The following is a guest post by Jeff Lockhart.
Recently, Cindi May argued in Scientific American that “Students are Better Off without a Laptop in the Classroom.” As with the numerous articles in this vein that preceded it, May’s article was picked up by many academics on social media as proof that they were right to ban laptops in their classrooms. Others have responded that students have always found ways to distract themselves, that banning laptops is infantilizing and that it’s harmful to students with disabilities, among other objections. Although these are important concerns, I want to focus here on a few frustrating trends in the research and reporting on classroom laptop use.
Equating laptops with the internet. Laptops do, of course, have other uses like typing notes and searching PDFs. Yet Ravizza et al.’s paper, which May cites as the primary proof laptops are bad for student learning, measures only laptop internet use. Nevertheless, this paper and reporting about it draw conclusions about the value of laptops in general. (To be fair, the paper calls for future study of “non-Internet laptop use,” but this point is lost in subsequent reporting.)
Equating keyboards with verbatim transcription. Much of the pro-laptop-ban writing cites research that taking notes is better with pens than keyboards. The causal mechanism they propose is not the note taking technology, however, it is the note taking style. Verbatim transcriptions foster less learning than summaries. They observe verbatim notes are associated with keyboards and posit that this is enabled by the greater speed of typing relative to hand writing. That’s a real association with a plausible mechanism, but this two-step process (technology causes style causes learning outcomes) needs to be disaggregated. The first step remains largely untested, and there are compelling reasons to question the association between technology and style. For instance, some students learn to take verbatim notes with pens in high school debate, and shorthand is not an entirely lost art. Others type too slowly to transcribe, or have learned to synthesize ideas while typing notes. Conceptual note taking may even be enhanced by laptops, as students can rearrange ideas and make insertions much easier with digital text than ink. The issue demonstrated by research is not laptops themselves but how they’re used.
Equating laptops with multitasking. Like the previous point, this is a two-step argument: laptops cause multitasking, which causes decreases in learning for both the multitasker and nearby students. Proponents have done a better job of naming and defending the empirical link between laptops and multitasking, but they don’t often examine whether that link is fungible.
These false equivalences lead people commenting on the research to take blanket policy stances that ignore the possibility of heterogeneous treatment effects. Maybe not all students use laptops the same way. As Jeffrey W. McClurken points out, these studies generally “don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes.” Such students do exist. My high school adopted laptops for note taking in 2006; those first students are now 25 years old. 45% of K-12 students were using laptops in school daily by 2014. Predicting which students will have this experience is not simple. They probably skew disproportionately wealthy, but many school laptop programs aim to increase access for lower income students (results are mixed). Rigorous interrogation of the relationship between laptop use and learning outcomes in college should examine students who come to college with experience using laptops in class. If laptops are good for anyone, it is probably them. Likewise, students who haven’t used pens for notes in years are particularly likely to struggle with laptop bans.
Although Scientific American omitted it, there is some evidence in Ravizza et al.’s article supporting this idea. They found a negative effect of internet use on grades for those students who said it had a negative effect on their grades—but they did not find any effect for students who said their grades would be unaffected. This is consistent with some students being rightfully confident in their ability to learn while using laptops in class. (Some cautions: this study—like most on the subject—was published in a psychology journal using relatively a small N.) Our understanding would benefit from more research on the actual process and mechanisms connecting technology and learning outcomes.
Commentary on this research would benefit from more attention to the details of these studies. The mechanisms posited by research are complicated, and important parts of them remain untested. In a class similar to the economics course at West Point, one might decide to ban laptops because a large, randomized, controlled trial showed that, on average, the ban increased grades. But how we justify that policy matters. In cold, utilitarian terms, we can choose to institute a ban because it will help the most students (or provide a huge boost to a minority of students…). But we should acknowledge that this policy may hinder some students who learn better with laptops consider seriously how many of our students this may be. Absent the time and resources to teach students effective technology use, one may decide this tradeoff is reasonable. Too often, it is discussed as if laptops are categorically bad for all students, which is a broader claim than current research supports. With different kinds of courses or groups of students, banning laptops may not have a net-positive effect. The edge cases are untested and even some ban advocates find it plausible. In either case, simplistic “ban vs no ban” debates and experiments prevent us from imagining and evaluating alternatives like teaching study skills. “Laptops are bad for learning” is a catchy polemic, but the studies it is based on support far narrower claims.
Jeff Lockhart is a PhD student at the University of Michigan.