Why Prof. Merlino bans laptops (and phones and tablets, etc.) during class meetings

  1. Distractions in the classroom are disruptions that inhibit learning and discussion, which instructors should take steps to minimize.

  2. Students don't need laptops and brains cannot respond to two complex stimuli at once.*

  3. Student laptop-use in the classroom is an unnecessary, preventable distraction that enables more harm overall than good.

  4. If an activity in the classroom is unnecessary and a preventable distraction that enables more harm overall than good, then it should not be permitted by instructors.

  5. Therefore, student laptop-use in the classroom should not be permitted by instructors.

Support for (1) - (3). There are four primary reasons why I ban laptops (including netbooks and PDAs) in the classroom.

First, laptops distract both the student who uses one to do non-class related activities and also those around him.

Second, laptops interfere with classroom discussion by creating a physical and mental barrier between the professor and students.

Third, laptops encourage poor note-taking skills, such as typing the class discussion verbatim, rather than processing and thinking about what is being said.

Fourth, laptop use in the classroom has demonstrable negative effects on comprehension and learning. Scientific evidence shows that people are bad multitaskers but good at noticing distractions.


I cannot eliminate all distractions but I can reduce the effects of some. Laptops are great tools but strong distractors. They are more detrimental than helpful to overall in-class learning. The classroom is a learning community, we all should be mindful of the effects of our activities on others, so we have to consider overall effects besides the self-serving benefits of personal laptop use.


1. "Dude, get better at teaching. If you were more interesting, people would pay attention. Were you more effective/competent/fun/cool, laptops would not be a problem."

Perhaps, but some of each class must be devoted to recaps, questions, mundane, unhelpful chatter, reiterating main points, etc. My audiences are large, diverse in ability and preparation. Many are disinterested or slackers. Some people are ahead, others are behind, I need to serve most of them. So actual edge-of-your-seat lectures are not likely. I need to do more not less to make the classroom environment more conducive to learning.

Besides, the problem is manifold: Laptop-use distracts in three ways - it disrespects bystanders and oneself plus the teacher, breaks concentration, lowers class-participation, the teacher shirks duty to make class-time less disruptive, enables transcription word-for-word of what is said rather than reflection (undermining critical thinking), and perpetuates the myth of effective multi-tasking. Would you allow laptops in high-school? It is unnecessary, disruptive and avoidable. Do you want profs expending energy policing use? Can you honestly say you would not be distracted by the flickering screen images on that nearby laptop or IPad, or its user chuckling at a recent Facebook post or funny image? Teachers do not have time to check whether students with laptops are on task and not distracting themselves and others.


2. "Get real. Distractions are everywhere, natural and we all have to deal, that's just life. Besides other things like revealing clothes or body odor, cologne/perfumes or tattoos are way more distracting."

Right, but we can create artificial environments where this is less so, environments more conducive to discussion, debate and learning, so we do. We make commutes a little safer with handheld cell-phone bans for these reasons, but it is far from perfect or a cure-all. Teachers can lessen distractions by technology, so they may ban laptops - they are not essential and demonstrably distracting.


3. "I need to use a laptop/iPad. It is inconvenient not to use one in class, I don't like it/can't learn without it."

You don't need it, you just want it. For centuries, students learned and took notes without laptops, many still do. The problem you keep overlooking is that laptops are never only used as note-taking devices, they are also distracting toys. Consider use-effects on others. When screen images or tapping on keyboards encroach on the mental space of others, teachers must lessen that as much as possible. It is overall worse for others if I let you use a laptop then it is good for you. Your desires do not override the interests of others. I know college is hard and this might make it easier, but not at the expense of making the in-class experiences of others even more prone to distraction.


4. "It is unfair or just mean. Banning laptops is a disadvantage, students in other classes get to use them. A ban deprives us of a useful tool and violates our rights/opportunities."

One can take notes and participate in class without a laptop. Learn to be efficient at processing details and framing thoughts without technology. In class is where you practice that. My point is that you interfere with the learning of others and yourself when you work on your computer.


5. "I have a difficulty/disability, so you should let me use a laptop, which makes note-taking easier."

I doubt your disability REQUIRES that you use a laptop. Nevertheless, if a student has an alleged disability, where testing or a medical diagnosis reveals an impediment, then they have a case for reasonable accommodations and should seek documentation from campus Services Students with Disabilities. Be advised, you will need to make the case that using a laptop is the ONLY way for you to get reasonably accommodated, which has never, to my knowledge, ever been substantiated. Please discuss accommodation needs with me after class or during my office hours early in the semester. You will need to show official paperwork. I will not allow anyone any advantage I cannot extend to everyone.


6. "Allowing use is overall better than disallowing. The benefits of student laptop use outweigh its costs, so we should not ban their use."

Insufficient data - this has not been demonstrated, also, grant that a near future would make this so by enhancing learning. Where everyone has a laptop, teachers ought to incorporate their use. But such a future is not now. Laptops can aid learning, but everyone needs to have access and a course-re-design could then be done. When everyone has a laptop I will permit them, because the course will be made to use them effectively.



Brain bottleneck


*Supporting data for the ban

People overestimate their ability to multitask (Rubinstein et al., 2001, and see sources below). Talking on the phone while driving isn't the only situation where we're worse at multitasking than we might like to think we are. New studies have identified a bottleneck in our brains that partially explains why we are incapable of true multitasking. If experimental findings reflect real-world performance, people who think they are multitasking are probably just underperforming in all of their parallel pursuits. Practice might improve your performance, but you will never be as good as when focusing on one task at a time. Multitaskers interacting with electronic media perform more poorly on cognitive measures of attention, processing, memory and task performance than do non-multitaskers. This should be obvious, but see the following research papers for details.


Scientists find limits to what our brains can process at any one time because of inherent sticking points in perception, memory, and brain-processing.

Limit 1: Attentional blink: When presented with a sequence of visual stimuli in rapid succession in the same spatial location, we often fail to detect a second meaningful target occurring in that succession - our brains cannot respond to two stimuli at once. It takes time to identify what we are perceiving. When we focus closely on one thing, we miss the thing that comes immediately after it. In experiments, people failed to notice when two people in a scene exchanged heads. In class, we miss who said what or which bit of evidence goes with which conclusion when we do not focus on what is going on.

Limit 2: Change-blindness: Short-term memory can keep track of about 4 items at a time, but far fewer when they are complex. We look at scenes but we often do not see changes - this is called change-blindness. It happens because to see an object or a scene change, it is necessary to attend to it. We miss light changes at intersections or subject changes in conversation because of this. See the video: viscog.beckman.illinois.edu/flashmovie/15.ph

Limit 3: Psychological refractory period due to an inherent response-selection bottleneck: When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task delays or overrides the second one. Call this dual-task interference (2006: Neuron, vol 52, p 1109) which delays or derails information-processing capabilities in the human brain. I.e., Selecting appropriate responses to multiple stimuli sucks brainpower which makes simultaneous tasks unmanageable. It is a hardware limit: You can't process let alone reply appropriately to a hard question while typing or messaging on the phone. Try reading a weblog while on the phone with IT support. Or follow a logical argument while paying attention to a computer screen in the same visual field. Try to read the newspaper while also paying attention to someone talking to you. Try not to notice the flashing/moving/talking advertisement while you view search results or email on a Yahoo homepage.

Presumptions: There are biological considerations and ethical implications we must consider here. You cannot do what you think you can - doing two things at once well is severely constrained by our brain's neural networks. You may not do whatever you feel entitled to do, and if there is a good reason not to permit an action for the sake of others, then you ought to expect not be permitted to do it sometimes. Just like mildly drunk people are sure they can drive safely, multitaskers are certain they can do at least two things well at the same time. They are not lying, but they are deluded and self-absorbed.