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Teaching and Learning Technologies

Reflections on the Use/Banning of Mobile Devices in the Classroom

April 5, 2021
Chris Clark

While reading ProfHacker, I discovered “On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom” by Jeffrey McClurken, a professor of history at the University of Mary Washington. The strength of my own conviction may waver, but I fundamentally disapprove of a blanket ban on mobile devices in the classroom.

I particularly like McClurken’s point about high school students coming from an open laptop environment to a college atmosphere where the devices are forbidden. I would add that after students graduate they move on to a work where mobile device use is not restricted. What does this say about higher education?

The main argument is that it distracts students – not only the one using the device but also those nearby. If distraction is the issue then let’s cover up all windows, require modest uniforms, forbid tardiness, and so on. Bad ideas, huh? Students need to learn to deal with distraction.

Research suggests that students who take notes on paper they are likely to summarize and use their own words, while laptop note-takers tend to take down information verbatim. Let’s give students this information and allow them to make the choice.

Lately I have given a lot of thought to the debate over laptops in the classroom. Should they be encouraged or forbidden – or is the answer somewhere in the middle? Just when I am convinced that I have the right of it, someone suggests another angle and my position melts away. It’s like there are two of me.

C: Laptops are like pen and paper. If we allow students to use old school tools to take notes, then they should also be able to use the new ones.

G: Pen and paper are only for writing. Laptops are sophisticated communication tools that distract the students who are using them.

C: Students who are subject to distraction will be distracted whether they have a laptop or not. The laptop is simply more obvious.

G: The temptation to catch up on FaceBook and read emails is too great – like leaving the keys in the car. And the distraction extends to classmates who can see their neighbors watching YouTube or checking sports scores.


I’ve been mulling over the question of laptops in the classroom for a while, and decided the time for action had come when I read Best Practices for Laptops in the Classroom by ProfHacker’s Mark Sample. This excellent post includes five recommendations from a report by the CRLT at the University of Michigan. I’m going to borrow the CRLT’s ideas and add a few more.

For the purposes of this article, “laptops” includes tablets – they’re basically skinny laptops with no keyboard. I understand that tablets are a bit of a different case and perhaps they are less distracting. Nonetheless, tablet use is soon going to be much more common in classrooms. It would be foolish not to consider them in this discussion.

If you are leaning towards a complete ban on laptops, I hope the ideas presented in this article will encourage you to reconsider. Students who have pens, papers and books in front of them may only be slightly less likely to become distracted than those with iPads.

Important points

  • Class size matters – it should be easier to monitor and shape behavior in a small group
  • What’s the class M.O.? – do students only need to pay attention to the professor or are they frequently engaged in deliberate active learning

Guidelines for Creating and Implementing a Thoughtful Laptop Policy

  1. Keep all three parties in mind – teacher, laptop-using students, and other students. How will each party benefit or suffer from restrictions on laptop use?
  2. Discover what students want to be able to do – would they use laptops to refer to e-texts, collaborate on note-taking, look up data …?
  3. Specify acceptable use – rather than resorting to an absolute ban, let students know what is okay to do with laptops during class time
  4. Set aside a laptop-free zone – allocate a seating area where no one may use laptops, providing a “safe” space for students who would be distracted
  5. Reserve the right to say “Close the laptops!” – perhaps during a discussion or group work. Your policy doesn’t have to allow uninterrupted laptop use.
  6. Tell students what rudeness means – identify behaviors you find most objectionable, such as distracting others. Students may not know, and other professors will have different hot buttons.
  7. Be honest with yourself – if you were a student, would you find the class laptop policies reasonable?
  8. Communicate the policy clearly to students – make it part of the syllabus
  9. Plan to enforce the rules – there should be teeth behind your policy and you should be ready to clamp down.
  10. Purposefully incorporate laptop activities – use them to increase interactivity, for example, or to help generate ideas. Laptop users are less likely to become distracted when actively engaged.

Hat tip to Jason Jones for Five Tips for Dealing with Gadgets in the Classroom.