoming merely autocratic?

3. What’s Good for Students
The main contention in favor of banning electronics is that such devices are a distraction during lecture and discussion, limiting student engagement; to that extent, they are bad. Students would be better off without them in a classroom in which lecture and discussion are the main modes of teaching and learning.

There may be some merit to this contention.

There is further merit in the view that students may need help to exercise self-control in relation to electronic media, though it could be argued that a simple ban on certain devices does not help them to learn how to control their own impulses, only how to obey external authority (see point 4).

My question: See above, regarding the question of whether lecture and discussion make students better off, as compared to other approaches to learning.

4. Treating Students Like Adults
A contrary consideration holds that a policy banning electronics is paternalistic. One commenter introduced the idea of having a contract with students regarding the use of laptops in particular. This view tends to cast students as themselves responsible adults: any policy should engage students’ reason and rest on mutual consent.

The deeper assumption here is that one of the broader aims of education is to help students develop into mature human beings, able to think and decide for themselves. A simple ban on electronics could be seen as contrary to that goal.

My question: Since it could be said that college students today are still developing into their mature selves, to what extent and by what methods should instructors help them along, providing some constraints within which students may safely develop? It could well be argued that compulsive use of social media – something of which I have been guilty, myself – is not exactly conducive to maturity.


There are other assumptions and ideas in the mix, but these are the ones I’ve picked out, so far.

The one thing I would add is a note of pragmatism: it’s unlikely that one approach will fit all courses, or even all parts of courses.

Even in classrooms in which I sometimes welcome use of electronic devices – with some supervision and some critical reflection on that use – there may be particular assignments and or activities on which I do not allow students to use them. There’s one assignment involving paper books, for example . . . about which more another time.

One thought on “On Banning Electronics from the Classroom

  1. I'd just like to note that I'm in complete agreement with you here. I was a bit shocked to see that most commentators on Daily Nous (a) simply took for granted the lecture-discussion style and (b) preferred an outright ban than searching for ways of including electronic devices in the classroom. Perhaps it's because I come from an English as a Foreign Language background (I'm an EFL teacher), where both (a) and (b) are long considered outdated, but I can't wrap my head on why people still cling to these old-fashioned ways.


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