When You Talk About Banning Laptops, You Throw Disabled Students Under the Bus

11/27/2017 10:38 pm ET
Alt Text: Photograph of a classroom with individual desks. Many desks have open laptops on them.
CC Image via Pixabay
Alt Text: Photograph of a classroom with individual desks. Many desks have open laptops on them.

Co-Authored with Jordynn Jack, Ph.D.

The argument to ban laptops in classrooms has risen from the dead (again).

Those who argue for laptop bans tend to cite the same set of studies. Some studies suggest that students who type notes don’t retain material as well as those who hand write. In one study, taking notes by hand amounted to a not-very-whopping 2% improvement on a test score. Another study suggests that laptop users distract students around them. Relying on these studies (and others), professors have taken to banning laptops in their courses, and publicly proclaiming that we all should do the same.

The current proclamation appears in The New York Times, in an opinion piece titled "Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting” by Susan Dynarski, and she’s taken some hits on social media from disabled people and their allies. Here’s why.

When laptop-ban arguments are broken down, what you find is mistrust of students and a sense of insecurity on the part of professors. And the studies that support the bans are shaky at best. Worst of all, laptop bans harm—really harm—disabled students, who make up a large part of the U.S. student population. Mistrust of students and shaky studies are not a good enough reason to hurt disabled students.

Mistrust of students and shaky studies are not good enough reasons to hurt disabled students.

Students we talked to while writing this article are savvy about how they allocate classroom attention. Carrie (a pseudonym), an undergraduate student at a large public university, put it this way: “If your class is sufficiently fast-paced and entertaining, I’ll take notes on my computer.” If it’s too slow-paced or poorly planned, she said, “then it is totally your own fault that people are zoning out.”

The model of education assumed in Dynarski’s article—and in the studies she cites—belongs in the last century. In these studies, students are typically asked to listen to a lecture, take notes, and then take a test (often standardized) on the content. Called the “banking model” of education, this teaching method assumes that the role of professors is to deliver content, and the role of students is to absorb it. It’s also a terrible way to teach.

At universities around the country, professors have been turning away from lectures to active learning styles or “flipped classrooms.” Rather than listening passively to content during class time, students come to class having read or otherwise engaged with the material. Then, they spend class time working through the material in groups, often using laptops to post answers online or add material to a discussion board. The professor’s job is not to lecture, but to guide and to gauge student understanding. Students no longer passively take notes as the professor drones on. They use laptops to actively engage with each other and the course content.

While this type of classroom setup helps all students engage with the content, it can also create an accessible environment for disabled students. Students can engage with the course, express themselves, and access course information in different ways: electronically, during in-class discussions, in writing, and more. All of this variety suits best principles for what’s called universal design for learning—developing classroom practices that work for all students, including those with disabilities, without singling out any student for special accommodations or requiring a student to ask for special help. Good professors don’t throw unnecessary hurdles in the paths of disabled students. They just teach better.

Good professors don’t throw unnecessary hurdles in the paths of disabled students. They just teach better.

Professors who ban laptops either overlook or don’t care about the effect that such bans have on disabled students. When faced with a laptop ban, a student who needs to type suddenly must seek accommodations from from the professor—a task that is daunting even if the student has already has formal accommodations from the university. (Professors “dread” talking about accommodations, and so do students, but for different reasons.) And students who have permission to type in laptop-ban courses are forced to out themselves as disabled to their fellow students.

Sarah Singer, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, finds being outed as disabled extremely awkward: “I need a laptop to accommodate my arthritic wrists and fingers, and many students have hand/wrist issues that make it difficult to write by hand, too. Only allowing students with documented disabilities to use laptops in classrooms makes them stand out even more and appear to receive special treatment. Students are then left to defend themselves, since instructors can't reveal why some students are permitted to have certain accommodations.”

“Only allowing students with documented disabilities to use laptops in classrooms makes them stand out even more ... Students are then left to defend themselves.”

If a student hasn’t already filed for university-level accommodations, the task is now twice as hard. If the student doesn’t have the medical documentation required to get university-level accommodations, then the task can be next to impossible to complete before the end of the semester: the academic testing alone takes time (weeks to months) and exorbitant amounts of money (often thousands of dollars). By the time the student can get formal accommodations, the semester is over. Given all of these barriers, laptop bans are a social justice issue.

Given all of these barriers, laptop bans are a social justice issue.

Dynarski's piece is unusual in that the author acknowledges the negative consequences that her ban has on disabled students. She just thinks she has a good reason, as she repeats multiple times: "Students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class. This does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability. That is a loss of privacy for those students.” The justification of harming the privacy of these students (which is, as we’ve noted, not the only harm)? “Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class.” Thus, Dynarski proposes a unsavory trade-off: disabled students must pay the cost for the (slightly) improved performance of abled students.

But she makes this devil’s bargain by relying on unreliable data.

But she makes this devil’s bargain by relying on unreliable data. After all, none of the studies Dynarski cites accounts for students with disabilities. They have no data for how laptop bans will affect students who have neural processing disorders, auditory processing disorders, dexterity disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, or any of the other disabilities that might cause a student to need a laptop to create a level playing field. According to the studies’ methods sections, the researchers didn’t even ask whether students have disabilities—so they just assumed everyone was “normal.”

The researchers didn’t even ask whether students have disabilities—so they just assumed everyone was “normal.”

But here’s the thing: according to the United States Department of Education, 11% of undergraduate students report having a disability. The number is even higher for students who are over thirty: 16%. And that statistic accounts for only the students who report being disabled. Or the ones who have the resources to be diagnosed. If you’re a professor teaching the United States (or elsewhere for that matter) you have a lot of disabled students in your classes. You might not know it, but you do.

Dynarski also pointed to a study that suggests that students using laptops will distract nearby students who aren’t using laptops. But this study is meaningless without a second control group of students using non-technological distractors—the distractors that we used in college before we had laptops, or distractors that students are using right now in lecture halls where laptops are banned, such as crossword puzzles, doodling, and (gasp) flirting. Of course comparing a distraction to no distraction will reveal that the distraction is distracting. But what happens when you compare a technological distraction to a non-technological one?

But professors are eager to ban laptops, forcing disabled students to either harm their learning (by stopping laptop use) or to out themselves as disabled (by being one of the remaining laptop-users in the classroom). Why? When the harm is real, and known—are professors truly so callous?

Dynarski revealed her true position on the matter of disability when pressed by disabled people and their allies on social media. When asked about how disabled students in a classroom with a laptop-ban might choose to hurt their own education rather than disclose their disabilities, Dynarski replied, “Agreed. But ruining everyone else’s learning also worries me.” Here is the heart of the matter: just as installing ramps ruins buildings and insisting on accessibility ruins businesses, according to Dynarski, use of laptops in an accessible fashion ruins learning for others.

According to Dynarski, use of laptops in an accessible fashion ruins learning for others.

Let us be very clear: There is no (real) evidence that laptops ruin learning. Repeat the four-year-old distraction study with non-technological controls. Control the other studies for disability. While you’re at it, control for socioeconomic class because right now that’s a problem with these studies, too. (Princeton, for example, is hardly representative of most U.S. undergraduates.)

And while studies on notetaking assume an environment of unstructured laptop use—where the professor continues lecturing as she always has, ignoring changes in technology—studies of structured laptop use show that laptops can actually improve student engagement, boost academic achievement, and decrease distraction in class.

While the evidence is shaky that laptops harm learning, there is real cause to believe banning laptops harms disabled students.

While the evidence is shaky that laptops harm learning, there is real cause to believe banning laptops harms disabled students. As Singer told us, disabled students bear burdens of suspicion and jealousy when they’re singled out in class with a tool that other students don’t get to use.

Dynarski insists that "students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class,” but she recognizes that such use in her class “does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability.” Dynarski’s cavalier mistreatment of disabled students is saddening. Her cavalier normalization of the mistreatment of disabled students is equally saddening.

About the authors:

Jordynn Jack, Ph.D., is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in Rhetoric, Composition, and Disability Studies. Her latest book is Autism and Gender: From Refrigerator Moms to Computer Geeks.

Katie Rose Guest Pryal, J.D., Ph.D., is an author, journalist, and attorney. She specializes in higher education and disability topics. Her latest book is Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essay on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education. Follow her on Twitter @krgpryal.

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