Laptops, Again

Over at PrawfsBlawg, Rick Garnett has drawn attention to Kristin Murray’s forthcoming article Let Them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate Over Laptops in the Classroom. Since my own laptop ban was cited in the article, I read it with particular interest. I’m still thinking about the piece, which for me means that it was worth reading.

One of Murray’s central points is something that I suspect most professors who decide to ban laptops have considered: students have different learning styles and some of them will be genuinely aided by having a laptop in class. Because of this, I tried or considered several of the alternatives to laptop bans that Murray endorses—incentives for participation, a personal request that laptops only be used for classroom purposes, and so forth—and ultimately found these alternatives wanting. For me, particularly in the large core courses that I teach, the relevant question is always: what policy decision is going to benefit the most students?

To argue that I and others of my ilk have gone too far with an all-out ban, Murray relies primarily on a survey of laptop practices that was taken by Temple and Georgetown law students. In fairness, Murray notes her own reservation s about the merits of self-reporting. But I found many of the survey comments unpersuasive, primarily because they so remind me of what my own students said prior to participating in my laptop-free classroom. Many—although by no means all—students had very different comments about the value and effects of their laptops by the end of the semester. They each have their own laptop and each class has a laptop rack in to store and charge the laptops. Laptops are super easy to use!! If you are wanting to get a laptop for school, but are unable to afford one then you might want to check out something like these 17 schools giving out laptops to help you out a little bit.

Murry’s paper arguably predicts this result. One of the assumptions (presumably made by laptop advocates) that Murray seeks to debunk is that “[b]ecause they are digital natives, law school students make informed choices about laptops and learning.” Murray finds that students bring “laptops to class with only some of them thinking critically about their own note-taking, study and learning habits.” This raises a question about these same students’ abilities to report critically on their own laptop practices. What should we make, for example, of the more than 55% of students using their laptops for non-classroom related activities who say they “never miss anything” or only “occasionally miss something minor”?

Murray’s article also has me thinking about how the professor side of the equation fits into the whole laptop debate. I would not be the first to comment on how scary it is to walk into a laptop-free classroom and realize that you are the only entertainment in the room. I will also confess that during a visit to a school where I didn’t ban laptops, teaching sometimes felt easier because I knew that if the students didn’t find the material engaging they had something else to do. I don’t know how we would measure the effects that laptops have on professor performance, but it’s an interesting question.

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. I ban laptops in my classroom. Just one of the reasons I’ll mention here is that I want students to listen carefully to what I have to say in class. Experience has taught me they are all too easily distracted and have a hard time focusing their attention for very long. I’m adamantly opposed to anything in the classroom that has the potential to disrupt their efforts at concentration. In a society in which people notoriosly display an appalling lack of ability to focus their awareness on any thoughts, ideas, topics (what have you) for more than a few moments or a short span of time I find it imperative to do whatever I can to set propitious conditions for the aid of such concentration. Indeed, I think it’s even beneficial for them to learn to concentrate on what they believe is “boring,” not entertaining, of little value and so forth. (If I’m ever compelled or ‘ordered’ to allow laptops in the classroom I think that would be a strong sign that it’s time to quit teaching.)

  2. Logan says:

    As a student, I prefer to record lectures (with permission, of course) so that I can take notes after class. That being said, it’s nice to be able to have my laptop on in class because my notes are on it. They can also be useful to look something up on the fly that could add to the current discussion. However, if you have an engaging lecture (either by asking lots of questions, requiring students to lead parts of class discussion, etc) the issue is largely mute because most students will be forced to participate in class and not Facebook their BFF.

  3. Stan (third-year law student) says:

    Certainly it is important to ask “what policy decision is going to benefit the most students?” Often, however, professors overlook one critical aspect of that question –– namely, what are the deleterious effects of laptop bans on industrious students?

    Many students that make efficient use of laptops in the classroom are frustrated by laptop bans. I count myself among them. Because I cannot write as quickly as I can type, I often miss critical data in classes where laptops are banned — and it is a pain to figure out what I’ve missed after class. I scribble words from statutes and cases that I could otherwise quickly cut and paste (accurately) directly into my notes from Cornell LII or other sources. Furthermore, I am forced to start from scratch when I cobble together my course outline. Sure, outlining’s main value for many students is in its composition, but there is no increase in value when you’re composing the outline from a spiral notebook instead of from a word processing document.

    Law school is professional education, and it seems more appropriate to treat students as professionals, rather than as children, and let them take ownership over their own learning.

  4. Mike Zimmer says:

    When the issue of laptop use first arose, I asked myself a question: Would I have wanted to use a laptop in class when I was a law student? I wonder what the correlation would be between the answers professors give to this question and their subsequent decision about laptop use.

  5. Howard Wasserman says:

    I suppose we might compare teaching evals before and after a laptop ban (I had been teaching 7 1/2 years before I finally banned them), but there are so many confounding factors it would be hard to tell anything. I feel as if I do better without the competition, but that is unprovable.

    I disagree that there is no increase in value in composing the outline from handwritten notes rather than a Word document. My experience found students doing one of two things: 1) Simply using their class notes as the outline (since it already was typed) or 2) Cutting-and-pasting into a new document, but without really thinking about what it was they were cutting-and-pasting and certainly with less thought than if they had to retype.

  6. Jake Linford says:

    I was a law student when the University of Chicago initiated its wireless ban – the wireless routers were generally off in the classroom spaces, but you could still get wireless in common areas. The change didn’t work perfectly – in some classes you could get a signal – and for Chicago, it seemed surprisingly paternalistic. But I found it better than the alternative of no laptops, and according to then Dean Levmore, student feedback was generally positive.

    Before the Internet ban, I tried one quarter of taking handwritten notes because one class required it, and so it made sense to try the experiment in other classes as well. I loved how the lack of laptop removed the temptation to surf or play solitaire, and I think the class discussion as a whole benefited. It was much more difficult to assemble an outline of the class at the end of the quarter, and I could tell from the exams themselves that I missed material I should have had in those outlines. I assume I would have captured them if I had been typing my notes, but that may be incorrect.

    Having done both, I would never institute a laptop ban in an exam class I was teaching. As I student, I perceive that the laptop ban cost more it benefited me, and I would not want to inflict cost upon my own students. I would consider a laptop ban for a seminar, where the discussion is more important than the note taking, and there is no final exam for which the students need to prepare. I would happily embrace an Internet ban if it were technologically feasible, without destroying my own ability to play for the class the occasional video clip from an online source.

  7. Law Student says:

    It appears that many professors are banning laptops for paternalistic reasons that may in fact be quite dubious. I am no longer a high school or college student. I am a law student that entered law school to learn the law. Law students that pay (often through borrowing) large amounts of money to attend school should be given the opportunity to choose their method of taking notes. I believe that some professors who are not as deft at typing cannot appreciate the speed and accuracy of their students’ typing. This does not mean that students always type verbatim notes. Rather, they can digest what they are hearing with the confidence that they can quickly type the upshot of a professor’s point before the professor moves to the next issue.

    Instead of professors focusing on their beliefs about the best style of learning — beliefs that are often based on their experiences that literally occurred before the advent of personal computers — the professors should focus more on determining what students want. For example, I see no reason not to reserve the first half of the seats closest to the professor for those students without laptops. This would provide students who feel they are distracted by their peers’ laptop screens with a less distracting environment.

    Tablets and other technologies are also providing new means by which to capture and annotate information. Programs like OneNote allow for typed notes to be paired with recording of the lecture such that replaying the recorded lecture will also highlight the portion of the notes that were typed at that portion of the lecture. A wholesale laptop ban may stymie such innovative learning techniques. I believe a more nuanced approach is required.

  8. Civ Pro King says:

    When I was in lawschool about 5/6 years ago, I hated the use of laptops in my classes that had mandatory seating. It was bad enough that you were forced to sit in designated seating, but being constantly distracted by someone chatting online, playing one of various casino styled games, or even listening to music was just too much. That was the contracts class. In the legislation class, one bright bulb actually used the internet to find the related legislative history material during class that the professor forgot to check. This furthered the class room discussion.

    When there is no mandatory seating, I wouldn’t ban laptops because it’s paternalistic and shuns autonomy. If you’re sophisticated enough to go to lawschool you should be smart enough to realize that playing black jack during contracts is not exactly the brightest idea, and it will help you earn that C.

    I’m in favor of middle grounds, several of which have already been discussed.