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April 10, 2007

Law School Innovation: Banning Laptops in Class?

Link: David Cole - Laptops vs. Learning - washingtonpost.com. David Cole, courageous as always, has banned laptops in class. He explains in the Washington Post:
[M]y first-year students were a bit surprised when I announced at the first class this year that laptops were banned from my classroom. I did this for two reasons, I explained. Note-taking on a laptop encourages verbatim transcription. The note-taker tends to go into stenographic mode and no longer processes information in a way that is conducive to the give and take of classroom discussion. Because taking notes the old-fashioned way, by hand, is so much slower, one actually has to listen, think and prioritize the most important themes. In addition, laptops create temptation to surf the Web, check e-mail, shop for shoes or instant-message friends. That's not only distracting to the student who is checking Red Sox statistics but for all those who see him, and many others, doing something besides being involved in class. Together, the stenographic mode and Web surfing make for a much less engaged classroom, and that affects all students (not to mention me). I agreed to permit two volunteers to use laptops to take notes that would be made available to all students. And that first day I allowed everyone to use the laptops they had with them. I posed a question, and a student volunteered an answer. I answered her with a follow-up question. As if on cue, as soon as I started to respond, the student went back to typing -- and then asked, "Could you repeat the question?" When I have raised with my colleagues the idea of cutting off laptop access, some accuse me of being paternalistic, authoritarian or worse. We daydreamed and did crosswords when we were students, they argue, so how can we prohibit our students, who are adults after all, from using their time in class as they deem fit? A crossword hidden under a book is one thing. With the aid of Microsoft and Google, we have effectively put at every seat a library of magazines, a television and the opportunity for real-time side conversations and invited our students to check out whenever they find their attention wandering. I feel especially strongly about this issue because I'm addicted to the Internet myself. I checked my e-mail at least a dozen times while writing this op-ed. I've often resolved, after a rare and liberating weekend away from e-mail, that I will wait till the end of the day to read e-mail at the office. Yet, almost as if it is beyond my control, e-mail is the first thing I check when I log on each morning. As for multitasking, I don't buy it. Attention diverted is attention diverted. But this is all theory. How does banning laptops work in practice? My own sense has been that my class is much more engaged than recent past classes. I'm biased, I know. So I conducted an anonymous survey of my students after about six weeks -- by computer, of course. The results were striking. About 80 percent reported that they are more engaged in class discussion when they are laptop-free. Seventy percent said that, on balance, they liked the no-laptop policy. And perhaps most surprising, 95 percent admitted that they use their laptops in class for "purposes other than taking notes, such as surfing the Web, checking e-mail, instant messaging and the like." Ninety-eight percent reported seeing fellow students do the same.
Of course, not bringing a laptop will make outlining more difficult--and some may be concerned that for open book courses they might lose out on the stenographic nature of laptop notetaking. We can do our own unscientific--largely anonymous--poll here. Would it be better if laptops were banned? Do any students leave their laptops at home because they find that they learn more without one? Anupam Chander

April 10, 2007 in Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink


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I have to agree. I see my students doing all manner of thing when there are no notes to be taken so I know they are otherwise engaged. They are less inclined to participate in the discussion and my class is very definitely seminar style. I have seen a decline over seven years in the amount of engagement and that has been in direct proportion to the number of laptops open in front of the students. How it impacts me (because I teach in the Grand Courtroom and the aisles are tiered) is when the laptop is open the laptop cover is in front of the student's mouth and when they talk, because I can't see their mouth's moving, I don't hear them. That is just a strange thing for me but I like to see a person's mouth moving when they say words and are engaging with me.

Posted by: Susan Cartier Liebel | Apr 10, 2007 5:39:48 PM

I strongly support banning them and am thinking about following Cole's lead (still weighing the pros and cons).

As for Professor Chander's concern about outlining: I always have believed that the real benefit to outlining is the act of re-assembling and organizing all the materials (reading notes, class notes, text of the books, supplemental materials, study guides) into one document, with the act of retyping everything into that one document. That is where the light bulb comes on. I think it is a mistake for students to rely solely on class notes for the exam. And if banning laptops forces them to outline differently, I see that as a welcome side benefit.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 10, 2007 6:09:09 PM

I'm taking four classes this semester. In one of them, the professor does not allow laptops. At first I rebelled against the very notion of a laptop ban, but I decided I wouldn't be hasty in making a judgment. Now that the semester is almost over, I've come to a few conclusions:

1) The ability of the professor to engage students is far more important than the presence of laptops or lack thereof. In the two most engaging classes I've had in law school thus far, the professors allowed laptops.

2) I dislike the effect the laptop ban has on my ability to manage notetaking. I'm a much faster note-taker when I'm using my laptop. Taking away the laptop doesn't mean I'm not going to take notes; it just means I am occasionally not going to be able to jot down something important because I'm laboring along by hand. I'm also *more* likely to miss some of the discussion because it takes more of my concentration to create notes.

3) I dislike the effect the laptop ban has on my exam preparation. I do see Professor Wasserman's point that banning laptops forces students to outline differently, but over the first year and a half of my law school existence I have built my exam preparation around taking notes in class on my laptop. For this one class I will spend less time on hypos and practice exams because I will be busy pulling my initial notes together. For my other classes I will take my in-class notes and carefully go through them, distilling them from pages and pages of notes into a lean and mean exam outline. The extra step involved for this one class means I will spend more time engaged in process mechanics. Ultimately this may be better for me, but I'd prefer to have the choice about which method I use.

I also find myself returning to the initial reason for my mistrust of the laptop ban. I pay a good deal of money to attend law school. My feeling is that if someone who has earned at minimum a Bachelor's Degree and is expected to be representing clients as a lawyer can't be left to decide whether to use a laptop in class or not, the legal profession has larger problems than laptops.

As a generational point of reference, I'm 39 years old.

Posted by: Erik | Apr 10, 2007 9:13:34 PM

I had no laptop in undergrad; I have used a laptop throughout law school. I have done much better in law school than I did in undergrad. It certainly might be a coincidence, or related to some other factor... but try and take away my laptop and I'd throw a hissy fit worthy of a child - one from whom you might have to take away his favorite toy to get his attention.

Posted by: Brett T. | Apr 19, 2007 9:00:34 AM

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