SCHNACKENBERG: Banning tech

Annelisa technology in the classroom
Photo by annelisa leinbach.

In my history section, students are not allowed to use computers, iPhones, iPads or other forms of technology. We did get a free pass on the first day, when the policy was announced. The next week, seven out of eight students instinctively pulled out their computers, before fumbling around in their backpack for supplies. Most students had forgotten their writing utensils, so pens and torn-out notebook paper had to be passed around.

I was not the one student who remembered the policy. Even though I’ve had a few technology-free classes and sections over my almost three years at Yale, every time a teaching assistant or professor bans computers, I too am still surprised. After all, classroom technology use at Yale has dramatically increased in past years. To cite just a few examples, my art history class has no in-person section, just an online forum. Most reading responses are turned in on online message boards on Classes v2. In John Gaddis’ “The Art of Biography” seminar, students even use iPads that are loaned out to them for the semester.

With all this hype around bringing more technology into the classroom, there has been near silence about the reverse. There are no rules. No academic department, let alone the University as a whole, has laid out guidelines for if — or when — computers, iPads and the like can be prohibited. The question arises: Is there a place at Yale for classrooms — for lectures, seminars, sections — in which all student technology use is prohibited?

In the majority of classroom settings, banning students from using personal technology is unrealistic, impractical and unfair. However, in certain settings when implemented correctly, prohibiting student technology use can be a powerful tool to improve students’ classroom experiences.

Most of the time, student technology use in the classroom is a positive. In most lectures, students need the option of typing out notes more quickly than can be done by hand or following along the lecture slides. Computers and other devices help students look up unknown terms, or browse the class forum for questions that have come up from readings. Pulling up PDFs on computers is convenient, faster than printing and saves trees. Technology use in the classroom can be more than a positive; it can be outright essential, such as for students who require software to transcribe what the professor is saying.

Considering these benefits, it is clear that banning technology in the classroom should not be taken lightly, nor be the result of a hasty decision by an impatient TA or professor. Choosing a tech-free classroom changes the class dynamic significantly and should be carefully weighed against the benefits of allowing students to use computers.

However, in many sections, seminars and small language classes — where the focus is on interactive learning, often grounded in texts, quantitative problems or materials — the scale tips in favor of a ban. Some of the benefits are obvious. Removing computers aids students’ focus and enables more interactive discussion. Students’ notes turn out more coherent, less interrupted by Facebook browsing, email pings and the time it takes to refocus.

The most important reason why professors should give tech-free classrooms more than a passing thought, however, is different. It is not about focus, the most-oft mentioned reason for banning computers.

At Yale it often seems that we live in an always-on, always-available culture. There are seemingly few acceptable reasons left for why one has not responded to a text or an email. Sleeping, sports practices and taking an exam come to mind as the only valid reasons. These reasons are acceptable because we widely acknowledge them as all-encompassing activities that require our full attention. With computers, iPads and iPhones now used frequently during class, class has fallen off as a reason for being disconnected.

Forcing a class to disconnect grants students the freedom to put off responding to onslaughts of digital communication without guilt. Many students don’t necessarily want to be distracted by digital communication during class. But we are part of a culture here that rewards instant responses and constant communication.

Removing technology from the classroom, then, isn’t inhibiting but rather enabling. Closing computers and iPhones empowers students to detach from their ties to their inboxes and messages, and frees them to focus on class. They themselves aren’t making a trade-off between focusing on class and attending to messages, because the professor has set the situation that way by default. Professors have the power to remove this trade-off that so many students struggle with every day. Where possible, they should consider using this power.

Going technology-free in the classroom is not an easy, or even realistic, choice for professors to make in many cases. But the option to pare down a class to the professor and students — disconnected from everyone and everything else — at least deserves consideration and close evaluation for its potential benefits.

Kirsten Schnackenberg is a junior in Davenport College and a former staff reporter for the News. Contact her at kirsten.schnackenberg@yale.edu .

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