tech bans are always already ableism

One of my less popular assertions has always been that banning digital devices from our classrooms is an inherently ableist move. It’s been gratifying to see that position being publicly asserted, most recently by Jesse Stommel on Twitter. The conversations have been great, not least because Stommel has lots of student (and former student) followers who have been able to weigh in.

My central thesis is that if you only allow students with documented learning disabilities use tech in your classroom, you are (a) forcing students into a situation of self-disclosure to all their classmates and (b) not showing awareness of all the students who slip through the documentation cracks but know well what they need to best define their learning.

It’s worth remembering that, if students weren’t diagnosed while in the public school system or their diagnoses are old, the process of testing into Accessibility Services in the postsecondary level is incredibly high. Especially for older adult learners, this is a major barrier to accessing help in students who very likely have already developed establishing coping strategies that work for them. We need to recognize that our needs as instructors don’t supersede those of students, even when those needs are not formally documented.

I understand the arguments about distraction, but like Stommel I question whether it is possible or even desirable to excise all distraction from the classroom. When I was an undergraduate, I had no easy access to handheld tech, no Facebook or Twitter, and a Nokia candy bar that had alphanumeric texting and one game (Snake!). I had absolutely no trouble distracting myself and the people around me: passing notes, staring into space, reading, drawing, eating, doing homework for other classes, and straight-up chatting. I learned to manage the free reign of my environment and my distractions, and I didn’t piss my professors off all that often (I don’t think).

When I was newly hired at the College, I went to a PD session about distracted learners. We were given a list of items like the above and others — left early, arrived late, etc. — and asked which ones we had done in class when we were students. I ticked off all of them. I mean, I was a postsecondary student for nine years: I definitely scarfed a few cheeseburgers, fell asleep, spilled water, or slipped out of class on more than one occasion. Reporting back to the group as a whole was one of the most instructive moments of my teaching career: everyone else claimed they had never done a single thing on the list.

Not. One. Person. would cop to any of the behaviours on the list. That’s when it crystallized for me: we forget what it’s like to be a student. And that, I think, is what it’s so dangerous to police student behaviour, especially when it comes to making decisions on students’ behalf about what learning looks like for them. I’m not convinced we remember well enough to know.

Circling back to tech bans, there are compromise solutions. If you use a horseshoe shape for desks in your classroom, you can ask students using devices of any kind to sit in the outside ring, for example. Working with students to set expectations for the classroom environment can help to: students are really good at articulating what respectful classroom conduct looks like to them (though you have to be willing to hear them tell you what *your* behaviour should look like to signal respect, and sometimes that is eye-opening!).

But if you’re someone who relies on a tech ban, maybe you need to think through why you have it. What is the larger goal, is it reasonable, and is there another way to go about achieving that goal?