No laptops, no phones.

by Harry on December 22, 2022

In one of the end-of-term reflections I just read a first-year (freshman) student says “It struck me that there was a no technology rule, something my classmates and I were unfamiliar with… when you disconnect from your online presence, you can fully dive into the discussion”. I have a no-laptop, no phone policy in all my classes, and have yet to hear good reasons to give that up. Maybe you can give me some.

In the background: I believe her that most of the students who went to public schools would be unfamiliar with a no technology policy. The local schools rely on laptops entirely for access to textbooks, and until this year the school district has not permitted schools to have a no-phone policy. I think you can imagine that in high school preventing teachers from telling students to put their phones away and sanctioning them if they don’t comply is a total disaster, and is perceived as such by the teachers and, in fact, many of the students (“If other kids are on their phones the teacher can’t teach so there’s no point in paying attention, so I might as well be on my phone”). I vividly remember the first course in which phones were a problem for me: not until 2014, when 4 girls were just routinely on their phones in a small class in which I could see what they were doing, and I didn’t really know what to do. After that I adopted the policy I have now.

I teach philosophy, which is hard. And I trust that my students can read, so if I have a lot to tell them I write it down and get them to read it. That’s not to say that I don’t go over it sometimes in class. But the point of having class is to do learning that won’t (or possibly can’t) be done outside of class. That is, mainly, problem solving: thinking and talking together about the arguments and ideas that I want them to understand, and practicing the skills of analysis and reflection that philosophy is particularly good at developing, and which are essential to doing philosophy. So they don’t really need the laptops for note-taking.

Not that most students who use laptops use them for note-taking. I spend a fair amount of time observing other people’s classes, usually from the back. Few of the teachers are bad, and many are pretty good. In classes which allow laptops anything from 1/3 to 2/3 of the students have them in front of them, and at any given time almost all the screens I can see are email, shopping sites, gaming sites, and television/movies. I’ve sat in numerous classrooms in which fewer than half of the students are paying any attention to what is happening in class.

I don’t exactly blame them: once inattention is the norm, the instructor often defaults to lecture and its not uncommon for the lecture to be more or less word for word repetition of what is on very text-heavy slides.[1] But when they are not paying attention they are not learning, and it is exceedingly difficult to generate high quality engagement in a room in which half or more of the students are otherwise engaged.

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