Should Professors Ban Laptops in Class?

computer8a.jpgOrin Kerr writes about June Entman, a University of Memphis Law School professor who has decided to ban laptop computers in her class. While certainly of interest to law students and profesors, I’m a bit surprised that the AP thought that this was a national news story. [I should ban something from my classes and make national news, too.]

Anyway, the issue is interesting, and Orin posts an email he received from Professor Entman explaining her rationale for the policy. She observes that when students use laptops, they “focus primarily on transcribing everything said,” and don’t develop good note-taking habits. She also explains that the “wall of vertical screens” prevents her from seeing her students’ faces and that keystroke noise is a distraction.

An interesting discussion has ensued on Orin’s post. I have a comment there, disagreeing with Professor Entman’s policy. I will give students advice on good study and note-taking habits, but in the end, it is for the students to decide for themselves. Students need to learn to make their own choices and to live with the consequences of those choices. I don’t think that turning back the clock and taking students’ laptops away will help them. These are the tools we use today, and I think that it is better to teach students how to more effectively use today’s technology than to take it away. As I concluded in my comment:

There are many things I’d like to force my students to do. I’d like to force them to be prepared, to study diligently throughout the semester, and so on. I tell them all this, but in the end, I leave the choice to them. Otherwise, I begin to feel too much like parent, and I don’t always know what’s best for each student.

Will students be better off without laptops? I doubt it. Most won’t suddenly learn good habits; they’ll just resent the no laptop policy.

To keep the conversation in one place, please comment in Orin’s post (if he’ll allow you to).

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12 Responses

  1. John Jenkins says:

    I have a confession. I have a laptop and I use it in my law school classes. I surf the internet, check email, IM, take notes, and even used to play Civ III in class. I’m also in the top 10% of my class, and when I don’t have my laptop, classes are excruciatingly boring.

    Rather than ban the laptops, maybe professors could make their classes either (1) more interesting or (2) at least, useful. I once had a class where I literally played Civ III all day, every day (second semester of torts in my first year) and got a better grade than I did in the firtst half of the course where I did all the stuff I was supposed to.

    Law school just isn’t as difficult as professors make it out to be. This particular professor is so convinced of her own importance that she made this rule because she could, to show the students who was boss and to make herself feel important.

  2. Harvard Law Student says:

    I’m not approved at Professor Kerr’s blog, so I suppose I’ll have to post here. I agree with John; I learn nothing in most of my classes that I could not simply have read from the book. At least when I use my computer for email or journal work I’m being productive, and I’ve seen no difference in my grades between classes in which I do all the reading and those in which I do none. The truth of the matter is that law school (at least elite law schools) prepare students to be legal academics, not lawyers. And for those of us who actually want to practice, most of law school is a waste of time.

  3. Harvard Law Student,

    Learning the law is more than spitting back a bunch of memorized rules. The very best lawyers, in my opinion, know how to weave policy into their legal arguments because they know that courts are tremendously influenced by policy. Now maybe some discussions in classes go too heavy on the policy without demonstrating how to integrate it into legal arguments, but getting a grasp of the larger policy issues at stake is one of the most important skills students learn in law school. So I guess I’m a bit confused about your idea of what legal “practice” is all about.

    I’m also a bit confused by your other comments as well. You say that you learn nothing in your classes that you couldn’t read from the book, which suggests to me that the reading is the most important component to your law school performance. Yet you see no difference in grades between classes where you do the reading and where you don’t. Therefore, your gripe seems to be that you believe your grades are arbitrary, which is a different complaint than law school being a waste of time. In fact, law school could be teaching you valuable things, but they might not be reflected on the exam or in your grades. This, however, isn’t necessarily a problem with what’s being taught but with what’s being tested.

  4. John Jenkins says:

    I’m not in an elite law school (#71 last time I checked, according to our friends at U.S. News). I typically don’t find class discussions helpful, or even useful, as I noted earler.

    In my experience, they consist of the professor trying to get someone to say what the professor wants the person to say and spending vastly too much time on people who are unprepared for or incapable of doing so. If the classes actually moved at a clip where there was a point to contiunal attention, that would be one thing. They don’t, however, and banning the laptops is just sentencing people to boredom for no reason. It would be like taking away paper because someone might doodle.

  5. Joe Patent says:

    It’s sometimes funny watching professors teach law school classes. It seems like they do it more for their entertainment rather than teaching students. Most of what is taught in law school can be learned simply by reading the cases or an outline.

    The one thing that class does teach (if the professor does it correctly) is force students to think on their feet and speak in front of a group. The problem is that often the professor merely wants the student to spit back the facts for which he is looking.

    With respect to laptops, students would be better off with out them (and I’m a student).

  6. This post was not written to open up a law school venting session, and I regret taking the bait of one commentator by responding. Unless comments add something insightful about laptops in class, they will be deleted.

  7. Laptops in Law School

    Orin Kerr is hosting an enlightening conversation about the wisdom of law professors banning laptops from their classrooms. Dan Solove’s perspective probably comes closest to my own, but the discussion (and the comments come from law students a…

  8. Rie says:

    I do not consider myself a “weak” student, nor do I suffer from ADD or a short attention span, but those few times I have lugged my laptop to class and taken “notes” on it, the pull of the internet has proved irresistible. Like a moth to flame, I am drawn to ebay, Yahoo! Games, my email…the choices are endless.

    And I am not alone; from my back-row seat, I’ve seen countless students check their mail, IM each other, play games, and even lure laptopless neighbors into games of Text Twist. I, like many others, try to convince myself that I am so paying attention to the lecture while simultaneously thinking of all the words that can be made from erduls, but that’s just not true.

    Not only do laptops provide an easy retreat for when class gets slow or boring, they refocus students’ attention to the space 18 inches in front of them (even the studious ones actually taking notes), rather than on the prof or classmates. Laptops remove law students from the group activity that is class. The Socratic Method doesn’t really work when there isn’t a dialogue and exploration of ideas. And there certainly isn’t a true dialogue when eyes and attention are glued to the phosphorescent photons of laptop screens.

    I don’t bring my laptop to class because I know I can’t withstand the temptation of the ether. While playing on my computer, I miss drops of wisdom from my professors’ lips. When my classmates work or play on their laptops, I miss comments on the law drawn from diverse outlooks and experiences.

  9. jose says:

    I like the censorship.

  10. LM says:

    Rie — Don’t be such a tool.

    Who the hell cares what any peers have to say about the topic at hand. If they were so damn smart, they would be teaching the class rather than regularly getting their collective asses kicked by myself and others like me who similiarly laugh when they offer up an oh so valuable pearl of wisdom.

    And, if the professor is so worried about a disconnect with the students, perhaps the professor is just not willing to accept that he/she is not a very good professor and has not earned the respect of his/her students. Professors who have the respect of the class, rarely quarrel with the almighty internet for attention time.

  11. Walter Scott says:

    No matter how you slice and dice it, surfing, texting, emailing, gaming or whatever you might be doing (other than taking notes about what your professor is saying) demonstrates a clear lack of interest in the law and/or cynicism about either or both the law or those who teach it so as to imply you shouldn’t be in law school in the first place. With such apathy or cynicism, I would not want you as my lawyer. But, even with the above considered, the issue here seems more appropriately analyzed on the basis of whatever maximizes the educational process. Removing laptops as a tool now does not help future lawyers cope with a World in which they’ll be called upon to use that tool AS A LAWYER. It’s not realistic in any measure of CURRENT practice. And the idea, in part, should be to prepare students for the realities of practicing law, not to pine for and then attempt a return to yesteryear where the lawyer’s most basic tools were a pen and a yellow legal pad or to force note-taking by pen on paper only because, for YOU, the clickity-clack of keyboarding and the inability to see a student’s face is not comfortable for YOU! The former is so mid-last-century and thus unrealistic. The later is incredibly selfish and illustrates one’s refusal to adapt to the changing circumstances of a changing World. Let’s also consider an item of reality to which Prof. Entman should give greater deference. In the days of old, students prepared for tests by working in study groups. While that process still exists, the premise that such groups are as effective now as they were years ago does not. The idea, back then, was that, if your handwritten notes had some holes in them, the notes of another student might fill in the gaps. Yours might fill in gaps for someone else. Ergo, study groups had some utility. But the past 10 or 15 years have produced a different learning environment in primary and secondary schools causing a significant impact on what one can do or does in College. The secondary and primary school experience does not include or has dramatically de-emphasized the skill of taking notes with pen on paper. Let’s face it; we live in an increasingly computerized World where writing on paper is more and more a cumbersome process. Who here below the age of 25 can say they’ve been taught penmanship and have done well at writing with pen on paper? I dare say few can honestly boast they are so good that they can write at a fast clip — fast enough to take good notes in class. It’s ridiculous to assume, as I suspect Prof. Entman has, that students of today would have the same handwriting skills of students 20, 30 or 40 years ago and could fend for themselves in the same way as they did in “yesteryear.” If they had such skills, then her edict might make some sense, at least on one level. But the plain truth of it is that it makes no real sense at all from the average student’s point of view, which is that he or she is placed in the position of being held to a standard where there is little or no supporting context, as in little or no requisite training or reinforcing societal incentive. So, to mandate a return to written notes as a synopsis of a law school class and study aid makes about as much sense to students now as mandating they throw away their I-Pods then return to an old RCA turntable and vinyl records for musical entertainment. In conclusion: I’d say to Prof. Entman that you can only go forward, never backward, if you hope to make substantive progress in ANY project — including the project of teaching law school students.

  12. Walter Scott says:

    To followup on my previous post: Of Prof. Entman’s comments, I would have no argument with her point as to those who intentionally or otherwise escape participating in class discussions. So too would I agree that students should learn to analyze, not be a transcriptionist during class. A laptop should serve as a tool to enhance note-taking or discussion during class. The note-taking experience should not be too different from the note-taking you’ll do when talking with a client or preparing yourself for a quick rebuttal while a trial is still in session; you’re writing down your impressions, reaching out to a database to research a point you’ll make in class discussion with other students and/or the Prof. or much later as a lawyer to a client or a judge/jury and also make notes to yourself regarding some action-plan. You won’t exclusively gather word-for-word information spoken by a Prof. As a lawyer, you’ll not simply be a passive observer. You’ll be an advocate. Being a transcriptionist in law school classes won’t help you be the ADVOCATE you’ll need to be as a fully trained lawyer. Putting yourself out there during class, as a lawyer would on behalf of his/her client, WILL get you there or at least help. But where I disagree with Prof. Entman is on her apparent belief that laptops cannot be treated as a useful tool in class because some people may either intentionally or unintentionally use them to avoid thinking and analyzing in the way a prospective lawyer should learn to analyze and think. Pen and paper are useful for the purpose Prof. Entman intends. But she should not forget about the distractions of old — note-passing in class, the relative stoneage version of IMing, for example. In teaching, there is always something with which to cope — something that requires a creative solution. And, as noted previously, computers are inescapably the present and future tools of lawyers. Prospective lawyers will have to learn to cope with the pitfalls of computer usage as well as how to make use of advantages. So too should Prof. Entman find ways to cope with new tools rather than giveup on that process to retreat — implying the past and the tools of the past were and still are the best or only way to go. Perhaps Prof. Entman would have done better to devote at least one class session to guidelines on the proper use of computers by students and lawyers in which she would demonstrate how computers can help prospective lawyers learn about the practice of law from a wealth of online information, how computers can be used in preparing a case but also how computers can be misused or abused by students AND lawyers alike. She could have picked a student in the first class of the semester to play a video game while the rest discuss an interesting case. After thirty minutes, she’d then ask the student to summarize the discussion then point out what the student missed because he or she was distracted by playing a video game. She could address the great-wall-of-laptop-screens and how avoiding class participation is equivalent to shooting your hoped-for-career in the foot. And so on. All this wouldn’t be easy or nearly 100% effective. But methods used to prevent or counsel against note-passing years ago weren’t that effective either. Yet, people were allowed to use pen and paper to take notes in class ABOUT what was being taught in class. The keyword here is “COPE.” COPE with the bad uses of an established tool without banning the tool.