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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Comments (6)

1. Posted by Dave Hoffman on September 29, 2005 @ 11:28 | Permalink

I have considered a ban, but have been informed by more senior colleagues that I'd be tarred and feathered in short order by the students. Does anyone know of any law school faculty member, anywhere, who has successfully implemented a laptop ban?

2. Posted by Dan Markel on September 29, 2005 @ 12:37 | Permalink

We have wireless at FSU but I have banned use of the internet in my class and I enforce it by using powerpoint and a remote clicker to wander around the class all the time, and usually from behind the students so I can see what's going on. I've also told them (on the syllabus) that if I catch use of the internet then they won't be able to use the computer for the rest of the semester. I think it's working...

3. Posted by Matthew Goeden on September 29, 2005 @ 16:21 | Permalink


+ Distractions have existed as long as law school has whether it be doodling, daydreaming, passing notes, ogling the cute girl, or whispering to your neighbor.

+ I draw little-to-no distinction between latops and other distractions, except that people say that laptop screen's distract people behind or next to the user.

+ Often, I find a wifi connected laptop to be a useful tool, especially to look up statutes or other class related info.

+I have been forced to not bring my laptop to class for fear of being discriminated against for using a laptop, even though I am not an egregious abuser of wifi laptop privileges.

4. Posted by Christine Hurt on September 30, 2005 @ 9:20 | Permalink

Matt, I notice that you make the statement that you are not an "egregious abuser," which gives me pause. I hope you're having a good semester.

5. Posted by Philo on November 5, 2005 @ 20:01 | Permalink

I can think of two approaches:
1) Students can't type and talk at the same time. If there is a significant amount of in-class discussion, and the professor is actively engaging all the students, then it's pretty much impossible for a student to allow themselves to be distracted too far.
2) If you don't engage the students in discussion, then it's all pretty much about how much they learn. A properly written exam will test this (and since most law schools grade on performance on a single final, that seems to be the theory). Does it matter how the student attains the knowledge necessary to pass the exam? Some get it from class, some from reading assignments, some from study groups; most from a combination of all the above.

If ability to pass the exam is all that's graded, why worry about what the students do in class?


6. Posted by sonu on February 10, 2011 @ 4:05 | Permalink

Very informative article. Thanks for such a wonderful work.

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