March 02, 2005
Laptops in the Classroom
Posted by Gordon Smith

The faculty listserv here has been hopping with a discussion about laptops in the classroom. At the University of Wisconsin, most of our classrooms are within range of a wireless connection, and a majority of the students use laptops in the classroom. While professors hope that students are taking notes, we realize that students also use laptops to play games and surf the internet.

In my days as a student, laptops were not a problem because they didn't exist. But some of my classmates played games or worked on crossword puzzles. When I was in the mood to multi-task, I usually tried to catch up on reading for another class or worked on a paper. I also doodled a lot.

In my view, there are two big issues with laptops in the classroom: the effect on the student with the laptop and the effect on other students. With respect to the first issue, my concern is not unique to laptops, but may be exacerbated by laptops. It has to do with note-taking. I have often advised my students to get away from attempting to take extensive notes in class. Working through difficult legal issues requires a tremendous amount of concentration, and taking notes is a distraction. In simplest terms, if you are worried about recording what has just been said, you cannot focus on what should be said next.

Because most people type faster than they write, having a laptop encourages more extensive note taking. Many students seem to believe that they can record the class and do the intellectual heavy lifting later. This is a missed opportunity to have a meaningful discussion, the value of which far exceeds comprehensive notes. In other words, most note taking is worse than a waste of time because it prevents the students from thinking about the issues at hand. While I am not alone in this concern, it would not justify an institutional response to laptops.

The second issue, however, may justify institutional action.  How does laptop use affect other students? Laptops are distracting. No doubt about it. They can be especially distracting when students are viewing animated graphics. Or, in my nightmare scenario, when a student decides to view porn during class. In my 10 years of teaching, I have only once heard such a complaint, but our listserv discussion suggests that this is a broader (unreported) problem.

What of this argument for non-regulation: law students are adults who a paying a lot of money for their legal education? Hooey! I strongly disagree with the notion that law students should be allowed to do anything they want as long as they are not being disruptive to others. I think the simplest example that we do not adhere to this philosophy is the attendance requirement. I suspect that most law professors are comfortable requiring attendance, even if some students would be happy to skip class. Why not allow the non-resident law student? Because we think class attendance is an important component of legal education.

If you don't like that example, it's easy enough to come up with other ways that we structure the learning experience for students, from the way that we conduct class discussions to the way that we administer exams or evaluate papers or other projects. Indeed, a professor's job is to structure the learning experience for students, not simply to go along with whatever learning plan they might think sufficient. I don't understand why demanding that students leave laptops behind is any different than demanding attendance or demanding an assignment.

Let me conclude with two clarifying points. First, I am not a Luddite. I generally support the use of laptops in law school. I think Wisconsin should join most of the rest of the law schools in the country by allowing students to take exams on their laptops, and I am all for having wireless access everywhere I go.

Second, I am not convinced that banning laptops or banning certain types of laptop use in the classroom are good solutions. This is, at root, the sort of regulatory issue that lawyers find endlessly fascinating. How should laptop use be regulated, if at all? Despite my strident views on pedagogy, I find myself still waffling on this ultimate question. So I have opened comments on this post in hopes of getting some feedback.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, I received an email from Ann, linking to her own discussion. I wrote my post without reading hers because I didn't want to plagiarize, and I see that Ann is much more libertarian on this issue than I. The whole post is worth reading, but I found her "Update" particularly interesting because it reminded me of something I had forgotten:

You know, it wasn't that long ago that people thought the students shouldn't be typing on laptops during class, because that was too distracting. In the early days of laptops, some students had laptops that they kept in their backpacks during class. They thought it would be offensive to use them to take notes. Now, no one thinks of that as a distraction.

When I first started teaching law in 1994, I often received complaints from non-laptop students who were bothered by the tapping of keys. One of my then-colleagues actually separated his classroom into a laptop half and a non-laptop half in a failed effort to address the issue. One implication of Ann's update is that students might get used to seeing laptops, too, and won't find them so distracting in the future.

UPDATE II: Oscar Madison has joined the blog debate. One strain of thought in the debate is that professors should just be so interesting that students don't want to surf the internet. Oscar ponders this and concludes: "Maybe we professors need to take the 'problem' of laptop computers in the classroom entirely personally. And maybe the answer is to get over our hurt feelings and start to think whether we need to be teaching better." Check out Oscar's thoughts on how we might use the laptop issue as a learning platform. Excellent stuff.

UPDATE III: Former UW law student Jennifer Wertkin has started a blog with the clever name Views From a Broad, and she offers this horrifying thought: "if I were in your classes now, with wireless internet and a laptop, I would most certainly be simulblogging during your lecture."

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Comments (11)

1. Posted by Eric Barber on March 2, 2005 @ 15:58 | Permalink

I disagree with Professor Althouse's assumption that no one finds typing on laptops during class distracting. I did, as did several of my classmates. Of course, if you have a quiet typist with a quiet keyboard, and that person is not sitting next to you, the distraction may be minimal.

However, may people are not quiet typists, nor do all people have quiet keyboards. Those people are very distracting to a number of people in class (some of which paid a lot of money to fine tune their ability to think about law).

I suspect that since Professor Althouse blogs during her students' hand-written exams, she probably has a skewed vision of what is distracting to the normal person.

In any event, the jump from ignoring sound to ignoring visual stimulation from others' laptops is dubious. While I am perfectly capable of tunning out certain types of noises--and generally when they follow some sort of predictable pattern (not others' typing)--the likelihood of that same type of mechanism working with the eyes just isn't my personal experience.

I couldn't agree with your position that laptops can, and do, encourage more note-taking, which in turn reduces the students' critical thinking about the subject/in-class discussion. Lap tops have the tendancy to completely disengage students from class (of course there are exceptions). The more students use them, the lower the overall class participation (based on my limited three-year experience).

The solution? Unfortunately, a small few ruin it for all. Without a workable intermediate position, banning laptops in class is the most sensible approach. I think students should have the right to use them, but when it interferes with others' in-class experience, it shouldn't be allowed.

2. Posted by Gordon Smith on March 2, 2005 @ 21:15 | Permalink

Eric, Thanks for the comments. Excellent points. I have never been a student with laptops, so I appreciate your perspective. The sound doesn't bother me when I am teaching, but I have often wondered whether some students are still bothered, as they were when I began teaching.

On the difference between sound and sight, I find the contrast between your statements and Ann's son pretty interesting. He writes: "Note that distracting images are nowhere near as bad as distracting noises. You can't just close your ears to certain noise, whereas you can choose not to look right at someone's computer screen. And you NEED to HEAR the prof; you don't need to SEE the prof." While I cannot mediate the relative importance of sight and sound, I think John understates the importance of sight for most students. Facial expression, hand gestures, and other movements are an important part of my communication package, and that doesn't even touch on powerpoint slides or whiteboard sketches. John sounds like an aural learner, but many people depend on the visuals, too.

By the way, I assume you intended to write, "I couldn't agree more with your position that laptops can, and do, encourage more note-taking...." Amazing what a difference one word can make!

3. Posted by Lisa I-H on March 3, 2005 @ 10:17 | Permalink

I completely disagree with Eric's comments.

I can't believe that no one is talking about how laptops actually help learning for many people. First, I have been a note taker for the McBurney center. That means that I took notes on behalf of a disabled student who couldn't take notes in class and then I emailed them to someone in the law school office who sent them promptly to the student. Does any professor who has been forced to read handwritten exams think that the student would have preferred photocopied handwritten notes? Second, they help me. I can start a page of notes as bullet points and slowly edit them into an ordered outline form as I go through class. I don't type constantly and I outline outside of class as well. I definitely don't buy the argument that students are hurting themselves by typing notes in class because it somehow means they aren't digesting the information. How can anyone make that generalization? And yet I've heard it. Moreover, I can tell you as an out of state student that no laptops in class would have kept me from coming to UW. A ban on laptops in the classroom would hurt the school's recruiting efforts, big time.

I can see how certain behaivors of students on their laptops in class might be distracting to other students. Every time I see someone playing a video game in front of me in class I think--that's really rude. Why do they even bother to come to class? It never occurs to me that the student should be banned from using his laptop in class? Can't we change norms of behavior without banning laptops entirely? Why is it so hard for a school of people used to thinking about Law in Action and Policy to think that way?

Finally, I overheard a prominent contracts professor and assistant dean comment yesterday that he could never tell whether students were using the internet or playing games, or taking notes in his class. I thought that was an interesting comment. I sat in the back row of his class of about 40 people, half of whom had laptops, and I could see the laptop screens of most of the students. Because of the way he taught the class--keeping it engaging and constantly and without warning calling on people--I can count on two hands the number of times I saw people surfing the internet and playing games during the 14 week semester (3 classes a week). I admit that students did check their email sometimes, but email may be different. Big firm lawyers, after all, check their blackberries constantly during meetings--although would of course never do that in a court room.

4. Posted by Gordon Smith on March 3, 2005 @ 10:58 | Permalink

Lisa, As I said in the post, I am not sure that a school-wide ban is a good idea ... but I am not sure it is a bad idea. Whatever the merits, however, it will not happen on a school-wide level for precisely the reason you state: it sends a bad signal for recruiting.

Whether laptops are helpful in learning depends on the purpose of class time. If the purpose is to provide the structure of a particular doctrine or area of law, then laptops can be pretty useful in the manner you suggest. If the purpose is to have a conversation about policy or to explore tension in legal principles, I think laptops (note-taking in general) is less useful. I tend to think of class as serving both of these purposes, but the latter seems more important -- or less substitutable.

5. Posted by Lisa I-H on March 3, 2005 @ 12:14 | Permalink

I was mostly disagreeing with Eric's comments in my post--and responding to the discussion in general. But in response to your comments above, I do think that professors themselves should not be allowed to ban laptops in their classes. At the very least, that's not something that should happen after the drop period has ended--I've heard rumors that one professor just banned laptops from his clasroom mid-way through the semester.

Laptops are very effective tools for taking notes for many people. I agree with you that they are less effective if the professor is trying to have an engaging discussion but I personally do take notes during discussion--but I also close my laptop cover if there's no reason to have my laptop out. Unfortunately, there are very few classes at UW where the purpose of class time is in fact to have a conversation. Although most of my professors at UW have been great, even among the good ones many seem to encourage passive learning--instead of having a conversation, they call on each student once throughout the semester. Even then, however, I would not discourage students from taking notes--on laptops or with pen and paper (note-taking in general as you say). Professors often question students or generate discussion to bring out a particular point and it would be a shame if people couldn't write down those points--especially when relevant to an exam.

In sum, I think some students should have more respect for their fellow classmates and professors, but I think laptops have a lot of positive value and it's too late to prohibit bringing them into the classroom.

6. Posted by Christine Hurt on March 3, 2005 @ 12:41 | Permalink

I was at U. of Houston in Fall 2001 when the school required laptops and made all the classrooms wireless. So, I have been having this discussion for a long time! I have refrained from being too judgmental of surfing students because I, too, was a crossworder during most of my second and third years.

I do think it is interesting how Lisa hits on the fact that people today feel an insane need to "be connected" and multitask. My husband uses his BlackBerry at really inappropriate times (dinner, buying a home), so we had to impose a ban from 6-8 p.m. My daughter once tattled to me that Paul used his BlackBerry during a Saturday morning zoo class that they were attending. I also find it hard to not check email (or the blog), so I am guilty of using the wireless Internet in our house as I'm cooking dinner or playing with the kids. I'm sure if I were in a law
school class, I would periodically check email or see what was on sale at the Gap. That doesn't make it a good practice, though, just a natural tendency given technological capabilities.

The other day at a faculty meeting, I noticed that we all bring legal pads and pens, although most of us don't take notes at all. We doodle or just sit there. But, I think the Dean would find it troubling if we brought our laptops in "to take notes," but then really surfed the net. So, I think pedagogical concerns are implicated in the laptop question, but also questions of professionalism and politeness.

7. Posted by DannyNoonan on March 3, 2005 @ 15:41 | Permalink

I am amazed that any law student could be distracted to the point where paying attention was difficult because of loud typing or because of what is on someone else's computer screen. If someone is typing loud, why not just ignore it? If you don't like what's on someone else's screen, why not just look somewhere else? Like at the professor. I have a computer but I rarely bring it to class. The only time I bring it to class is when that day's assignements were posted on the course web page. I'd rather have the assignment in front of me that way than on paper. Ctrl-F is a very useful feature when you're looking for an important point in a case or article. And it isn't available on paper. I wish more professors used web pages for their reading assignements.

However, I found it very ironic that on one of the rare occasions that I had my computer out in a class where my assignment wasn't on line, I was reading blogs and the first thing I read was Professor Althouse's post on this. It led me to Professor Smith's. I then IMed the posts to another girl in my class that was sitting in front of me and I watched her IM it to someone else. I then wrote a blog post about it myself. All while sitting in class. How funny. Of course, I'm like professor Althouse in that I pay attention better when I'm doing something else at the same time.

8. Posted by Beau Baez on March 4, 2005 @ 5:00 | Permalink

My colleagues and I are having this same discussion right now. As a J.D. student, before laptops were welcome in the classroom, bored students played games on paper. I sat in the front and was generally unfamiliar with what was going on in the back. I found out after my first year that a group of students, in the back of the class, had created a Contracts Bingo game. Apparently our Contracts professor had a few pet phrases, which were placed on to the Bingo board. Whoever completed a row first won the game. Also, there was the day when a group of students—maybe the crew in the back—passed a note along saying that we were going to do the wave at a certain time in class. Yes, once again this was our Contracts class. Our professor was a bit surprised, but kept on teaching after a few seconds.

If students are bored should we be blaming them, or should we reexamine what we are doing. Television has changed everything, especially after shows like Sesame Street—a show that helped to create the short attention span. I attended a CLE conference a few years ago that Professor Bryan Garner, grammar and legal writing guru, was presenting to lawyers in the DC area. He understood the new students and taught everything in very short segments (I believe he did this in about 7 minute segments). He kept his audience the whole time. Not bad for a course on legal drafting.

Lecturing is easy. The Socratic method is easy. Breaking down the material into smaller meaningful chunks and changing our teaching style is more difficult. I for one am not going to blame my students for surfing the web during my class—I need to do something to capture their attention. Ban Internet use and soon we’ll have a Torts Bingo card floating around.

9. Posted by Abhi on March 5, 2005 @ 22:47 | Permalink

I think it is important to realize that people from my generation and younger are used to simultaneously giving partial attention to multiple things. As I type this, I am listening to talk radio, watching a slideshow, and monitoring a long process that my computer is running. I grew up on constant channel flipping and video games. It seems odd to be without (as my wife describes it) my shiny glowing box.


My other thought is that professors are often just not worth listening to. My last degree (JD) really soured me on the value of a private education versus what I got out of the education. I often felt that I was paying for an exam and not the lectures. In order to learn felt I had to resort to teaching myself.

When I attended law school at Lewis & Clark (BTW, Gordon I got here via Instapundit & Ann’s site) I would use my laptop as a gauge as to whether or not to continue attending class. The more often I used my laptop as a cure for boredom, the more often I just gave up on the class and taught myself.

Granted I had a low tolerance. I did not attend at least 2 semesters of class. I still can not pick my professor for Criminal Law out of a line up.

In Constitutional Law, I was so bored I fired up my laptop and played Age Of Kings. That is not a trivial game. It is a real time strategy game. I needed to devote my full attention to my troops and castle building. I determined, after that, that the class was a total waste of my time and I should just learn Constitutional Law on my own. I spent the rest of the semester either in the library or at home doing self study. Like almost every other class I skipped, I got a good grade.

In Licensing, I brought material from where I clerked into class and wrote memos. That class was so horrible that years later, I still want my money back for that class and an A as punitive damages.

Conversely, in discussion classes where the professor had something to say, I rarely used my laptop. Examples include: Business Associations I & II, International Tax, Partnership Tax, ADR, and Cyberspace Seminar. I might boot up my laptop but I was too interested in the class to seriously surf. In fact, BA II was the one class I regret missing so often. I could have learned a lot more had I attended. All the other classes in the 2 semesters of skipped classes? No regrets.

Looking back on the example classes I just mentioned. I would say class size made a huge difference. The smaller the class the more obvious it was that I was zoning out. In a class of thousands, I never felt rude zoning out on the professor. (Of course, in times like Con Law, I felt the professor had zoned out on the class.) However, in a smaller class, zoning out seemed rude.


When it comes to note taking, I have not used paper notes in 15 years, post-it notes excluded. Most of my class notes were junk anyhow. I take the notes as an exercise to keep me interested and active in the class. When I finally got around to making my exam outline, I just threw out the class notes and went straight to the professional outlines. But, in a lecture class if I am not actively doing something, even something I know is useless, I zone out. In a discussion class, the conversation keeps me engaged. In a lecture class, I need the note taking activity.
There is also the danger in the discussion classes that my fellow students will say something that brings the class to a halt. An example of killing the classroom energy being the guy in my Licensing class that proudly explained Supply & Demand, or the guy that interrupted every 3 minutes (I timed him, used my laptop to plot a curve or interruptions versus class time).


There are many courtesy considerations. I did move slowly to the back of the class. I also made sure my headphone jack was always in the laptop (but not my ear). That way the laptop never started broadcasting sounds to the rest of the class. I agree that sound is infinitely more distracting than the image on a laptop screen. I have developed a special hate for the Windows startup sound.

10. Posted by Julie Knackstedt on March 8, 2005 @ 19:19 | Permalink

As one of about three students in a 150 person first year section that doesn't use a laptop to take notes, I can attest that laptop use is distracting. However, I would not support a ban on laptops in the classroom. I tried taking notes on my laptop the first few weeks of class but I found that either I was playing games online or typing every word of the professor and missing all of the important issues. I started taking notes on paper and have found that my interest in and attention span for my classes has greatly improved.

Most students that I see using laptops (I sit in the back row) are either shopping online, using AIM, playing games, or even watching baseball games in real time. While I find these activities distracting, I have also learned to ignore them. I sometimes feel bad for these students because it seems that they aren't getting the education that they are paying for. But since we are all adults in law school, isn't requiring people to show up for class enough? How can we also justify legislating what students can do when in class?

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