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Why You Should Consider a Tech-Free Classroom

New research and my own class experiment supports going tech-free.

difisher/Pixabay Free for commercial use. No attribution required.
Source: difisher/Pixabay Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

This post was co-authored by Dr. Bridgette Hard, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University.

As a diversity scholar, I am always thinking about the various identities (visible and invisible) that may be present in my classroom when I teach. But one identity I haven’t spent nearly enough time thinking about is the “tech-free” identity that I am now trying out for the first time this semester in my Introduction to Social Psychology course with 100 students. Yes. No laptops, phones, or surface tablets.

But I’ll let Dr. Bridgette Hard who was my inspiration to be bold enough to go tech-free this term weigh in on her results from past work and her own classes first:

I’ve taught large lecture courses for a long time. Initially, students’ laptops didn’t seem like such a big deal, but over the years, it seems the potential for laptops to distract my students has increased. My students (and I) really like laptops for quick note-taking, but they definitely invite multitasking and “cyber-slacking” behaviors like browsing social media, checking emails and texts, playing games, and watching videos (Ragan et al., 2014). I also started digging into the research literature and discovered plenty of evidence that multitasking during a lecture distracts students and leads to poor learning and worse grades (Wood et al., 2012). I also learned that multitasking creates a kind of distraction “pollution” in the classroom, distracting nearby students and hinders their learning (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013). When I surveyed my own students, I found evidence of a clear negative correlation between grades and how much students engaged in multitasking and felt distracted by other students’ multitasking.

There is also growing evidence that “tech-free” courses and “tech-free” class periods lead to better learning for students, and that these benefits extend beyond a given classroom (Carter, Greenberg, & Walker, 2017; Glass & Kang, 2019). Controlling for a variety of factors (such as academic discipline) one study found that students enrolled in at least one course with a tech-free policy were less likely to use laptops in laptop-optional courses and earned higher GPAs compared with students who didn’t experience a tech-free policy. In contrast, students who experienced at least one laptop-required course were more likely to use their laptops in laptop-optional courses and tended to have lower GPAs (Patterson & Patterson, 2017).

Given the growing evidence, I wanted to give tech-free a try, but I was terrified because when I surveyed students at the end of a semester in which laptops were allowed, they seemed incredibly pessimistic that a tech-free policy would be beneficial—only 28% supported it. But I decided to be bold and take the risk. And it paid off. Students who experienced the policy really loved it. In a survey two weeks into the term and again at the end, students overwhelmingly (86%) reported that the policy was helpful. Students in the tech-free class also reported higher levels of academic engagement and scored 5% higher on exams than previous semesters.

Before instructors decide to take the tech-free plunge, there is an invisible identity that needs to be carefully considered, and that’s the invisible identity of students with learning disabilities. Instructors have to recognize that some students may legitimately need a laptop in class. You must ensure that your tech-free policy does not discriminate against these students or “out” them to the class. This requires signaling flexibility in your policy.

I recommend allowing any student to make a case that they need technology to be successful in your class, and permitting laptop use for most students who make a compelling case, including for reasons not related to disability (e.g., very poor handwriting). I’ve done this each semester with a statement in my syllabus and several reminders in class. Usually, a handful of students take me up on it, half for reasons related to disability and half for other reasons. Any student who asks to use a device in class signs a contract that requires them to:

  1. Restrict their device use to note-taking
  2. To be mindful of where they sit in class

I do not require students using laptops to sit in any particular part of the class (e.g., in the back), as students with certain disabilities may need to sit in the front or prefer to sit somewhere less conspicuous (e.g., toward the side). I reach out directly to students with documented accommodations recommending a laptop to signal that I hope they will feel comfortable using their laptop in class and offering the contract to sign. Finally, I make it clear to the class that anyone seen using a laptop will have received my permission and signed a contract for appropriate laptop use so that no student feels they will be perceived as a rulebreaker.

The results for my Introduction to Social Psychology course this term:

IgorShubin/Pixabay Free
Delete distracting technology.
Source: IgorShubin/Pixabay Free

Making laptops, phones, and surface tablets now an “invisible” aspect of my classroom has been a big win—students seem more engaged, they ask better questions, and my attendance and student grades are also both higher compared with when I taught this same class last spring but allowed technology. I also, as a professor, just love seeing the student’s faces actually looking at me, rather than staring down at their text messages, movies (yes I have seen students watching movies in class), and Twitter.

But one part of this change I hadn’t taken into account as much: striving to be an awesome instructor. Without laptops and other devices creating a wall between you and a student, I must strive to be as engaging as possible; the students no longer have distractions to keep themselves awake in class. I also have changed my pace to ensure that students have time to write down their notes. For example, I now leave text on the board or a given powerpoint slide longer to give students enough time to write it down by hand.

Yes, this all may sound like a burden to faculty considering a tech-free policy but remember none of us would be faculty without our students. Don’t we owe it to them to be the best instructors possible? That’s an identity I think we should all embrace.

About the Author
Sarah Gaither Ph.D.

Sarah Gaither, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University. Her research focuses on the motivation for people's social perceptions and behaviors.

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