Laptops in the Classroom

It’s the summer and I’ve been jotting down some notes and reflections after one year of teaching seminary.  One item occupying my mind over the last few weeks is what to do with students using laptops in the classroom.

When I taught undergraduates, I banned all electronic technologies.  They were nothing but a distraction and students could take notes using old-fashioned technologies like pen and paper just as easily.  I would tell students that if they couldn’t wait until after class to find out if someone had accepted their friend request, they could excuse themselves and visit the computer lab down the hall.

I didn’t think invasive and distracting misuses of laptops would be a problem at the seminary level.  At the start of the semester, I mentioned that computers were to be used only for the purposes of taking notes.  But as the weeks passed, I began to notice a few students using their machines for other purposes than taking notes.

I try to foster an environment that invites fruitful discussion and I value each student’s contribution.  Students using laptops are usually so absorbed that they’re less likely to engage in discussion or offer comments.

So I’m thinking once again of disallowing all electronic devices (I certainly wouldn’t be alone).  I do realize they can be helpful, but it seems to me that the costs to community learning outweigh the benefits.

42 thoughts on “Laptops in the Classroom

  1. Mike H. Brandes

    There have been a number of professors where I work (Palm Beach Atlantic University) that have banned laptops, or gone so far as to ask us, in IT, to limit the outbound traffic of wireless nodes in classrooms. A former professor of mine at Cedarville, Wes Baker, actually noted there was a statistical correlation in his classes that showed students without laptops actually scored considerably better on all exams than those who utilized laptops. Interesting.

  2. Mike H. Brandes

    Do it!. After working in Higher Education IT; I’ve noticed that a considerable amount of traffic (50-75%, depending) of all outbound traffic from classroom wireless nodes are facebook, twitter or something equally useless.

    1. timgombis

      I don’t doubt it. One way of solving the problem would be to stop having wireless in the building, or perhaps block it in certain rooms. Can they do that?

      1. Mike H. Brandes

        absolutely. In theory (and in practice, If requested) I can only allow certain computers to have access to outbound (non-internal) traffic. It’s really granular. I can block certain computers from certain websites, all computers from all websites, etc…

  3. benespinoza

    I agree, Tim. The inappropriate use of laptops and other electronic devices can actually hinder fruitful discussion and fragment learning communities. My experience is that the “old-fashioned” pen and paper works just fine in the classroom. Moreover, handwriting notes allows for more memory retention and keep students focused on the task at hand.

  4. Naomi

    Do it.

    In every other social or professional setting, continually checking one’s phone and laptop distract from the discussion and speaks poorly about the professionalism of the individual. In meetings in my office, only assistants use laptops, and how terribly would it reflect on you and your boss if used for anything but note taking.

    It’s not appropraite to pull out your laptop during dinner table conversation, so why should it be acceptable in the classroom, espcially when students pay to attend class and participate in dicussion?

    My biggest complaint about DC is the dependency on electronics/email/social media. Help your students by cutting the ties now.

  5. Haddon Anderson

    I’ll speak from the student’s perspective here…

    You gotta ban them. When I’m stuck in a three hour long class and allowed to use my laptop, you know what I’m going to do. Give it 45 minutes (probably not even that long), and my email is open. Another 30 minutes, Facebook. Another 15,

    When the opportunity to surf the web is there, it’s only a matter of time before I’m not using it for “school-related purposes.” It’s like placing a bowl of Skittles next to me in class and expecting me to not have any.

    What’s more, it seems like students have learned how to peer at Facebook while also gazing up at the professor just enough to appear “engaged.” After coining a one-liner on Facebook, one then looks up at the professor and nods as if everything in the class is “hitting home.” Don’t be fooled, we’re good at this. We even know how to text under the table while keeping our eyes fixed upon you.

    All that to say, laptops can be a major distraction. One of my professors at Moody asks us not to use them, and I’ve had the most fruitful discussions in this man’s class during my time at Moody. I think that says something.

    1. timgombis

      The funny thing, Haddon, is that it is SO OBVIOUS what people are doing when they’re on Facebook, email, or texting. I may have to write up some observations from over the years. “Facebook Face” is the most obvious thing, but there are many other signs–the looking up and nodding earnestly is hilarious! I was just thinking about that because I had one student who was always doing that. I wanted to call on him just to bust him, but didn’t have the heart.

  6. goodfindersobservations

    Really? I thought you were teaching in Seminary now Tim, not Freshman Bible 101 anymore?

    I can’t believe that this is even an issue to be honest. Isn’t Seminary a training ground for future Pastors, Church leaders, Para-church ministry leaders and seminary Professors? Interesting. How are these men going to lead in the future with integrity, when during their seminary years they didn’t have enough integrity and self-control to obey their Professors’ instructions to only use their laptops for notes only?

    I understand your point Haddon, but I strongly disagree on many fronts. If you don’t have the self-control necessary to refrain from stalking people you don’t know on facebook, or reading foxnews or playing words with friends, then leave your laptop at home! I thought Seminary was for adult students, you know the mature kind of student? Please don’t tell me Tim that you also have developed a seating chart to prevent cheating too?

    If you have to repeatedly give warnings to your students for surfing the web during a seminary class, then these students really don’t belong in seminary, it’s that simple. If you have to have an attendance policy, a demerit system or have classroom management issues as a Professor in seminary, then there are more concerning issues that may begin at your Admissions’ Office.

    There are many learning styles and modalities for many graduate students. Some like to take notes and then transcribe them at a later time on Word, while others like to record their Professors words and transcribe later, while some geniuses may not take any notes at all! Then there are those who I know who find typing their notes during class very effective.

    Banning laptops will penalize those mature students who are taking your class for all of the right reasons, who for years have developed a successful academic career with Dell or Apple on their desk.

    I pray that God will give you wisdom and discernment on what type of rules to put on your Syllabus for the fall semester, but my vote is do not ban laptops in your classes. After all, this is seminary!

    Hope you are blessed and doing well Tim. Have a great summer!

    Your Bro,

    John Espino

    1. timgombis

      I am pretty impressed, overall, with the quality of students we get at GRTS and our admissions people are wonderful, professional, and thorough. I do wish, however, that all my students had incredible self-control and were circumspect in all their ways, but there are still some who manifest their fallenness from time to time.

      Like I said, it doesn’t happen often, but it seems that among the handful who use laptops there are a few who don’t respect their classmates as they ought to. I’m not sure the solution is expulsion! And my hesitation stems from inhibiting good students from using their laptops, like you say. That’s what I really want to avoid.

      When I taught undergrads, it was clearer than it is now.

      Some of it might be that we have 3-hour block sessions, so the mind does wander a bit, especially for those who inhabit our frenetically paced culture. To sit for that amount of time and not be in touch induces insane anxiety — just try it!

    2. Haddon Anderson

      I hear you, John. But it’s not like I’m advocating for students to enjoy the freedom to peruse the Internet while in class. If one comes to class and is tune to Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else constantly, then that’s an obvious problem.

      Further, I’m not going to deem students immature for checking social media a few times during a 3-hour class. Many students do this and it’s not like it should raise a major red flag about where a student’s heart is. Sometimes it’s just that Hebrew exegesis can be rather taxing and some future scholar in the class keeps asking questions that no one can track with. When stuff like this happens, it’s only natural to quickly check e-mail or Facebook. I’m hesitant to conclude that such instances reveal those who “really don’t belong in seminary.”

      What’s more, I’ve taken numerous week long classes, where the class runs from 8 AM to 6 PM. I’ll be honest, if I don’t keep my mind running by sporadically examining something via the Internet, I’ll most likely be head-bobbing trying to stay awake. And that’s not a knock against any professors, sometimes classes are just long.

      I’m surely not trying to compromise the integrity of seminary, because surfing the internet during class can surely get out of hand. But on some occasions, it’s really no different than doodling on a piece of paper to simply try and stay awake.

  7. Sharon Ross

    It is distracting for other students when someone is on facebook or surfing the net.I found myself very irritated when near someone who was indulging themself in that way, and had to really pray for the ability to focus and not stay ticked off. I took notes like crazy in all your classes and not only survived but thrived. I tend to think that if someone is not engaged it says more about them than the prof or the subject matter. The word “integrity” comes to mind.

  8. goodfindersobservations

    I endured many years of classes in 3 hour time blocks and there were those Professors that made the time fly, (the great profs) and then there were those profs where if I had available then the digital temptations we have today, I too may have succumbed to some time on ESPN, reading why Manny Ramirez isn’t going to do squat for our A’s this season.

    I wasn’t suggesting to expel students, I’m just saying that in Seminary, at least when I went through, most of us really wanted to be there and we respected our Profs’ wishes and rules.

    Well….I’ve got to get back to work! My 22 minutes a day on FB is now complete!


    1. timgombis

      I hear you, John, that was my assumption when I began, which is why I didn’t ban them this past year. I thought people would want to be there, and most do! It’s just a few that create the issue, unfortunately…

  9. Allen Browne

    Hmm. *All* my varied translations, original texts, interlinears, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries are on my laptop (in Logos). I would be severely limited in a classroom that banned them. When I lecture, I actually project Logos onto the screen.
    Last year I attended a class where the lecturer asked us to close our laptops and open our Bibles. We had to explain that this sudden request was oxymoronic.

  10. joel willitts

    Accept you are in the 21st century Tim! You’re a dinasour. They’re paying for their education let them squander it.

    1. timgombis

      Perhaps you’re right–my kids certainly think this is the case! I wouldn’t mind some students throwing their money away, but I do mind when they distract other students who’ve sacrificed to be in seminary and want a rich classroom experience. That’s (part of) the rub.

  11. firechap31

    I just completed SYS-III with Dr. Wittmer. In the first class, he laid out benefits for taking a time-out from technology during class. It was “sold” to us in the form of a “fast” from our constant feed on information. In addition, our tables were rearranged so that we were in more of a circle. I really appreciated it since I’m easily distracted. That’s why I sit in front of class. Being in a circle made it really obvious if someone was looking down and smiling (texting). In the counseling field, guilt is good and shame is bad. Guilt is internal and leads to repentance; shame is external, coming from others or how we feel we are perceived by others and a lot like condemnation. I normally don’t vote for shame but I think it helped keep us on task and more engaged as a whole thus being a good thing in that context.

  12. Dave

    When I was attending seminary I was shocked by the continual use of laptops for other purposes. I was fortunate enough to be poor enough that I did not have a laptop. If I had, I probably would have given in to the temptation to surf all the nonsense at my finger tips. I felt left out and was quite distracted! I think it would be a good idea at the very least to discuss how silly it is to be doing everything else other than engaging in the class lecture and discussion. I don’t think it was ever mentioned in any of my classes that surfing the web, when you are being educated for the sake of a calling in ministry.

  13. LW

    Dr. Gombis, I have not been a student of yours, but I do agree….BAN THEM! I am a student at GRTS and had another student who got upset with me when I said something about her inappropriate use of a computer during class (to her). She would sit in the front row checking the weather, Facebook, etc. and I found it distracting. I have also watched someone work on assignments for her next class. As a student I find it very distracting. I too do not understand taking a class and not getting the most out of why you are there.

    If there were a way to just limit internet access that would be good. Those who still want to take notes could in Word, also many Bible software programs don’t need internet. Further, if students know at the beginning of the semester that they cannot use online Bibles then they would know to bring physical Bibles to class for use.

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  15. Gary T. Meadors

    I think you are correct and on the right track, Tim. Even with my better students, the temptation was too great.

    I think you might try in the transition period…Re-institute tough exams that require intense attention to course lectures. Miss the lecture material, flunk the exam.

    The one area I would redo in teaching…if I was back in a traditional classroom…would be to re-introduce rigid exams that measure specific content and skills. I watched this feature disappear over the years, and participated in its demise…usually because exams are a pain to compose and grade…but I think the student discipline required to excel on an exam has been lost in seminary courses.

    Exams and research papers rule.

    1. timgombis

      I’ve seen the exams you and Lawlor wrote–I’m overmatched!

      Reminds me of Don Humphreys’s comment to me about Bib Herm: “That was my favorite class in seminary, don’t screw it up!”

      With those words, I began my seminary teaching career.

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  19. Darryl

    I’d be using OneNote with audio, likely. Front row center for good lecture audio or if had to be back row the mini-tripod and shotgun mike would come out. Just a thought. No FB and such? Just block wireless in the classroom. Np signal = no problem.

    1. Darryl

      PS: When I had all day classes we had periodic breaks. On some, leave WiFi routers turned off, stretch,mingle, chat. On other breaks, turn on the WiFi for a time

  20. joelchopp

    I’m currently a grad student at Trinity (Deerfield), and I do think that the availability of facebook/twitter/cat-videos can pose as a huge distraction for the majority of students who use laptops. Having said that, I think the main distraction is internet access: if the route some of the above suggestions about curtailing wireless access is viable, I would strongly recommend that over banning laptop use altogether.
    For one thing, seminary classes go for about three hours, and pen/pencil and paper can be remarkably taxing if you are a copious note taker.
    Secondly, the overwhelming majority of students today can type significantly faster than they can write. I brought my laptop to class every week, and as a result I now have a near manuscript of the Wittgenstein lectures I attended – complete with a search function. The more difficult and substantive the concepts that your class is dealing with, the more valuable comprehensive notes become.
    I’m a bit of a Luddite myself, so I am in total sympathy of many of the above concerns. I own a vintage typewriter, but it is quite heavy and would probably be more distracting than the halo from my monitor. So keep the laptops. Ban the internet.

  21. Benjamin

    Being in my third year of a BTh, I would have to disagree with the majority here. Gradually over the last 1.5 years I have been using my laptop more and more in the classroom. And i do NOT use it for facebook, etc. I use it for study. I find it an extremely useful tool. I use Logos to look up bible references and OneNote to write notes on previously-circulated lecture notes. We also have some of our set readings emailed out to us, and I again use One Note to save paper (not printing).

    Furthermore, I commute to my college by bicycle, and I would much prefer to take one 13″ laptop with me in my backpack than a stack of books and lecture notes.

  22. Jim Batley

    The problem is becoming as handy with keyboard and software as we were with pencil and paper and open textbooks in days of yore. These old skills were learned and practiced from childhood on. Attention could be paid to the speaker without undo distraction. Training with standard special software interfaces to resources and note taking. Furniture with conveient adjustable places for attachment of keyboard and separate screen. And a semester of training on the basics of the software would be a big start.

  23. Malcolm Brubaker

    May I give another suggestion – change the role of the teacher from “sage on stage” to mentor. There is more information accessible, howbeit un-filtered, in our smart phones than anyone one of us have in our heads or in our notes/powerpoints. Can we expect our students to learn content on their own and then use classtime for processing, evaluating, and discussing?

  24. Patricia Harrison

    I don’t ban, but strongly discourage laptops, iPads, iPods, etc., in my classes because in my experience, most students (grads as well as undergrads) will misuse these, and distract others as well as themselves. The temptation is particularly strong for impecunious students with no Internet access at home! Research shows that multitasking (really alternating tasks) affects each activity badly. As well as trying to listen, take notes, and ‘like’ their friends’ photos all at the same time, these students set themselves a third task – to work at appearing engaged in the class. (This is unconvincing!) Another problem is that most batteries won’t last through a day, so by afternoon laptop owners congregate around power outlets, often at the back of the room, and drape cables all over desks and the floor, creating tripping hazards.

    But rather than just discouraging such devices, it’s helpful to make them unnecessary. The main thing is to make classes as varied and interactive as possible. For lecture segments I also distribute printed “Swiss Cheese Notes” – incomplete notes with ‘holes’ in them. Many students are poor note-takers (a multi-tasking activity in itself), so I give them an outline with gaps to fill in, sentences to complete, relevant graphics, multiple choice or T/F questions requiring them to process material as it is provided, discussion questions, etc. Proper nouns and new terms are included so they will be spelled correctly. The notes take time to produce, but I find this method encourages students to engage much better with lecture material, and ensures they have reasonably correct and complete notes for review.

  25. Parallax Perspective

    I did the pen and paper route my first year of seminary before I saw the obvious advantages of using a laptop in class. As a missionary, it just makes more sense to store your notes electronically. I ended up scanning my 1st year notes to PDFs, but OCR was impossible. Being able to keep Bibleworks open was also beneficial, and I also used Google books or internet archive to download any public domain book professors mentioned and added bookmarks and highlighting to the passages they quoted. Then it was a quick copy/paste to add it to my notes.

    That said, I was often tempted to check email and social media in class. I found it helped to sit towards the front of the class so I knew a dozen or more people could see my screen. Having taught undergrad, I know from experience that students never believe how obvious their actions are to their professors no matter how many times they’re told. I’ve often wondered if it would help to limit computer use to the first few rows and have a code of conduct enforced by the student body through nouthetic confrontations or something. The simple thought of others watching your screen might help improve some student’s computer usage.

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