As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m considering banning laptop computers from my classes. If I do, here’s why.
I consider seminary classrooms to be learning environments rather than lecture halls. Most seminary students are already self-motivated people who can learn on their own. They have access to much of what I’ll talk about in class.
So my task isn’t so much to tell students items of information they don’t already know (though there will be some of that), but to foster a community of learning in which students can make connections between biblical texts, theological realities, and ministry challenges—and to do this along with one another.
In such contexts, students have responsibilities to one another. They are not free agents–individualistic consumers who attend a class for their own benefit. They are members of a community and ought to give themselves fully to their classmates.
This is a specifically Christian conception of education—Trinitarian and cruciform.
This involves, in the very least, coming to class prepared to ask good questions about assigned reading, asking thoughtful questions of one another, affirming one another, challenging others’ comments, asking for further elaboration of someone’s contribution, and sharing from one’s experience.
Many people are communal learners—they grasp concepts and their implications more fully when they hear others think through them. Because of that, professors and students must be fully present, prepared to invest entirely in each class meeting.
Everything about a classroom–the tables and chairs, the technology used, and the physical situation of professor and students–should work towards fostering a fruitful learning environment.
I’ve come to realize that my physical posture in class is vital. I don’t stand behind a lectern or tech-cart, since those can be powerfully symbolic barriers. I’d rather send embodied signals of invitation and openness rather than prohibition.
The importance of embodied behaviors can be seen in everyday conversation outside the classroom. When a friend places a cell phone on the table during a coffee shop chat, or when he constantly checks his phone to see if he’s received a text, he signals that he is not fully present, that he’s distracted, or that he will prioritize a text or a call over giving me his full attention.
While such mundane habits are common nowadays, we should see them as practices that constitute something less than Christian conversation.
In the same way, laptop computers can be obstacles to the creation of fruitful learning communities. Their threat to community is dramatically increased by internet access.
A few months ago, I referred to Albert Borgmann’s excellent discussion of “the normative pattern of technology.” Every technology has benefits, which is why we use them.
But Borgmann warns that we can be so taken with a technology’s obvious advantages that we are blind to its significant costs. With every technological gain, there are losses, and these usually involve the diminishment of human community.
I’m still in process on this, but I’m just trying to consider the classroom costs and whether the losses are worth the benefits gained.