September 29, 2005
Attention as a Zero-Sum Game
Posted by Gordon Smith

At the moment, I am sitting in a classroom in Kansas City at the Technology Transfer Society's 2005 Conference Advancing Innovation & Entrepreneurship with 70 other attendees, and I am the only person with a laptop! The conference organizers obviously contemplated people bringing laptops, because the whole conference center is wireless ready, but for some reason, all of these people who are interested in tech transfer left their laptops in the hotel.

Maybe they want to listen to the presentations.

Last spring, I wrote about laptops in the classroom. Among my concerns at the time was that students would be distracted by note-taking, but I am increasingly concerned about wireless access in the classroom. As I type this sentence, my attention to the presenters wanes. When I stop typing, my attention elevates. Listening to these presentations while blogging is like listening to the car radio while turning the volume knob up and down, up and down, up and down.

I had the same experience earlier in the semester while auditing one of my colleagues' classes on intellectual property law. When I brought my laptop to class, I was able to check me email, read blogs, etc., and I found that my takeaway from that class was little snippets of the discussion. I decided to stop bringing my laptop to class.

Most of my students are not so disciplined about leaving their laptops at home. More surprisingly, perhaps, even though there is a lot of scientific evidence that multitasking merely divides the attention pie, few (no?) law schools have banned laptops in the classroom. Indeed, many law schools attempt to demonstrate their tech-saviness by advertising their wireless campuses. Maybe it's time for me to take unilateral action and ban laptops in my classes.

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