Devices In the Classroom?

Should instructors allow students in their classes to use electronic media devices — laptops, tablets, smartphones — in class?  That question has often been a hot one among teaching faculty and opinions vary widely.  Recently Clay Shirky, who teaches telecommunications and journalism at New York University, decided after many years to ban the devices from his classroom and has now written an extensive and thoughtful explanation of his decision, which is now available on the website of the Public Broadcasting Service.  Here is how Shirky begins:

I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for Internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the Internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude toward technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students or the rest of the classroom encounter.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (“lids down,” in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it).” Here’s why I finally switched from “allowed unless by request” to “banned unless required.”

The rest of the piece employs the findings of studies in cognitive science and communications to explore the issue at a level of depth that, in my experience at least, is rare.  If like many of us you’ve been thinking about this issue, Shirky’s contribution is well worth reading, whether you ultimately agree or not with his conclusions.  (Speaking for myself, I expect to continue allowing students to use laptops — ostensibly to take notes — but I’m much less sure of the wisdom of this than I was before reading Shirky.)  The essay is here:

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