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?

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21 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    As a psychotically internet-addicted student, my goal for this semester is to avoid taking my laptop out of my bag. I find that I am a significantly better student when I don’t take notes and simply engage my brain than when I spend class time surfing and occassionally jot down something important in my notes.

    I think I would love it if professors banned laptops… not because of the potential effect on my classmates, but becuase of the effect on me.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    Last semester and this one, I “urged against using them,” with mixed success (more success in the 1L than the 2L class). Next year, I think I will pull the trigger and ban them altogether.

    I do not think banning laptops from the classroom is inconsistent with requiring students to purchase them. Students are going to do everything else for law school on computer (writing papers, doing research, preparing outlines), so it makes sense to give them the freedom and efficiency that comes with having a laptop (able to work anywhere, no wait for computer time, etc.). Given these other uses, keeping laptops out of the classroom does not seem that inconsistent.

    Plus computers are widely perceived as having increased efficiency and effectiveness for most law-school uses, *except* (anecdotally, at least) in the classroom, where they are seen (by most professors, anyway) as a distraction, an impediment (as your colleague and you experienced), or worse.

  3. CMB says:

    I am a law student that has consciously chosen to not use my laptop in class because I know that I would spend more time on facebook or various blawgs than paying attention in class.

    In evaluating my classmates, generally, the ones who choose to not use laptops sound smarter and are engaged with the material being covered than those who use laptops. Those who laptops seem to be masters of the tangents. Although they can engage in a fascinating conversation with the professor it’s probably not going to be on the material that was assigned for that day’s class. There are a couple of exceptions both ways, but all in all I appreciate my professors who ban laptops in the classroom.

  4. A 2L says:

    I joined the very small pen and paper club (it was mostly a few of the ILLM students) for my first semester of my second year (last semester) after having used a laptop throughout my first year. I switched because my notes from first year were useless gobbledygook (possibly due to slow typing and spending too much time fixing formatting in OneNote), and I didn’t feel like I’d learned much during class. Without a laptop, I was certainly more intellectually engaged and my notes made sense.

    The problem I had with taking notes on paper was that at the end of the semester, all of my notes were on paper! Outlining was considerably more work without typed notes versus with, particularly for some classes. I humbly suggest that teaching and examination methods have something to do with whether it’s worthwhile for students to leave their laptops closed. Regarding teaching methods, my concern is primarily with PowerPoint. Other problems with the slideware aside, having to match up paper notes to slides made available electronically after class was messy. While I recognize professors have good reasons for testing students by timed, issue-spotting exams, I have to wonder whether the degree of critical thinking required for such exams generally makes sensible the sacrifice of deeper understanding of the subject for outlining ease. It is this latter concern which led me back to laptop use during some classes (and fuzzy understanding of the material) for the first week of this semester.

  5. 3L says:

    The main reason I use my laptop is not to surf the internet but to type my notes. I simply abhor writing notes by hand. I type much faster than I write, they’re easier to edit, and at the end of the semester, it’s a cinch to organize them for studying. I simply would drop out of any class than banned laptops entirely. No class is worth that much to me. Internet surfing is one thing, but I will never write notes by hand in school again (as a 3L, I can say this).

  6. jenl1625 says:

    I didn’t have a laptop when I went to law school (graduated 1997), but I wish I had – I take much better notes on a laptop then when I have to write them all out.

  7. newlawprof says:

    I’ve seriously considered teaching laptopless for all of the reasons addressed in Donald’s post. However, two concerns bring me pause. First, would this choice pose a risk for a new prof (i.e., negative or critical teaching evals)? Second, I’ve observed that most profs who’ve blogged about going laptopless in recent years are already tenured. Is this significant?

  8. fishbane says:

    As a non-law student, my main concern would be what many above have already expressed: without digitized notes, it is much harder to go back and use them.

    That said, as someone who went through school before laptops were common, classroom interaction and manual note taking seems more engaging and “sticks” better than when I’m tapping away on my laptop.

    (I can’t imagine wasting time on Facebook or whatever in class… that’s a lot of money out the window!)

    Perhaps providing a professor’s Outline of Important Things would (imperfectly) split the difference there. Obviously, you’re going to emphasize different things that I would sitting in the class, but it might mitigate some of the reluctant laptop yielders.

  9. Jason says:

    I’m like “A 2L” above: I used a laptop my first year and then switched to paper (I made the switch at the end of my third semester — I’m now heading into my final semester in school). I am no more engaged in boring classes now than I was with the laptop.

    I felt more engaged my fourth semester than I had in previous semesters, but in retrospect, I realize that I just had a full slate of interesting classes. Last semester, my fifth, I had one class that bored me to tears. Keeping notes on paper didn’t help me pay attention (I found new ways to distract myself, including tearing out the Times crossword) and it didn’t help my ultimate exam performance.

    As to Prof. Wasserman’s suggestion that the other law school uses of laptops mean that the laptop-required policy doesn’t undermine a ban: you’re basically telling students that they have to buy these things and then put them in the closet until the end of the semester. Maybe during the first year, in a legal writing course, they’ll use them for research and writing throughout, but my experience beyond the first year is that I’m not doing any research, writing, or outlining until the end of the semester. (What, by the way, is the justification for the “must buy a laptop” policy?)

    Finally: the other solution in this debate, instead of banning laptops and thereby putting more of a load on students (as mentioned before, outlining is harder, etc.), the professors could find a way to integrate technology into their teaching. Get creative!

  10. 3L says:

    I would also like to add that a decent compromise that I’ve heard from students unfortunate enough to go to schools where the profs ban laptops in class is to have a designated, rotating note-taker who is allowed to bring his/her laptop solely for the purpose of taking notes for the class. These notes are then distributed to the entire class. While not ideal, this does seem better than an outright ban.

  11. E. McPan says:

    When I was a student, I used a laptop in nearly every class for taking notes. I just couldn’t write that fast.

    As a professor, I told my students I didn’t care whether they used laptops or not. It was interesting to see that no one chose to use a laptop last semester. This semester, only one person has cracked open a laptop so far.

  12. Two L says:

    I handwrite specifically because it forces me to prioritize my thoughts and listen carefully. Its true that I have to spend more time with my notes to produce an outline come exam time, but thats a benefit too.

    Classes are not boring if students participate in the discussion. In my humble opinion, bringing a laptop makes a boring class worse for everyone overall.

  13. Kevin! says:

    I depend on a laptop for my study method and would be at a huge disadvantage without one.

    Learning a law course requires mastering an entire body of law at once. Students are required to pull together everything they learned over the course of a semester and understand it as a system, rather then as a series of discrete parts. With a laptop, I can compile my notes, organize them systematically, and annotate them based on what I’m missing. I can compare them against other outlines to get a sense for how other students see the class. The resulting outline is useful to me for life — I’ve used my Bankruptcy outline as a summer associate and in my other classes because I’m familiar with it and it contains all the information I require. Handwritten notes, against that standard, are downright archaic.

    I’m surprised that Professors are unable to separate their own parochial, personal motives for banning laptops from valid pedagogical goals. Of course it’s more fun for the Professor to elicit class participation and not have to stare at a sea of Dell logos. But class participation is just an imperfect indicator of actual class involvement. When class discusssion isn’t call-and-response of fact patterns it’s low-level blathering over the students’ personal political preferences. For a professor to seize on it as significant evidence of a superior class is to mix his interests with the interests of the students.

    After all, no one is required to use a laptop. And yet pretty much every student does. This is not just people using the Internet; it’s uniform at UCLA, where the Internet is blocked during class hours.

    So go ahead and ban laptops. But don’t pretend that you have any evidence that it furthers the goals of teaching. And don’t pretend that this is what students really want and need in their heart of hearts. This is just you clinging to obsolete forms of teaching in the face of overwhelming student demand.

  14. yet another 2L says:

    Assuming an engaging and effective professor, I wouldn’t complain too much about not being allowed to use laptops. There’d be some complaining, since 1) I’m a law student, it’s what we do, 2) I much prefer typing my notes, rather than writing, and 3) outlining would be even more of a pain without having neat(ish), typed notes.

    I do admit to surfing the web in class, but 70% of the time it’s somewhat related to the discussion at hand. I like being able to cut and paste statutes into my notes or look up something I’d like to know more about. My lack of participation isn’t usually because of websurfing but because I don’t want to sound like an idiot and/or a gunner. However, sometimes the lack of response by my classmates will provide enough incentive to raise my hand.

  15. a 1L says:

    As someone who went through undergrad in the pre-laptop era, when we had to dodge T.Rex on the way to class, I must say I love having my laptop in class to type notes on and to generally organize all of my material. I don’t lose important papers like I used to, everything’s always where it belongs, life is simple.

    Last semester I only surfed the web once during class, a particularly boring Crim Law session when the prof. focused all of his attention on the inanities of one of my fellow students instead of on, you know, the law. Some of my classmates were constantly on-line, shopping for shoes, reading blogs, etc. Having just recieved my grades, I hope that 1. laptops aren’t banned, 2. my classmates continue to waste their class time on-line, and 3. I continue to crush them in the realm of GPA. Maybe this isn’t kind or even in the best interest of the education of all of my fellow students, but why should those of us with a modicum of self-discipline have to suffer the annoyance of hand-written notes so that the undisciplined can get better grades?

  16. George says:

    1. It is a problem for the school because not only do they require laptops, but at Suffolk Law, the facility is new, thus it is advertised as follows:

    “It all happens in Sargent Hall, where classical beauty meets cutting-edge technology. With 3,000 high-speed Internet connections, Suffolk Law ranks as one of the most technologically advanced law schools in the nation.”

    2. I never use a laptop in class. Being a philosophy major I am used to the Socratic Method. Students and teachers often think I am one of the brightest in the class. Yet, my grades are average and my class rank lies near the bottom. Why? Because laptops or no laptops, engaged with the Professor or surfing the net are all almost entirely irrelevant to what is being tested on the exam. That is, what the professor teaches and what he or she wants to see on the exam and the way they want to see it is never discussed, talked about, hinted at, or even remotely explained.

    3. My property class Professor banned laptops and the class was the worst academic experience I ever have had. Quite literally, I passed in spite of the Professor’s instruction not because of it. Contrast that with an Adv. Con Law class where most had laptops, but the Professor was dynamic, engaging and one of the best in the field. He had no trouble maintaining the attention of the students. Why? He was a true teacher who happened to be a lawyer. My opinion is that law school barely trains one to be a lawyer and offers no training in the field of education so coming across a good, solid, real live teacher is hit or miss.

  17. Rick Garnett says:

    This semester, for the first time, I’m not permitting laptops in my Constitutional Law and Freedom of Religion courses.

    The comments, above, are helpful (and a bit sobering). I hope — genuinely — that my decision will enhance my students’ experience, and help them learn. That is, the decision does not reflect a selfish desire to be the object of attention, or a hostility to technology, etc. I really have become convinced not just that the class will be more fun, but that the students will learn more and better. I could be wrong, of course. We’ll see . . .

  18. UMN2L says:

    Because I can type so much faster than I can write by hand (especially if I want to be able to read my writing later!), if there’s something important that the professor says in class (imagine that!) and I want to write it down, handwriting notes is problematic because while I’m busy writing down that thought, I’ve just missed the next part of the conversation.

    I’m sure that Rick’s class will be more fun for him without laptops. It might even be more fun for the students. But at the very least you have to admit that he’s altering performance of the students on the exam in a way which will help some of them and harm some of them — and it seems to me that they ought to be the ones making that decision on an individual level, that if a particular student will learn better without a computer in front of her, then she should leave her computer behind.

  19. SFG says:

    I find I use IM to ask (and answer) potentially trivial questions of my fellow classmates. This ensures that the questions we actually raise in class are worth the precious time they consume.

  20. Northeastern 2L says:

    I don’t think professors should _ban_ laptops; that’s a bit draconian.

    Students should be free to use whatever learning tools they feel most benefits them.

    Professors should also feel free to call on students who look particularly distracted.

    Personally, I am switching to pen and paper from a laptop, because I find I pay more attention and take better notes.

    That said, I do request professors cut down on the number of pointless tangents that they engage in, because that’s when they lose a lot of my colleagues, who start surfing and never come back once the tangent ends…

  21. Northeastern 2L says:

    “Students should be free to use whatever learning tools they feel most benefits them.”

    should be

    “Students should be free to use whatever learning tools they feel most benefit them.