A recent article in the New Yorker magazine tried to make the case of banning laptops in higher education classrooms. While many instructors bristle when students are not engaged, simply banning laptops is not the solution. A ban on laptops will then extend to other devices, and displace the benefits of technology that can be integrated into class environments.
A better way to approach the laptop issue is with a suggestion for a better alternative. The dialogue should center on the most effective way to use technology in the classroom. Research has supported that note taking is less valuable when typing as compared to writing. The cognitive benefits of writing notes seems to outweigh just typing notes with a keyboard. Read here for more insight about the cognitive value of written notes compared to typed notes.
The new generation of tablets can support efficient and natural hand writing, analogous to writing on paper. This in turn helps tablets to become more valuable than they have been thus far in learning settings. Tablets with active digitizers and stylus pens are becoming more widespread, with the notable introduction of the Microsoft Surface Pro. Writing on a screen with an active digitizer is much better aligned with learning needs than is a keyboard for note taking and annotating text. The ability to include graphics, drawings, diagrams, highlights, underlining, etc. are an important part of notes. It's not a zero sum game; students can also type as necessary with the keyboard.
In addition to tablets with improved writing surfaces, the other features such as more powerful processors from Intel enables full versions of popular software, not just apps. Hence, students can also use programs like Excel during class as necessary, while also having a natural and efficient writing surface. Here is another example of how a device meeting the learning needs of students aligns more closely with the environment.
Any technology can be a distraction when a class is not engaging. We cannot root out all reasons why students are not engaged, including simple daydreaming. What we can do is the better align technology with learning needs, and of course, create interesting and active learning environments to foster engagement. Banning laptops is a short sighted solution and a knee jerk reaction to the issue of student engagement. The real solution is to consider technology options that better serve the needs of students, and integrate more fluidly into learning environments.
This is not an endorsement any particular tablet brand, but aimed at illuminating the Surface Pro 2 and 3 as examples of functionality that offers the promise to augment learning activities including those while students are in class. Tablets will continue to emerge with many of the features of the Surface Pro, especially with active digitizer technology to support writing. The ubiquitous use of laptops in class is very likely to be displaced by more powerful tablet technology. Learning how to use technology, technology etiquette, and engaging learning atmospheres all need to coexist.