Admission or Prohibition of Laptops and Other Technology in the Classroom by Julia Frankland

Welcome to week two of the “Faculty Speak Classroom Geek” series. Dr. Julia Frankland, Chair of the Department of Business and a Professor of Business Administration discusses when she allows and doesn’t allow students to BYOD (bring your own device) into the classroom.

In the web resources I follow about technology and teaching, there is a lot of chatter about whether devices should be allowed or disallowed in the classroom. This is the case not only in higher ed but the whole P-20 education spectrum. I appreciate Julia’s balanced approach to this problem/opportunity. Under Julia’s post you will find additional blogs and scholarly articles which are related to this discussion.

Take it away Julia!

As someone who has embraced the use of audio and video presentations as frequent components of pedagogical methods, I’ve struggled with knowing how much technology the students should have access to during class.

Upperclassmen and Graduate Students

I teach freshmen in the Micro/Macroeconomics sequence, upper division business/econ courses to juniors and seniors and graduate level economics in the MBA.  For graduate courses, I allow students to bring in any technology they wish as long as it is used appropriately.   Classes are 4 hours long, and as long as they are focused on the topic at hand most of the time I find that an occasional glance at a sports score or email helps the commitment to 4 hours in economics to be an easier burden to bear.  Of course if the policy is abused it is changeable mid-term and the students are aware.  Thus far I haven’t had any problems with this group and this policy.


Things get trickier with undergrads. I would love to believe that if undergrads have access to laptops, iPads and smartphones during class – that they would only use them for appointed purposes (researching the Federal Reserve’s policies and the like). The trouble is that experience has shown me otherwise.

Not all technology is created equal.  Laptops are the worst in my opinion, because not only does the person using them see the screen, so does everyone behind them.  It is too easy to be distracted by a moving image and to be sucked in to whatever is on the screen. In my principles level courses (Econ 202/203) I do not allow laptops at all. We do a LOT of graphs, and they are hard to draw quickly on a laptop and students fall behind trying to get that downward sloping line ‘just so’. For exams and quizzes they will need to draw the pictures themselves, not cut and paste an existing image. Here pencil and paper is most valuable.   I want their full attention all the time, and since these are mostly 18 year-olds every bit of concentration assistance helps.

In upper division business/economics I have allowed laptops to be used in class when there is a legitimate need.  In Public Finance I can throw a website up on the screen and students can access it at their seats as well — same for Money and Banking.  It’s a different learning environment, and with consistent guidance about appropriate use this policy seems to work.

Electronic Textbooks and eReaders, specifically the iPad

In the last year I’ve faced some dilemmas that I’m still working through in terms of technology use, and they come about due to the coolest gadget I’ve seen in years – the iPad.   Clever students are figuring out how to download chapters or whole books onto the iPad and carry it with them everywhere. Knowing that I would never prohibit a textbook being brought to class, how can I prohibit an electronic copy of the textbook?   I’m sure you see the problem.

iPads are delightful in that they allow instant access to email, news and an occasional game of Harbor Master.  There is great temptation to squirrel around with the iPad and not do what we’re supposed to do (yours truly is guilty as well).  How do I find a balance here?  So far, I have allowed an occasional iPad in any class when the student can show me that they have downloaded the text onto the iPad instead of purchasing the book.  Luckily, so far only very good students have brought in iPads, so I’m able to put off the inevitable a bit.  What happens next though when this technology becomes commonplace? I’m not sure.


I can’t be everywhere in the classroom and I don’t want to be a room-monitor. I just want to be a professor. So I’m working on finding that balance between encouraging appropriate technology use and limiting access to distraction.   I’d love to hear if you agree with the way I’ve done this or if you have suggestions on better ways.


Additional Resources

13 Responses to Admission or Prohibition of Laptops and Other Technology in the Classroom by Julia Frankland

  • Earl Rodd says:

    We have designed the classroom (being arranged this summer) we use for Comp Sci to try to work with the dilemmas Julia proposes.
    The MAC lab has this arrangement. Computers are on tables around the perimeter of the room. Then there is a U-shaped table in the
    middle. Students normally sit at the U-shaped table – their electronics go with the lab computers on the outside tables. This means when something
    comes up in class that a quick search can find, a student can just turn around, access the machine and do it. Or, with CS, turn around and try
    something to resolve an uncertainty. This arrangement allows the whole class to turn around at times and use the lab(or laptop) computers when
    I want them to, but not have those screens in front of them when I want them working with me.

    This approach obviously does not work for a class of 40 – the room would need to be enormous. And for upper level courses, I will
    often allow laptops on the U-shaped table because I know the students and what they do.

  • Earl Rodd says:

    Reading Julia’s issue with writing graphs in student notes, it makes me wonder if there is a good app for an iPad which allows the touch screen
    to be used for drawing in a way that is convenient to flip back to text typing quickly? Probably still slower than doing it by hand.
    Econ graphs are one of those things where the flexibility of handwriting is rather amazing.

  • Deron Boring says:

    I’m so thankful to see this discussion taking place. I’m looking forward to the continued discussion here.

    • Adam Klemann says:

      Hello Deron! Thanks for the feedback. Hope to see you teaching as an adjunct again this school year. -AK

  • Julia says:

    Earl – there are a number of great apps for drawing graphs by themselves. I have yet to find a good app that allows easy note taking and quick placement of graphs as well.

    • Adam Klemann says:

      I will affirm Julia’s statement. There are good apps for notetaking on the iPad (Omnioutliner, Evernote, etc.) and there are good apps for drawing (my favorite is Adobe Ideas) but there are no good apps for mixing the two. The closest is Penultimate but that is drawing exclusively (it doesn’t allow you to type, it basically recreates the concept of a notebook on your iPad screen).

  • Jane Hoyt-oliver says:

    I think there is a significant developmental difference between grad and undergrad. Many traditional students lack the skills to concentrate even for short periods of time. This skill is critical for adult success. For several years I provided pp’s of all my lectures to students but found that what I considered the”outline” students considered the sum of what was important. I now stress pp is outline only and encourage taking notes. More of the students senses become engaged, and learning may be easier.
    Having the ability to surf the web during class is like txting while driving: the student may think she is engaged but is, in actuality missing a great deal.

    That said, I agree with Julia ‘s approach and appreciate the request to see the downloaded text prior to allowing the I pad into the classroom!

    • Adam Klemann says:

      I *think* the concept that you are discussing is referred to as “Automaticity” Students may think they can multitask but in reality they are putting up a good show of participating.

      Janie, that is a great observation about the nuance and disconnect between what you thought you were giving the students and what they thought they were getting.

      Here are a few random links that might be related or of interest on this topic.

      • (Krista Tippett) interviews Neurobiologist Adele Diamond about “antiquated” practices (rote memorization!) in elementary education that actually taught students to pay attention for more than 15seconds (as you may guess these practices fell out of popularity in the past few decades). She is interested in the chemical end of things but provides great insight into the practical outcomes.
      • Another similar interview by Tippett with Sherry Turkle (MIT) who discusses striking a balance between our virtual lives and face-to-face ones.

      Enjoy, AK

  • Jim Brothers says:

    I find this to be an excellent discussion. I too, have had to deal with this issue when I’m teaching design. I tend to agree with Dr. Oliver that students who lock into their laptops tend to disengage from the class when it comes to discussions, as they are more centered on typing then entering the conversation. I believe that Dr.Frankland’s article is well thought out, but I disagree on one small point. I think that cell or smart phones have a greater negative impact on my teaching then laptops. If I hear one more cutesy phone ring during a lecture I may have to start pocketing phones when students enter class. Also, while these phones could be a benefit to less forward students, the greater tendency might be to use those wonderful multi-functioning features to occupy themselves with angry birds. Technology is not leaving the academic setting, however I think as a society we are doing a disservice at times to our students by allowing them to disassociate from their instructors, their fellow students and their community in the pursuit of technological answers to learning methods.

  • Beth Rettew says:

    I think that along with the issues of distraction there is also a potential integrity issue with phones and smart phones. We had a student use a phone to take pictures of a test and send them to students in another class section. Another issue is if students should use calculators with the potential to be programmed in advance with formulas that may be needed. Sort of an electronic crib sheet. My hope is thai If they are sophisticated enough to program the calculator they probably could do the math anyway. I said that they couldn’t use calculators at all but was outvoted by other colleagues. Lots of good thoughts here. Thanks Julia.

  • Adam Klemann says:

    Of course if one of your students knows how to copy programs to other student’s phones (I remember using a sync cable for my TI-81 quite a bit in high school) that approach will not work. Math is a strange animal when it comes to technology– the fact is that computers are much better at doing math than people. I ask the question (but don’t have the answer): “Why not allow them to use a calculator?” Conrad Wolfram has some ideas about in his TED talk. It is perhaps a topic for another blog post. Making a note…. -AK

  • Julia says:

    Good comments Jim. I’m to a point where I remind undergrads when they walk in to ‘off’ their phones. Just this week I had a fabulously timed example when a grad student’s email alert sounded on their phone just when I was talking about the necessity of ‘offing’ phones.

    Calculators – there’s a whole other can of worms. While in a grad school I busted a student for typing in 4 chapters of economics into his TI-80 calculator! 4 chapters! Wouldn’t it have been easier to just spend that time studying? Hence my rule of cheap-o calculators only. No memory functions, no cell phone capabilities. $1.00 calculators – that’s it.

  • Jeff Beine says:

    If anyone has some extra time this summer, there’s a great PBS/Frontline investigation entitled, Growing Up Online (available instantly at which I frequently assign to Malone’s teacher candidates, and one segment deals specificaly with this issue. Interesting “debate” between a high-tech social studies teacher and a low-tech English teacher. Both are wrestling with issues of classroom focus and cheating on assignments.

    I recently had the chance to attend at Smart board training session in Chicago where our class was exposed to Smart Tech’s potential solution to this problem, at least at the K-12 level. The software is called Classroom Sync and it basically gives the teacher almost total control over every computer in the classroom (assuming they have the student version of Sync loaded, of course). With Sync, you as the teacher can constantly see miniturized views of every wirelessly linked student screen, control what software they can and can’t open, send and forcibly open specific files, set and control chat groups, send private messages to specific students, and even block/shut down specific students’ computers if necessary. Hey, Big Brother’s kind of fun if “you the man”!

    Though this kind of classroom technology management software would solve all sorts of learning issues (as noted in this blog session), it certainly raises a number of ethical issues, especially on a university campus. Here’s one I raised with Adam. Suppose that a professor was using the Sync software and a few of his students forget to cancel (or weren’t allowed to) the Sync link when the class ended. Assuming many of his students lived on campus and thus were still connected to the same network, could this professor still see what his students were doing on their personal computers after hours? Would that be a crime?

    Okay, another question: would a Malone professor have the right to demand that his university students install a monitoring program on their privately-owned laptops even if they had the power to break the Sync linkage at any time?

    Confession time: Towards the end of one long afternoon in the Chicago Smart tech training facility, I thought I was doing a great job at “mock participation” (see Slavin’s Educational Psychology, 9th Edition) and secretly checking out Google maps to see whether or not the Chicago art museum and aquarium were within walking distance. Unfortunatley, I was all-the-while being betrayed by my indescrete netbook as my Internet exploits were being unknowingly flashed on the huge Smartboard in the front of the room for all to see! After dying 1,000 deaths of embarrassment, my next emotion was anger — the righteous stuff, no less. It felt unfair that the intimate link betwen my mind and the laptop’s screen was being invaded upon by some unwanted third party (well, actually the whole class). Seriously, for a moment I actually felt as if I had been wronged, my Fourth Amendment rights trampled. But as a former high school teacher of constitutional law, I have to wonder whether or not this assumed right to laptop privacy even exists, especially in the classroom.

    Hmm . . . well if anyone wants to play Big Brother this fall, Adam informs me that there are actually several versions of Classroom Sync-type software out there. Classroom cyberfocus for sale – but only for those willing to pay the price!

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