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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