Banning Laptops in Classrooms- a Student View

[Cross-posted from First Movers; comments off here but on over there.]

In the Contracts and Civ Pro classes I just finished yesterday, laptops were banned and ‘strongly discouraged’, respectively. At the beginning of the semester, I described this as understandable but ‘regressive and damaging’, so I thought it was fair to revisit this, especially since Prof. Dorf blogged his own thoughts on the experience in our Civ Pro class. Some thoughts in response to his post and my own at the beginning of the semester:

  • Prof. Dorf says that by the end of the semester, only ‘0 or 1’ students were using laptops in his class. There were actually two daily laptop users. I’m not sure that this oversight means much.
  • I used a Tablet PC every day in class, instead of a traditional laptop. I used to speak to computer conferences, so I sympathize with complaints about the literal wall that laptops put between speaker and audience, and I use a tablet PC in large part because I don’t want to create such a barrier. If Prof. Dorf thought that 0 students were using laptops some days, then the Tablet probably worked. (Or he’s generously ignoring me…)
  • Comparing to the experience in my laptop-allowed class, the internet is definitely an attractive nuisance. Killing the internet (as one of Dorf’s commenters points out) would remove a lot of the professor’s problems, while still allowing students to type/organize/craft notes in ways they can’t do on paper.
  • Prof. Dorf cites as a benefit of banning laptops that using paper forces active reorganization and rewriting of notes, which helps learning. I’m not sold that the laptop really impacts that- everyone I know is still reorganizing and rethinking all their typed notes from other classes, just as they are doing for their paper notes. In some cases they are copying and pasting instead of typing it for the first time, but I’m not sold that this really has that much of an impact.
  • Both Prof. Dorf and Prof. Scott sent out written summaries (not powerpoint decks!) after each class, which supplemented our own notes and made people less nervous about the need to take verbatim notes themselves. This was an excellent technique which I think every professor should emulate, not just in law schools. It allowed people to focus more on discussion in class, and focus less on becoming court reporters (as Prof. Scott put it.) If the professors wanted to be really bold about it, they’d put the notes in a class-editable wiki, but maybe that is too much to ask.
  • Dorf mentions that the internet does occasionally allow for interesting in-class research, especially in seminars. Professors might consider doing what Prof. Zittrain sometimes does, and having a designated class Googler each day- that person (and only that person) is connected to the internet and can google/wikipedia/etc. whenever someone requests it, without getting half the class all hitting Google at once. If the classroom permits it, Prof. Zittrain will actually put that person’s screen up on a projector- both to keep them honest about what they are googling, and to have better class participation around that searching.

If you looked just at those factors above, you’d probably conclude that there are no strong reasons to permit laptop use in classrooms. But on the other side, though, is the sense that students feel entitled to use the laptop, and that professors feel entitled to undivided attention- with all the problems (on both sides) that a sense of entitlement creates. In his blog post, Prof. Dorf linked to this article, saying it explained why he wanted to ban laptops. The article does have a lot of good points, but I think it also captures why so many law students are skeptical of professors who would seek to banish laptops- right in the first paragraph:

It was a privilege to have a captive audience… Teaching felt like a cooperative enterprise between me and my students.

(Emphasis mine.) My immediate reaction to reading this was to think that the audience is either captive or cooperative- you don’t get both. After mulling it over, I’m not sure that is necessarily right- obviously the best professors can create a cooperative experience, and almost by definition their students are still captive. So the conflict isn’t inherent, but it is often going to be present- because, well, most professors do think of their students as captives, and most don’t ever actually achieve a “cooperative enterprise” with their students. Dorf and Prof. Scott (the other professor of mine who banned laptops) are among the best teachers I’ve ever had. So it isn’t surprising that students would reasonably happily turn off laptops in their classes. The real friction between students and professors who want to ban laptops will happen in classes where students really do feel like captives- and unfortunately, that is all too many classes. (I’d bet, actually, that if all students were asked by professors to not use laptops, but they weren’t explicitly banned, the percentage of laptop use would almost perfectly correlate with teaching evaluation results.) For professors who can’t or don’t want to be good teachers, allowing laptops in class seems to me like a good counterweight- freeing students to make more efficient use of their time, and (to a certain extent) allowing them to communicate their displeasure in a semi-socially acceptable way.

So: the internet is going to remain distracting; laptops (at least until people switch to tablets) will continue to create a wall between speakers and audience; and most professors will continue to be pretty bad at teaching. That makes it pretty difficult to create school-wide policy, as several schools have tried to do. Given my experiences this semester, if I were asked to create a school-wide policy, it would probably look something like:

  • professors may ask (but not require) that laptops not be used in their classes; if professors do request that, they be required to send out regular summaries to the class, to encourage focus on the discussion and not on note-taking.
  • the school should tell incoming students that Tablet PCs are generally preferred.
  • the internet (perhaps except for lexis/westlaw/the library) should be turned off in class, with the exception of a panel/panelist who is responsible for googling for relevant questions in an interactive class.

I’m curious what others here think of this- having only gone through one semester (and with more classes that ban laptops than not) I may not be well positioned to give this a fair and complete analysis.

[Picture: Rebecca MacKinnon using a laptop at iLaw 2005, part of a flickr set that is probably the only way I’ll ever be able to link to myself and Lessig in the same breath.]

1 thought on “Banning Laptops in Classrooms- a Student View”

  1. Apparently, a debate has been raging over students’ use of laptops in law school classrooms. More precisely, the debate is over professors’ right to ban such use of such laptops. CLS 1L Luis Villa, for example, recently responded to Professor Michael Dorf’s non-laptop policy. Having been to college recently, but long before anyone but hyper-nerds brought laptops to class, I thought I’d offer some observations from personal experience.

Comments are closed.