May 03, 2006
More on Banning Laptops in Class
Posted by Gordon Smith

We have discussed the banning of laptops in class before (here, here, and here), and this new article has fired up debate on the faculty listserv again. Over time and through much discussion, my thoughts on this issue have become more nuanced. When I wrote about the issue at this time last year, I held views similar to University of Pennsylvania law professor Charles Mooney, who banned laptops from his classes two years ago:

Around that time, said Mooney, he was serving as an expert witness in a lawsuit.  During a break in his deposition, he recalled asking the stenographer if she found the case interesting.  She replied that she didn't remember anything she had taken down, Mooney said.  "I thought, 'That's what my students are doing,'" he said.

On the other hand, I have heard students who provide accounts like the following from Ann Althouse's son, John, a law student at Cornell:

I've heard law professors tell us not to take so many notes. The explanation always seems to be that "if you're typing down everything, you're not thinking." I don't understand how the professors can presume to know how we think. If they could somehow spend just ten minutes in my head while I'm taking notes, they would have to immediately concede that typing down everything causes me to think more, not less. It forces me to stay engaged with the twists and turns of the arguments. When you take sparse notes (which is all you can do without a computer), you can easily be lured into false confidence: "I'm getting the basic gist of this--I don't need to catch every little nuance." You're probably not glued to your seat following every fine point of a Socratic dialogue. That's why the most legendarily Socratic professor at my school urges students to take down every word that's said in class.

One of the great things about law school classes is that you get to listen to professors speaking extemporaneously about the law in sharp, carefully chosen language. Writing down what the professor is saying, sentence by sentence, can be an invaluable method for developing your own skill at legal writing. I would not have been able to do that if I had been stuck with just a pen and paper in class.

Step back from this "exchange" for a moment and ask yourself: do laptops have anything to do with the arguments? Isn't this just a debate on the merits of note taking?

The reason laptops often are said to be relevant is that (most) students type faster than they write. Is that bad?

Another aspect of the debate not raised in the foregoing discussion relates to internet access. Though I have witnessed some advantages to internet access in my own classroom, I recognize that some students are not googling that case we are discussing. Ann thinks that attempts to control this behavior are "paternalistic," but the same argument could be made about other rules that we routinely employ in the classroom. For example, law schools are required by their accreditation standards to monitor attendance, but isn't that paternalistic? And what's wrong with paternalism in this instance anyway? Students come to my class to learn, and I feel an obligation to structure the classroom experience to enhance their learning experience. Arguments about paternalism in this context seem like a misdirection.

Finally, I think that laptops raise unique issues about the quality of class interaction. Unlike notepads, laptops create a physical barrier between the students and the professor and among the students. This is the "picket fence" that is often referred to in these debates, and my sense is that it is a real obstacle to discussion.

My own opinion, still evolving, is that laptops can (should?) be banned in some courses, but perhaps not in others. This semester I asked the students in my seminar to keep their laptops tucked away, and it worked well, I think. I will continue to experiment with laptop regulation in hopes of developing a system that works in all of my classes, but I am not there, yet.

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» Its not the laptop, its the web. from ...
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