A Case Against Laptops in the Seminary Classroom

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 challengesand 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.

22 thoughts on “A Case Against Laptops in the Seminary Classroom

  1. benespinoza

    This is an excellent pedagogical approach, Tim. It’s Grounded in the reality of the Trinity and enlivened by a posture of hospitality. Moreover, it fosters a genuine learning community and the fruitful exchange of ideas. Well-put.

    1. Jaime Hancock

      I agree, Ben. I’m a high school teacher, and I am trying to develop exactly these kinds of conceptions and attitudes towards learning and education in my classroom. I will definitely be quoting some of these ideas in my explanation of my methodology to my students next year.
      Tim, thanks for the reminder for all of us who are teachers, that our job is not to give information, but to develop a community of Faith seeking understanding. Great words.

      Grace and Peace,

  2. Haddon Anderson

    Good stuff. It’s easy for me to want the internet access, but I’ve learned how it goes. For me, what begins as a quick trip to Gmail turns into an excursion throughout social media. Not good. This is something that we, as students, need to be much more sensitive to!

    The sad thing is that I think students feed off each other in this. I’ve done this! I’ve looked a couple rows ahead and seen a student checking his fantasy team. Boom, there’s my cue. “Oh, if so and so is checking that, then I can surely check ESPN…” Pretty pathetic, but I’m sure I’m not the only sinful student who has embraced this logic.

    I also appreciate what you said about your physical posture. In thinking this through, I’ve noticed that the tendency to surf the Web is greater when the Prof feels distant — behind a tech cart and slowly reading off a Powerpoint. There’s a place for that, but it can be hard to remain engaged with this for numerous hours, especially when the Powerpoint can be accessed at a later time.

    Thanks for processing through this!

    1. timgombis

      Bad company corrupts good morals!

      Group behavior is self-reinforcing so that when things go bad, they go really bad, unless there’s an agent that arrests the classroom communal dynamic and drives in a healthy and fruitful trajectory. That’s the professor’s role. The prof. is the only one who can be the “classroom cop,” and that’s a delicate but crucial role. It takes real skill to set the larger vision, encourage a micro-culture of fruitfulness, goad along reluctant participants, and do so from a posture of cruciform weakness and warm invitation.

      1. Haddon Anderson

        So true. For the record, you played this “classroom cop” role very well in my days at the ‘Ville. Loved the fruitful conversations in those classes.

  3. j40bob

    I used a laptop in many classrooms and not in others. I would support the no laptop IF professors would not test on material that can only be accessed through note-taking.

    1. timgombis

      I agree–there needs to be commitment on both ends, and profs must be reasonable. I realize that any move I make in this regard will need to be accompanied by my provision of written materials for students to take with them.

  4. Gus

    Thanks for the article.

    I see what you’re saying, but how can we teach students to police themselves without banning laptops or iPads from the classrooms?
    I love the example of looking at our phone during a conversation, i think it is pertinent because we would never do that if someone “important” was having a meeting with us!

    1. timgombis

      I’m not sure, Gus, that at the seminary level it’s my task to train students to police themselves. But I think what can be accomplished is the experience of a compelling community of learning that is uninterrupted by certain technologies. Perhaps such experiences will lead to the hope that we can have fruitful relational experiences without such tools.

      1. guscalvinbass

        I agree!
        I guess your next few posts should be on how to cultivate this … =)

  5. David

    I’ve always had a no laptop rule in class. I don’t use “Trinitarian and cruciform” reasons for it–but rather “Miss Manners.”

  6. goodfindersobservations

    Tim, very well put as far as your goals for the learning environment is concerned. But, if there was no internet access, and your students were using their laptops for note taking ONLY, would that negatively affect your community learning goals?

    Through seminary and grad school I was never a passive learner, and the Professors who I came to love and respect were ones who were “barrier-less”, approachable, conversational, prepared and were masters of the learning process. These were the classes I never wanted to end. If having a machine on a desk for the sole purpose of taking notes does NOT affect the learning process of the community, and it’s not a barrier, then why ban it? The only reason to ban it, is because of a few who cannot refrain from http://WWW.something.com.

    I was in a corporate meeting in Vermont recently, and our CEO banned open laptops and open IPADS for half a day because he wanted undivided attention, and he didn’t “feel” he had it when laptops were open. Most were taking notes on them, but he didn’t have the confidence that the team was giving him their undivided attention. I completely get that, and it’s true. It’s a perception thing, a trust thing and possibly a feelings thing, and it can be very distracting to you the Professor and possibly the learning community as a whole because the team around you doesn’t know that you are JUST taking notes. All they see is your eyes glued to a screen while someone is talking.

    But, if an open laptop is not distracting, and it’s used appropriately for notes and notes only, then what’s the big deal? Do you as the Professor have full confidence if you have 50% of your class with open screens on their desks that they are 100% involved? Maybe, and Maybe not. So, it may not be an issue of the internet, Facebook or any other web adventure, but it may be that you just aren’t sure, therefore distracted, therefore ineffective in trying to accomplish your worthy goals as you have mentioned above.

    Now, if you ban laptops and you encourage students to go back to the more traditional “old-school” note taking approach, how will you know they aren’t writing a letter to their fiancee at the Master’s College, like I used to do as an undergrad…….well, only in those classes of Professors who weren’t as prepared, didn’t orchestrate and stimulate a vibrant learning community, or during classes of Professors that didn’t have worthwhile goals AND hold their students accountable to those goals.

    Yea, I must confess, those were the profs that I may have zoned out from time to time, wrote and read some great letters (No email back then) and sometimes even napped!

    Okay, now time to get back to work! Good Luck Tim!


    1. timgombis

      Good thoughts, John. Much of what I’m saying stems from that same thought–that those compelling classroom experiences can bear fruit for years. A big part of that is my own preparation and what I bring to class. But because such experiences have responsibilities going in both directions, it is up to me set the ground rules for engagement and not rely merely on positive reinforcement (a lively lecture, for e.g.). Just as Scripture provides both carrot and stick (to use a terrible analogy), I need to consider doing what I can to provide fruitful and compelling experiences.

  7. Jason Zastrow

    As you have already mentioned, a great deal depends upon the professor. My least favorite courses were the ones where a laptop was of necessity because the professor would just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk and typing is much more efficient than scurrying to jot down every drawn out though.t These were my least favorite because they did not capture all of my senses nor provide the experiential learning needed in formation. The use of technology really depends on the content and structure of the course, but even more so on the professor’s teaching style and the culture he invites and creates. So as a former seminarian, I plead, take control. Engage with us and see that all barriers are removed. As you’ve already promised, don’t bore us with unending lectures where we would rather be on Facebook or Google Chat because there is at the very least some interaction and microculture in the cloud that many professors do not cultivate in the classroom.

  8. Andy Snider

    Hey Tim, this is a topic I’ve thought about also, and I’ve come down on the side of allowing them. I saw this post while I was on a break from class this morning, so when I reconvened the class I asked them (22 students, about 17 of which were using laptops) what their reaction would be if I disallowed laptops. Responses ranged from “I would cry” to “it wouldn’t be too bad.” Then a brief dialog about our mutual responsibilities in establishing a fruitful learning environment ensued. Consensus was that it was possible to do that with or without laptops, so it was better to allow students the option if it is beneficial for them and they are faithful to fulfill their in-class responsibility to their classmates.

    In a world where paper is less and less desirable to many because of storage and searchability considerations, it seems better (in my context at least) to allow them the option to use the tool. If they use it as a toy instead, the rest of us in the learning community will pressure them to return to their role as classroom contributor and good steward of the learning opportunity and tuition money spent. So, to use your terminology, the learning environment can be Trinitarian and cruciform with or without tech, the difference is one of mutual discipleship in the community.

    Let us know what you decide and what factors make the key difference for you, I’m always interested in refining my thinking and method in this area.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for that, Andy. One reason I’m hesitant is that I haven’t yet begun a semester with an explicit naming of those responsibilities and the expected classroom dynamics. I’d rather do that first, perhaps with a mid-semester reminder, than ban them outright.

      1. Andy Snider

        If you outline that in a document, I’d love to see a copy if you’re willing. Blessings, friend…

  9. S Wu

    Great discussion, everyone. Tim, now I know where you are coming from. I think of the classroom as a learning community. I come in as a facilitator (who has done a lot of study and work on the topic) to assist the students to learn the Scripture together. There needs to be mutual respect for one another, between me and the students and between the students themselves. We all actively participate and listen – listen to one another and to God. I think good learn experience happens when my facilitation genuinely allows people’s opinions, stories and voices to be heard. I am all for banning laptops if that facilitates a good learning environment (assuming that the professor/lecturer provides sufficient materials for the students).

  10. benespinoza

    An excellent resource that talks about hospitality and community in the classroom is Henri Nouwen’s Creative Ministry. This is a resource I think all Christian teachers should re and re-read as they hone their craft.

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