Laptop and Filtering Policies for Classrooms

I had the pleasure of teaching in the Research Symposium for Spanish and Latin American Academics, held at Harvard University this August.  As part of a three-hour session on learning with technologies, I assigned an exercise in which groups of teachers (mostly at the university level; a few teaching younger students) had to work together to come up with policies on laptops in the classroom. In honor of the school-year that is starting up, here are their respective proposals, live-blogged (I’m just presenting what they came up with, as faithfully as I can, and not endorsing any of these views in particular, just to be clear):

Group 1: Laptops should always be permitted.  Elementary and high schools should have a policy where teachers control the content that students can see.  A firewall should be established to protect the information environment such that some content would be filtered out at some levels of learning.  In universities, the environment should be less controlled but still filtered for sexual content, games, violence, and other sensitive material.  A survey tool nationwide should be used to assess whether this approach is working for the students in support of their learning.  (The spokesperson declared that there was disagreement as to this policy in the group, but that they decided to present a consolidated front.)  Other group members reacted to this proposal with concerns about who will watch the watchers (i.e., who will keep an eye on the people who choose what to filter out of these school environments); how to deal with sexting; how well suited young kids are to use laptops appropriately; and so forth.

Group 2: It should be the right of the professor to decide whether or not to allow laptops in class.  It depends a lot on the topic one teaches, the level of the students, the extent to which the campus is wired, and the penetration of laptops for students.  There was a debate within this group: what happens when some teachers say laptops should be banned across the board?  Then the dean and the faculty of a given school should be able to take a vote to ban laptops.

Group 3: This group agreed that, for an undergraduate college, where there is wifi available across campus, it should be up to the teacher in each classroom to decide.  But there should be a student veto: if a single student objects, a teacher should consider whether to ban laptops to avoid the negative externalities of laptop use on other students.  Secondarily, teachers can expel students for using laptops in a disruptive way.  There should also be an informal users’ group which offers information to students and faculty about the costs and benefits of laptops in the classroom.  This group reported that they were animated by a trust in students’ ability to use technology in a responsible way and wish to emphasize education of students along the way.

Group 4: This group said that it should be up to individual teachers whether to allow laptops or not.  It depends on a complex series of variables.  It’s too hard to have any other single policy that will work for all settings — in marketing and mathematics courses, the issues and pedagogies are very different from one another.  The school should underscore that it is important to consider the needs of students and how best to use technology in the classroom.

Group 5: This group decided unanimously not to have a policy.  They decided instead that there should be 3 principles established: 1) freedom of thought: students should be free to do what they like with their minds; 2) freedom of speech and teaching: institutions should trust teachers to make good decisions about teaching, including laptop use; and, 3) the principle of commitment to a good learning environment: professors and students can agree on rules at the beginning of a semester.  The dynamics of the class are very important and should be the focus of the teacher, who should think about how much time is devoted to any given task or mode.

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