Has the Sage on the Stage Run Amok? Banning Technology in Class

I have debated for quite some time now how I was going to approach this blog entry, because I truly am trying to have an open mind and want people to share their opinions about this controversy, but it’s REALLY hard for me to channel any empathy for the tribe of instructors described below.

In short, a few bad eggs in classes that surf their eBay bids or FaceBook page during class are causing many faculty to ponder whether they should ban laptops from classes. The University of Chicago Law School, for example, recently removed Internet access in classrooms because of concerns about students surfing the Web during class.

I happen to be taking some Instructional Technology and Educational Psychology classes, and in large part, the Instructional Technology courses are awash in technology…if someone saw something they wanted to share in class but couldn’t remember the details or name, etc., we are usually all online looking the information up. We surf to find opposing views to those offered in class, and quite often perspectives and facts that would have otherwise been left out find place in class discourse due to the instant access to the Internet.On a personal level, my laptop is a trusted note taking tool, in addition to the points made above.

A professor I had last semester had a bad experience with her undergraduates and laptops, banned them, and noticed a dramatic change in her classes. She then decided that she would do the same thing with her Educational Psychology graduate course on CMC, (a course full of 30 and 40-somethings), due to seeing someone in class doing e-mail next to her and her being distracted by the typing sound. Needless to say, I was very upset. I simply cannot keep up when trying to write by hand, and the Internet access allows me to better challenge points raised in class that need challenging. I think I understood her position, but I didn’t agree with the policy.

When I put on my teacher cap, I can understand the urge for faculty to ban everything they can’t control, including the technology of the time. We’ve all heard the stories of the ballpoint pen being banned by faculty in the late 1940’s in favor of the fountain pen and the calculator in the 1950’s in favor of the slide rule. Faculty do have legitimate authority to control the classroom environment, and to eject students from class for anything they choose, including staring at a laptop screen instead of the professor, I guess.

Of course, the first things that come to my mind go something like this: How good of a teacher can you be if your students would rather surf Facebook than pay attention to what’s going on in your class? Why aren’t you looking for ways to have your students use those laptops for legitimate classroom purposes?

We have all ostensibly made the jump from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”, but I wonder, because some faculty seem to lack the impulse control to stay away from the notion that they are the sage/gatekeeper/dispenser of the wonders of the discipline, and this urge to ban technology from classes is a glaring example of that. If you don’t merit your students’ interest, you certainly won’t get it by banning their laptops.

That brain-dump having been executed, I truly want to see how all of you feel about this, especially those who favor a ban, because I truly want to understand what I apparently don’t now.

I’m begging for your comments!

Doug Canfield has been running an "other-minded" language center down in the Tennessee Hills for about 8 years. A lapsed (recovering?) medievalist and French teacher, his passion now involves emerging research paradigms for exploring language instruction and learning, especially in virtual worlds. His goals include fostering the use of technology for instruction, communication, collaboration, and recreation. His alter ego sometimes blogs elsewhere.


  1. Trish Early · March 7, 2009 Reply

    I concur wholeheartedly. As a graduate student myself, I find that I use my computer in clasws not only to take notes and embed interesting hotlinks from the class discussion, but also to instantly refresh my knowledge (“What was the fourth event in Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction?”) and make connections between information in order to situate my learning (“This seems very different from Mager and Pipes model…let me look that up.”).

    Rather than banning technology across the board, it seems more reasonable to look at a) the maturity level of the classes, b) the balance of legitimate versus illegitimate use of technology in the classroom, and c) more constructive ways of channeling and engaging minds that grow more and more accustomed to multi-sensory multi-tasking.

  2. itsalljustaride · March 8, 2009 Reply

    As I see it, there are three general scenarios where students would be using a laptop in any average class. The first is the obvious note-taking, second is surfing and ignoring the lesson, third is to fact-check and hit wikipedia every time the prof makes a statement.

    The problem with #1 is that, as the commenter on the other site mentioned, the tick-tick-ticking of people taking furious notes can be VERY distracting to some people, myself included. I’m a person who rarely takes notes, and I’ve become more adept at internalizing most of the information as it is presented in real-time. I know that isn’t the case with everyone, and everybody has different study-habits that work best for them, but when I’m trying to concentrate on a lecture and the person next to me is typing the complete text of the slides, well, it’s annoying to say the least.

    The flaws in #2 are obvious, so we needn’t ponder them further really, but #3 is an interesting one. I remember reading an article a while back about a prof who got so incensed by one student who had wikipedia up during the whole class that he had to ban laptops from his class. While fact-checking is a good habit, I think it’s better done after class. Then, next class period the relevant points can be discussed. Mulling it over out of class also allows you to maybe even look for counter points and do some deeper investigation. Otherwise that student is at high risk of becoming “that-guy” who raises his hand every 5 seconds to interject with a comment or question. Inquisitiveness is all fine and good, but instructors are people and excessive interruptions can throw people off and pretty soon the whole lesson has been tossed out in favor of a tangent.

    So I guess I’d say I’m OK with some instructors instituting no-laptop policies, but a blanket ban such as University of Chicago’s seems excessive and unnecessary.

  3. Lauren Rosen · March 9, 2009 Reply

    While I’m not a daily classroom teacher, I do more seminars than I can count in a semester and it is commonplace for participants to have their laptops open. What I find is that the majority are going to the websites presented & notetaking in the seminar and there are a few scattered participants emailing.

    Of course I don’t want to ban technology when that is the heart of what the seminar is about but what I have done, and it seems to be working, at least with adult learners, is to incorporate a ton of participant interactivity. I’m not talking about the Q & A participant to instructor type. I’m talking about the standing pair-share, or the turn and talk to the people behind you about…

    These are the same techniques that were spattered throughout my language classroom teaching and it worked then just as well as it does in seminars, whether they are an hour or 5 hours long.

    Yes, there are still a few email checkers but they have much less time for doing that and they discover very quickly into it that if they are doing that, they have trouble knowing what to do two seconds later when they have to pair or group themselves.

    Keep them active and engaged in your content (on or off the machine) and there really is no reason to have to ban the technology, IMO.

  4. Sarah Hurlburt · March 10, 2009 Reply

    As an early adopter and aggressive integrator of technology into my courses, AND as a professor who bans laptop use except when specifically invited, I’m a bit taken aback by two things in this post. First, it seems to me that the classroom model in the original post is uniformly a lecture model, whether or not laptops are allowed. The question is couched in terms of whether or not the *lecturer* (sage on the stage) is good enough to hold your attention. I think Lauren Rosen nuances this nicely, pointing out that a more interactive (not net-interactive, but people-interactive) classroom makes laptop use counterproductive, even if she does not actually ban them.

    I also appreciate itsalljustaride’s input insofar as the thing that pushed me to ban laptops was not the individual doing their homework instead of participating in the real time discussion, but rather my perception that any time one person is using a laptop, his or her immediate neighbors are likewise distracted by that person’s activity (regardless of what they are doing, even if it’s relevant to the course). Their mutual distraction creates a dead zone in the class discussion, 3-4 people who did not hear what just happened and are not prepared to respond. Perhaps they’re preparing to respond to something that happened 5 minutes ago — but they are not able to respond to what happened in the interim.

    I teach all levels of French, from beginning language to small senior seminars in French. I use blogs, voicethreads, screencasts, video projects, podcasts and timelines. Sometimes I ask everyone who has a laptop to bring them and divide the class up so that there’s at least one laptop per group, thereby creating a spontaneous media lab to research a particular task. On an ordinary day, however, I expect everyone to be participating in the class actively, and I do not allow laptops.

    When my husband and I find ourselves with dueling laptops across the kitchen table from each other, we have to close them up to have the conversation. It doesn’t matter that we are looking up material relevant to our conversation. We only hear each other with half an ear when our fingers are buried deep in the catalog of the French national library. In a situation where there is no question of lack of respect, or ignoring each other, we have to close the laptops if we want to have real, intellectual contact. I don’t believe that I am a tyrannical dinosaur for demanding the same of my students.

  5. Doug Canfield · March 24, 2009 Reply

    Overwhelmed with work, as usual…

    Responding to itsalljustaride: I think what we did in the EP class was to simply create a “zone” for the notetakers, which seemed to resolve the issues of the concentration-challenged in class. As for #3, even faculty who make it a point to follow up will miss key teaching moments, and I think I’m being kind to say that follow-up would be, at best, dismal across-the-board. And while I agree that there is always 1 or 2 students who are constantly counterpointing and raising questions, they would do that with or without the technology, so banning the technology doesn’t solve the problem.

    Responding to Lauren: I think you have a great solution…you are still using the technology in class, but then interspersing that with great F2F techniques that are “authentic” for the situation. Let’s face it…F2F is a powerful medium if it is harnessed wisely…if it wasn’t, all of our conferences would be virtual. There is something to be said about _authentic_ interchange.

    Responding to Sarah: While the publicized examples were likely lecture-format, I can think of several instances in language courses where “interactive” does not necessarily equate to “engaging”: Roleplay, content-based activities, decontextualized interaction, etc. etc. Anything that is not at least striving for authenticity is doomed to fail. This is where I think technology can be brought in in a meaningful way to augment class activities (a la Lauren), which I think you demonstrate nicely in your post as well. I’m not keen on banning the technology as much as I am on making its use counterintuitive to students when it needs to be. I don’t have to ban the student newspaper or SMS or anything else that way.

  6. Doug Canfield · July 17, 2009 Reply

    Here is an entry from the INCOMPARABLE danah boyd that is more eloquent than mine.:


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