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.
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.