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cat computerI am teaching my first class as a seminary professor this October. I’m sure I’ve already made one unpopular decision.

I am not allowing laptops (or tablets or phones for that matter).

I know there is a case to be made for allowing computers into the classroom. Students can type faster than they can write by hand. Digital notes can be accessed across multiple devices. It’s easier to edit notes electronically. Our hands will cramp up. We won’t be able to read our own writing. The lead on the pencil will break. I’m sure there are more sophisticated reasons too. I don’t judge the thousands of teachers who allow, or even encourage, computer use in the classroom. I know my position is a minority one.

But here’s my thinking:

1. I wasn’t a student all that long ago, and I know what I did on my laptop. No, nothing sinister. I was a good student who worked hard and paid attention. But I also took my computer to multitask. And this was before easy access to the internet. All I had were a few games and my other assignments to keep me busy, but I still found ways to be distracted. How can an hour of lecture possibly compete with catching up on email, texting with a friend, and getting the latest “breaking news” from Twitter and Facebook? Will students daydream and doodle and draft other compositions even without a laptop? Of course. But at least they won’t have the world at their fingertips and world-class entertainment a minimized screen away.

2. The studies that suggest students are better off without a laptop in the classroom ring true to me. Taking notes by hand forces students to slow down, be more selective, and integrate what they’re learning. And students aren’t just sneaking a peak at other things here or there. They are spending more than half their time texting friends and using their computers for nonacademic purposes. Even smart students learn less because they love to multitask and accomplish as much as possible.

3. We all could use a break from the ubiquitous pull of technology. Seriously, I’m probably as addicted to my devices as my students are. So why create (let alone encourage) another venue where we can be tethered to the screen? Wouldn’t a little device detox do us all a little good?

And that leads us to the heart of the matter. Suppose we could really be sure that students would be absolutely true to their word, and they would never get on the internet and never toggle to another assignment and never chip away at solitaire. Suppose a self-policing policy actually worked (as you hope it would in seminary of all places). For pedagogical reasons I would still be against laptops. I don’t want students glued to the screen. I’m not trying to get the students to guess what my lecture notes look like. I’m not trying to test their note-taking abilities by quizzing them on the most obscure bits of every lecture. I am not aiming to develop court stenographers. If the goal is to produce an exact replica of my notes, I can give them my notes! But I want them engaged with me. I want eyeballs. I want ears. Can I be so bold as to say, I even want hearts.

It may be the case that some professors are dry as toast and do nothing more than read old conference papers or plow through too much material with no mercy on finite brains (or finite bladders). That’s an output problem and not one that an input device is going to solve. I want my lectures to be interesting. I want them to be edifying. Forgive me for sounding like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but I want them to be inspiring. And that means I don’t want to see 30 illuminated Apple logos. I want people to be thinking and feeling and ruminating and wrestling as I speak, not staring at a screen trying to type every word I say.

Which means I want students to do more than leave their laptops at home. I want them to approach the lecture as a listening-digesting-pondering event. I may not be good enough to pull this off, but I’d love for students to come to the conclusion, paradoxical as it may sound, “This material is too good for me to try to get it all down on paper.” I want people caught up in listening, not frantic about getting the perfect notes that lead to the perfect grade. And if worse comes to worse, and they end up moderately bored for an hour instead of infinitely distracted, that’s not bad either.

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54 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Allowing Laptops in My Seminary Class”

  1. Bill says:

    Bethany, I am not offended at all. I just think that taking a tool like a laptop or ipad that students will be using after they graduate from the classroom does not prepare them well for the future. Ultimately there is christian freedom on this issue, and it is up to each professor. Nonetheless laptops and ipads are replacing textbooks altogether, more and more students have only an electronic version of the material. This is happening in every profession, we are moving towards a paperless environment. So if I was in charge of the University I would force professors to move away from textbooks and all material written on paper to electronic books and notes. So what Kevin and you are planning to do would not work, you would both be forced to change or be fired.

  2. Ellen says:

    I LOVE THIS BLOG! You are right on, and you have every right as the professor to request phones and laptops be left behind. Both of my older sons are current college students and say that in half of their classes professors do not allow laptops and/or phones because they decrease learning and increase distractions (for everyone sitting nearby as well). If a student is distraught by not having a laptop for 1-2 hours, there’s a bigger issue going on there. Discussion, learning and real connections will have a better place to grow in a screen free classroom (this goes for our younger students in elem, middle and high school as well). Students used to having the laptop attached to them will just have to learn to adapt (more learning!) and focus on the material and personal connection rather than the medium, the screen.

  3. J. Chen says:
    The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard
    Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking

  4. J. Chen says:
    Logged In and Zoned Out: How Laptop Internet Use Relates to Classroom Learning

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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