Student Laptop Use in the Classroom — Mark Morton

students-with-laptopsThe Centre for Teaching Excellence has nearly a hundred succint, pragmatic, and evidence-based “Teaching Tips” on its website. Moreover, we continue to develop new Teaching Tips as the need arises (and as resources permit). Down below is a Teaching Tips document that I recently drafted, pertaining to students using (or misusing) laptops in the classroom. I’ll eventually add this document to our “official” list of Teaching Tips, but I thought I would first post it here, and invite anyone who is interested to give feedback on it.


Student Laptop Use in the Classroom

Laptops, tablet PCs, PDAs, and even smart phones all have great potential as classroom learning tools: many students use them to take class notes, while others use them to record lectures for later review. Instructors can further leverage the learning potential of laptops by encouraging students to make use of specific electronic documents during class. For example, an instructor might upload a skeleton outline of a lecture to the online course management system; the students then open that document and add the missing information as the lecture or class proceeds. Studies have shown that when an instructor provides this sort of partial outline, which is to be filled out by students, it results in more learning than when an instructor provides either a full transcription of the lecture or no notes at all (see the Resources cited at the end of this Tip Sheet).

However, laptops and similar electronic devices also have the potential to disrupt classes. For example, students some students might be distracted by the tapping of numerous keyboards. Wireless connections, too, might tempt students to check their email, post to Facebook, or watch videos on YouTube during class. Not surprisingly, many instructors have questions about how to manage problems that might arise from laptops in the classroom:

Can I ban laptops from my classroom?
No. Laptops are a required learning tool for many students who are registered with the Office for Persons with Disabilities (OPD).

Can I ban laptops from my classroom for everyone except students registered with OPD?
No. Doing so would essentially force a student to reveal to his or her classmates that he or she has a learning disability, which he or she might not want to do. Moreover, laptops are a learning tool that all students might reasonably expect to avail themselves of.

Can I ask students to close their laptops during certain class activities?
Yes, within reason. You can require laptops to be closed during quizzes or midterms, just as you can require textbooks to be closed or packed away (in such circumstances, students who are registered with OPD and who require the use of a laptop would have made alternative arrangements for writing the quiz or midterm). It’s probably also reasonable to ask students to close their laptops for short times during other activities, such as during a small group discussion.

Some of my students have complained that it’s hard to concentrate in the midst of all the tapping being made by classmates who are taking notes with laptops.
You can probably remedy this problem by designating the back of your classroom as the “laptop zone” and the front as the “non laptop zone.” Ask laptop users, too, to place their laptop on something soft (like a binder or sweater), so that the tapping doesn’t resonate through the hard surface of their desk or table.

What can I do about students who habitually use their laptops during class to check their email or to go on social networking sites like Facebook?
Apart from appealing to their sense of courtesy, or referring them to studies that show cognitive multi-tasking results in poorer learning, there’s probably not much you can do to stop them. If students want to pay tuition only to spend the class time surfing the web, daydreaming, or dozing, that’s their prerogative — unless it becomes a distraction for other students, in which case, see below.

I’ve had several students complain about the visual content that a classmate is accessing through his laptop during class.
University Policy 33 (“Ethical Behaviour”) states that “no member of the University community (faculty, staff, student) unduly interfere with the study, work or working environment of other members of the University or any aspect of another’s University activity.” The policy adds that “A ‘poisoned environment’ (or one that is intimidating, hostile or offensive) can be created based on any of the prohibited grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and can be described as comment or conduct that is contrary to the aims of maintaining a supportive, respectful and tolerant environment.” Using a laptop to view offensive or inappropriate images during class would certainly contravene this policy, and an instructor would therefore have the right (and perhaps the obligation) to direct a student to refrain from this activity during class. Similarly, if a student is using a laptop in class to view material that is not offensive per se but merely distracting to others — for example, to view a fast-moving car-chase video — it might reasonably be deemed to “interfere with the study, work or working environment of other members” of the class.


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Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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