Going Laptopless: Larry Mitchell Faces the Naked Masses and Likes What He Sees
To kick things off, I thought I’d report the findings of Larry Mitchell (a colleague and author of, most recently, The Speculation Economy), who decided to teach laptopless in two of his classes this semester. Here’s what he had to say about it in an email to me earlier today:
For the first time, I banned laptops in my classrooms (my courses this semester are Jurisprudence and Corporate Finance; yes, I banned laptops in Finance, and they didn’t kvetch). Anyway, only a week of classes has passed, but I can unscientifically report that this was the best opening week of classes I’ve had in longer than I can remember. Typically on first days, even in Jurisprudence, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to say anything, I have to call on them, they give limited if any responses, and the time passes about as quickly as glaciers used to melt.
What a difference. I asked one question in Jurisprudence at the beginning of class. Two hours (and 12 volunteer participants of 16 students later), I felt like we had hardly begun. They were engaged, their remarks were excellent, and they were clearly excited. Over three 55 minute Corporate Finance classes, I had easily 15 or so (of 60) volunteers, and one day was a single case on which I kept a single student for almost the entire class. Again, the comments were good and required very little prompting.
I was pretty sure that banning laptops would improve classes, but I couldn’t possibly have imagined how much. While it’s early, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t continue, especially now that my students have set the tone and pace for themselves.
A few comments. First, this is not a new issue (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). Second, Larry’s students actually seem smarter to him without their laptops. I have to say, I had the same reaction (well, the reverse reaction) when I allowed laptops in my class for the first time this year. The dynamic is completely different in class, and students seemed far less sharp when hidden behind their laptops. I’d imagine (though can’t say for sure) that they must feel the same way about each other, and that (subjectively, anyway) going laptopless would increase the average quality of students’ experience of law school.
One cautionary note about going laptopless for those who are considering the move — it can leave both students and professors feeling a bit exposed. A crowd of people looking at screens and a crowd of people staring directly at you are two very different things. Still, I’m leaning towards switching back to laptopless teaching next year.
I say “leaning” because there is some worry in the administration about how students will feel about the move. Why worry? It’s not a concern about academic engagement — that seems to cut in favor of ditching the devices. Larry hasn’t had any complaints, and many of my students, far from complaining when I did it, appreciated the move and expressed that they enjoyed class more without laptops. The concern is that we, like most law schools, require every student to purchase a laptop; barring them from the classroom thus strikes some to be inconsistent with the requirement.
I see the point, but can’t really say much more than that without some more data. So let’s collect some data: What do you think about ditching laptops? Are you a student, and have you been in a laptopless class? Are you a teacher who’s tried it both ways? If you couldn’t shop for shoes during a boring class would drop out of law school, or would you find meaning in the class?