Kip Kosek: Why I banned laptops

Madeline Twomey’s excellent Op-Ed challenges the GW community to think hard about technology and education. Twomey was “appalled” to find that one of her professors banned laptops from discussion sections. As the professor responsible for that decision, I may be able to shed some light on it. I have come to believe that laptops with wireless access can present a major obstacle to learning, especially in small, discussion-oriented classes.

I forbid laptops in most of my seminars and discussion sections, though I do allow them in large lectures. I did not make this rule because I am anti-technology. I agree with Twomey that technology has improved our lives in many ways. Certainly, the courses I teach on American history and culture would be greatly impoverished without online resources. I have no desire to go back to arranging slides in a plastic carousel, as my own professors did, rather than pulling historical images instantly from the Library of Congress Web site or ARTstor.

Nor did I intend the laptop ban as a paternalistic gesture directed at immature children. The addiction to online communication is a societal issue that transcends any particular age group. The embarrassing sight of members of Congress texting their way through the State of the Union address shows us that not even the rich, powerful and old are immune to this compulsion. At the same time, the phenomenon of texting while driving offers clear proof that people will stay online even when doing so endangers their very lives.

These extreme examples demonstrate why a ban on laptops in the classroom is sometimes necessary. For whatever reason, we – not just college students, but all of us – are unable to resist the lure of constant online access. Yet certain activities require the sustained attention that the Internet impedes. Driving a car is one such activity. Discussing complex ideas is another. Everyone knows that students with laptops in class frequently use them for non-class activities such as Facebook and e-mail. At this time, the only answer I can see is to remove the temptation. We can embrace the value of new technologies while also defining contexts where their use is inappropriate.

Twomey claims that “it is a student’s individual choice to pay attention – or not – in class.” She is right to point out that students ought to be responsible for their own learning, but wrong to suggest that this responsibility is merely individual. Quality education results from the collaborative interaction of engaged thinkers, not from professors imparting content to passive individuals. Distracted students hurt not only themselves, but the rest of the class as well.

Twomey’s other objections to banning laptops have merit, but are not ultimately convincing. I require students to print out readings and bring them to class, a practice she estimates will cost between $45 and $75 over the course of a semester. This is a substantial sum, but no more than she would pay for an ordinary American history textbook. Her argument that printing so much paper harms the environment has more weight. However, the fairly small environmental impact would have to be measured against the effects of having every class member’s laptop running for fifty minutes each week.

So I’m going to keep my no-laptop rule for now. In the long run, though, banning laptops may well turn out to be, as Twomey says, a “failed answer.” The better answer, I think, is to make technology more effective, not just more prevalent, in the GW educational experience. Perhaps the solution itself can be in part technological: The Washington Post recently reported that Bentley University in Massachusetts has installed a system that allows professors to turn classroom Internet access on or off as needed. Whatever the way forward, we must try to reap the benefits of the online world without subordinating every aspect of learning, and life, to its subtle coercions.

The writer is an assistant professor of American studies.

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