Frustrated pupil in a classroom with classmates in the background

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‘You’re not supposed to have a laptop, you idiot.’

‘What’s wrong with you?’

My classmates hurled abuse at me for being the only one with a laptop on my desk after our teacher banned all electronics. I was allowed an exception to the class rule.

‘Laptops’, Mr Smith told us, ‘are distracting and disruptive.’ He is far from alone in that assessment. In the now perennial early autumn debate over laptops in the classroom, many educators have written about the power of backlit screens to hijack student attention, decrease class participation, and sabotage learning.

‘Laptops’, Mr Smith told us, ‘are distracting and disruptive.’ He is far from alone in that assessment. In the now perennial early autumn debate over laptops in the classroom, many educators have written about the power of backlit screens to hijack student attention, decrease class participation, and sabotage learning.

Proponents of laptop bans argue students will always be distracted if they have access to Facebook and YouTube. They struggle with pupils hiding behind laptop screens instead of engaging their peers in class discussion. And, they suggest students are mere transcriptionists when typing notes, not learning as well as those who take longhand notes. For educators who experience these issues, banning laptops seems a reasonable solution.

However, I don’t believe banishing computers in a world driven by technology is pedagogically viable. Also, there’s evidence that suggests laptops can enhance education.

Of course, merely providing computers to students is not sufficient. Care must be taken to integrate technology into the curriculum while supporting both students and teachers for it to be useful. In secondary schools, doing both includes effort towards technological guard rails that filter inappropriate sites.

Laptops are learning opportunities, not hurdles

Educators should seize this moment to think deeply about the opportunities educational technology presents. In addition to supporting chemistry teaching, it could guide all students to a deeper understanding of how to learn.

Teachers can help learners, able-bodied and disabled, neurotypical and neurodiverse, explore and improve how they work. Students should be encouraged to consider questions like: ‘What strategies can I use to manage my own attention and reduce distractions while using tech?’ ‘What benefits do I get from holding a model in my hands and do I get different insights from manipulating it in software?’ ‘When do I benefit from handwriting notes versus typing?’

For me, as a disabled student, the answer to that last question was usually, ‘writing longhand badly hurts my hands, typing doesn’t.’ Should I have been excluded from education because I happen to have a disability? If you believe that all students, regardless of their disability or neurodiversity status, have the right to an education, then you must not privilege the particular tools a student uses (eg laptop versus pen and paper) over the outcome they use those tools to achieve (ie learning).

being singled out as different on the basis of a disability is often terrifying, isolating, and miserable

Pencils are not indispensable wands, handwriting is not arcane magic. But my laptop actually was a special kind of wizardry – respite from the pain of gripping a pencil with inflamed joints. The relief let me focus on, and engage with, the lesson. Is the objective of a chemistry course to teach students how to balance an equation or teach how to hold a pencil?

Policies should never single students out

Teachers who ban laptops are disadvantaging all students who find laptops the best way of learning. As a student in Mr Smith’s class, I did not pretend to know more about our lessons than he did, but I was an expert in something he was not, my body. I knew when my hands hurt too much to hold a pencil or when I needed to type everything he said because severe abdominal pain meant I would be unable to synthesize just the important points. Like many students, I knew what I needed.

Perhaps adding some flexibility into a ban solves everyone’s problems? Why not ban laptops but grant exceptions to students who know they need them? The reason is such an approach burdens those students with the additional work that comes of being ‘othered’. In order to meet their needs, they first must disclose potentially embarrassing medical information to their teacher. As a student with inflammatory bowel disease, much of my needs on any given day were dictated by my intestines. Would you have been comfortable, as a teenager, discussing your toileting habits with your teachers?

A ‘ban and exception’ policy also exposes disabled and neurodiverse students to resentment and harassment. As I experienced that morning in Mr. Smith’s classroom, being singled out as different on the basis of a disability is often terrifying, isolating, and miserable. You may as well hang a flashing sign above that student’s head that says, ‘Ask me prying questions about my disability/neurodiversity status while you’re resenting me!’

Having had that proverbial sign hanging over me in Mr Smith’s classroom, I urge you to think carefully about how to avoid the ableism of a laptop ban or singling out vulnerable students. It may not be easy, but it is so important.