On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom

This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge.  I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge).   [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]

1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject.  [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study.  If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]

2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.

3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources:  more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class.  [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]

4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age.  [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics.  I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]

5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.

6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work.  In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class.  [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.”  That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]

6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning.  I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them.  I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.

6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support.  I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class.    [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and more options out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]

7) Other critiques of laptop/device bans include: accessibility issues for studies with accommodations, the argument that bans are more about professors’ egos, the notion that bans demonstrate an inflexibility of approach, and the point that other distractions exist too.

8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.

9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting.  I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem.  It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.

10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.

Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.


[Thanks to Sue Fernsebner for pointing out the appropriateness of this discussion in the wake of the many pieces reflecting on Seymour Papert‘s life and work.]

A Plethora of Riches

So, let me start by noting that this kind of post is not typical.  People don’t generally write these kind of posts. And, frankly, there are good reasons for that. And yet, here I am writing it.  I’ll explain why shortly.

But let’s start with the context.  I’ve been working as the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation at the University of Mary Washington since April of 2014.  It’s a great job where I get to be a faculty member (a Professor of History and American Studies) half time and the rest of the time oversee our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our recently created (but thoroughly awesome) Digital Knowledge Center, and one of the coolest student-centered buildings in academia, the Information & Technology Convergence Center (now named after our current president, the Hurley Convergence Center). Although we’ve seen turnover this past year in DTLT (no year when you lose Tim Owens, Ryan Brazell, Andy Rush, Jim Groom, and Lisa Ames can be all good), we’ve also done some amazing hiring, bringing in Jess Reingold, Jesse Stommel, and Lee Skallerup Bessette, and soon Nigel Haarstad, with another superb new colleague soon to be announced.  They are creative, terrific, brilliant people who have joined Martha Burtis, Mary Kayler, Leah Tams, Amanda Rutstein, Cartland Berge, Roberta Gentry, and Zach Whalen in the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit.

So, despite these changes (in fact, partly because of them), I wasn’t looking for a new job.  And yet, one came looking for me.  A search firm contacted me late last fall about a new position at a Research 1 University at the Vice Provost level.  I’m a big fan of this school, having worked for many years with great people there.  The job is a new position that brings together a number of elements that exist at a university that is clearly on the move, clearly on its way upward, clearly at the forefront of the struggle over the soul of higher education.  And after an application and an initial interview with the search committee, I was a finalist for the position with an on-campus interview.  Now, I know that I’m operating from a place of remarkable privilege, a privilege that so many other academics have not and do not have.  I have a full-time position and I love my job, one that has tenure and a good salary and terrific colleagues, and I’m fortunate enough to have developed a reputation within the discipline that has allowed me to travel around the country giving workshops on digital history, digital humanities, and digitally enabled pedagogy, as well as editing a section of a leading journal for one major organization on digital history projects, and leading a digital history working group for another major professional organization.  Most importantly, I applied for this job knowing that I loved the position that I’m currently in with no risk of losing that position if it didn’t work out.

Yesterday, about a month after my on-campus interview, I found out that I am no longer being considered for the position, that they have offered the job to someone else.

Now we get to the point about why posts like this are unusual.  Typically people don’t talk about these positions when they don’t get them, in part because they don’t want people at their current job to know that they were willing to consider leaving, in part because they are worried that they might be embarrassed by not getting the job, in part because they are worried about what the people at the job they applied for will think about them, and in part because they worry about how people at potential future jobs might view someone who talks about the often-closed search process.  These are very good reasons not to talk about jobs for which you have applied but not been selected.

So, why am I doing so?  I spend a great deal of time telling my students that they should create a digital identity that reveals who they are, that makes it clear what they want to do and be, that claims boldly what they believe in and what they want to do, and that acknowledges (even celebrates) failures or incomplete paths as part of the learning and development process.  I was unsuccessful in applying for this job; now what have I learned from it?

You know what I’ve learned? That I’m glad. [Now, I know that it’ll be easy for people who don’t know me to dismiss this as simply me settling, or me rationalizing not getting a job.  To them, I’ll just say, “That’s a reasonable point of view given the evidence you have, and you’re wrong.”]  I’m really happy I didn’t get this job, and not because I have anything against the school to which I applied, but because I’m convinced that I already have an important contribution to make, that I have an amazing team to work with, that I have colleagues who value what matters in higher education right now where I am right now.  [Let’s be clear: there was much to attract me to the school I applied to, and not just the increased money and significant promotion.  It was a chance to work on a different stage, as part of a school that is often mentioned in conversations about higher education. And there were great, terrific colleagues there to work with as well.]  But in the end, as I thought about the two positions in the weeks after the on-campus interview, I increasingly realized that UMW was the place where I wanted to be, a place where I was able to make a bigger difference, a place where my students continue to inspire me every day, a place where my team, my colleagues, and even my incoming president shared the values that I believe in, a place that keeps the focus on students, that believes that a liberal arts education is the best foundation for a changing world, that integrates digital tools into that liberal arts education better than almost any school in the nation (and has earned a national reputation and big grants for doing so), that balances teaching and learning and research and service and community in ways that represent one incredibly valuable path for higher education over the next few decades.

So, today, I’m incredibly glad to be at the University of Mary Washington with my colleagues and my friends and my students.

Terrific News for UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies

I am so excited to have been able to send the following announcement to the UMW community.

It is with great pleasure that I announce the hiring of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette as an Instructional Technology Specialist and of Dr. Jesse Stommel as the Executive Director of DTLT.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is coming to us from the University of Kentucky, where she worked as a Faculty Instructional Consultant at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. Previous to her time at UK, she had taught at various regional, public institutions in three different states. Originally from Montreal, Canada, she holds a PhD in Comparative Literature, where her research interests include translation and canon formation, but her first love has always been teaching. She blogs and writes about teaching, pedagogy, technology, and higher education more generally on her blog, College Ready Writing, which is housed at Insidehighered.com. She also is a contributor at ProfHacker, and has written for Hybrid Pedagogy, Women in Higher Education, and Educating Modern Learners. You can also find her on Twitter as @readywriting. Currently, Lee is interested in networked learning and student-centered pedagogy, which includes the unconference format for learning and professional development, as well as technology enhanced collaborative spaces.  She will start November 10.

Jesse Stommel is Founding Director of Hybrid Pedagogy: a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology and Co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab. He is an advocate for pedagogy and the public digital humanities. He has worked in faculty development in various ways since 2003. He has held faculty positions at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marylhurst University, a liberal arts institution in Portland, OR. Jesse is also a documentary filmmaker and has taught courses about American literature, film, and new media. He experiments relentlessly with learning interfaces, both digital and analog, and works in his research and teaching to emphasize new forms of collaboration. He’s got a rascal pup, Emily, and two clever cats, Loki and Odin. He can be found online at www.jessestommel.com and on Twitter @Jessifer. He will start October 12.

Please welcome them to the UMW community.

Jesse and Lee join Martha Burtis and Lisa Ames, as well as another recent (and terrific) hire, Jess Reingold, to form a powerful team to work with students and faculty at Mary Washington in integrating technology into teaching and learning.  They join the other members of the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit (CTE&I‘s Mary Kayler, the ITCC‘s Cartland Berge, and Leah Tams, as well as Faculty Fellows Roberta Gentry and Zach Whalen) in a group that makes me excited and proud to come to work each day.



The syllabus and links to online readings can be located above, along with the link to the wiki for posting your comments and questions before our Friday classes.

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Changes and New Opportunities for UMW’s DTLT

Changes are often hard, but they can also be opportunities for an academic unit to grow and develop in new ways.  That’s the case for UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies right now.  Tim Owens and Jim Groom will be leaving DTLT this summer (Tim) and fall (Jim) to pursue Reclaim Hosting, their company that provides hosting services to the academic market. Ryan Brazell just left to take a position at the University of Richmond.  We will miss all of them greatly (though it looks like Jim and Tim may continue to be affiliated with UMW in other ways going forward).

While it will be impossible to replace exactly what these three have brought to UMW and DTLT in particular and ed-tech at the higher-ed level in general, we are fortunate to be able to announce three position openings at DTLT to join Lisa Ames, Martha Burtis, and Andy Rush, as well as the other members of UMW’s Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit (of which DTLT is a part).

1) Executive Director of DTLT — [Full posting and application information: https://careers.umw.edu/postings/2950 ]

The Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies leads DTLT, supports and partners with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries in the integration of information technologies and digital media into the teaching and learning environment, and provides leadership for the effective and innovative use of information technologies and digital media to the larger University community, particularly within academic and research contexts. [This position reports to the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation (me).]

2) Instructional Technology Specialist — [Full posting and application information: http://careers.umw.edu/postings/2980 — This link is correct, though this job won’t be posted until later this week.]

The Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS) will work closely with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries to explore the use of information technologies to augment teaching, learning, and research at the University, with a particular focus on designing, developing, and managing projects growing out of UMW’s academic departments and programs. The ITS will also contribute tactical and strategic perspective to the development of the University’s vision of effective use of technologies in teaching and learning. [This position reports to the Executive Director of DTLT and is intended for someone with a fair amount of experience in education technology and faculty development.]

3) Entry-Level Instructional Technology Specialist — [Full posting and application information: https://careers.umw.edu/postings/2964 ]

The Entry-Level Instructional Technology Specialist position involves the following responsibilities: Collaborate with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries, and assist with the integration of instructional technology and information resources into teaching, learning, and research at the University; assist faculty in the evaluation of discipline-specific software and technologies; engage in individual and collaborative professional research about the general landscape of technology for teaching and learning; assist in exploring new instructional technologies for the UMW campus community; serve as an advocate for the effective and innovative use of information instructional technologies and digital media, particularly within academic and research contexts. [This position reports to the Executive Director of DTLT and is intended for someone with limited–but some–experience in education technology and faculty/student/staff development.  We currently envision this as a position for which recent grads especially might be interested in applying.]

If you or anyone you know is interested in any of these positions, please contact me, or the chairs of the ITS (Martha Burtis) and Entry-Level ITS (Lisa Ames) search committees before the July 1 application deadlines.



Teaching, Technology, Innovation Faculty Fellows

I sent out this email to all UMW Faculty earlier today.  I’m excited to see what kinds of ideas and programs develop when we embed a couple of UMW’s great faculty members in the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation unit.  It’s part of a number of changes happening over the next few months in the unit, and I hope to share more on those soon.


During the 2015-2016 school year, the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit is starting a new TTI Fellows program, building on the success of the Faculty Fellows Program in Academic and Career Services and the DSI Faculty Fellows program of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation.  The two TTI Fellows will work closely throughout the 2015-2016 school year with CTE&I, the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, and the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation on issues related to digitally related faculty development and teaching excellence.

Specific responsibilities and work will vary depending on the background of the particular faculty member, but in this first year the unit is particularly interested in two areas of focus: 1) creating a broad-ranging set of approaches to help UMW faculty develop online or hybrid courses and 2) developing innovative and creative uses of technology in teaching, research, or service.  Both are core areas of interest for TTI more generally, and active intense collaboration with two faculty members will strengthen the work of the unit and the opportunities for faculty members at UMW.  The general expectation is that fellows will contribute several hours of work each week during the fall and spring semesters, participate in regular TTI staff meetings, work on a project related to the area of focus, and offer at least two faculty workshops over the course of the year.

The TTI Fellows program is open to any member of the full-time teaching faculty. Compensation will involve an $8000 stipend (payable over the academic year) and it is expected that the fellow will serve for the full academic year.

If you are interested in being considered to serve in such a role, please send a letter addressing your interest in working with either of the two main areas to me (jmcclurk@umw.edu) by July 1. Your letter should include specific ideas for projects and workshops you might offer in that area. A review committee made up of the Director of CTE&I, a representative from DTLT, & me will consider applications in the context of the needs of TTI.  Our goal would be for the Fellows to be in place by August 24.

Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to further discuss this opportunity.


Jeff McClurken
Professor of History & American Studies
Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation

An Amazing Life

The last few days have been very difficult for the UMW community.  It’s been a turbulent semester, but the news late last week that one of our students had been murdered in an event that remains tragic and largely unexplained has rocked our worlds.

I didn’t know Grace Mann well, but I knew of her from many people who I respect and trust, students, faculty, and staff.  I knew of her activism, I knew of her passionate defenses of others, I knew of her energy and enthusiasm, and I knew that I was glad that she had been appointed to serve on the President’s Task Force on Sexual Assault.  I knew that Grace, an American Studies major, had, even as a junior, already been involved at a high level in independent studies and presentations at scholarly conferences.  I knew that she had a reputation for engaging, challenging, and inspiring those who taught her.  I knew that I was looking forward to having her in my US Women’s History course in the fall (especially because I was going to have to bring my “A game” to keep up with her).

My heart aches for her parents and her family, for her fellow activists, for her friends, for her teachers, for her communities in Fredericksburg, Northern Virginia, and beyond.  I cried with so, so many of them today as we attended her funeral at Temple Rodef Shalom, and the grave-side burial at King David Memorial Gardens.  I won’t try to summarize the funeral (which can be seen here by clicking on the On-Demand Viewer on that page) beyond noting that the speakers–Cedric Rucker, Leah Cox, her roommates and best friends, and her amazing parents–depicted a life of light, passion, energy, deep friendship, inspiration, activism, and love–deep, giving, encompassing love–that defies simple categorization but included many, many hugs.  The sadness at her death and the inspiration of her life battled within me all day and I suspect within the many others around me.

It’s painful to imagine what we have all lost, what the world has lost, from her life being abruptly shortened in this way.  Given what Grace had already accomplished, the good she had already done, the people she had already inspired, we are poorer today to not have her among us.  Yet the incredible woman her parents brought up will continue to inspire all who knew her, and as long as her story continues to be told, she will inspire others as well.

Her parents have requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to RCASA, the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault. Having watched RCASA provide essential support as far back as my own undergraduate days at Mary Washington in the early-1990s, I know it is a great organization doing incredibly important work and donations to it are a fitting tribute to much of Grace’s work on and off campus.  There will also be a memorial fund established at UMW in her honor.

There were many hugs today as we mourned our loss and celebrated Grace’s life.