Catching Up: Laptops in the Classroom
Awhile back, in a post devoted mostly to an interesting discussion of international law, Garrett Moritz noted that his international law professor had banned laptops from the classroom. That set off a number of the other lawschool bloggers. Alice at A Mad Tea-Party wrote: "I'd seriously drop the class if the professor banned laptops. I pay too damned much not to be in control of my educational experience," and fellow bloggers Nikki, Esq., and JCA of Sua Sponte added comments to Alice's post. Each admitted (or at least strongly implied) playing computer games during class. Alice said she only did this occasionally, however, while JCA said that similar distractions were available even without a computer.
As laptops have become more common in the classroom, there has been a lot of discussion about whether their net effect is positive or negative. Some of this discussion has centered on law schools. Ian Ayres of Yale Law School wrote an op-ed in the New York Times describing his request that students use their laptops only for note-taking, and the outraged response that his request elicited; the op-ed generated further controversy within the Yale community. An additional exchange on the subject among law professors at various schools, focusing on internet access in the classroom, appears at JURIST. While there are exceptions, on the whole there seems to be a split between professors and students, with students favoring laptop use and professors eyeing it warily.
Put me in the wary category. I'm not so much worried about the possibility, noted by Garrett's professor, that note-taking on laptops amounts to stenography rather than the kind of active filtering and engagement that occurs when taking notes by hand. Particularly in a discussion-based law school class, stenography would be a remarkably ineffective way of taking notes, as I'm confident most students would recognize in short order. My bigger concern is the misuse of laptops as an entertainment device—their use for game playing and internet surfing during class. If I'd ever been naïve enough to think that this didn't occur, I would have had my eyes opened by my experience on the first day of Evidence class.
Student responses to the classroom use of laptops for games and internet browsing tend to fall into two categories. The first, typified by Nikki's comment at A Mad Tea-Party, is that playing computer games and using the internet is no different from doodling, working on crossword puzzles, playing connect-the-dots, and other pen-and-paper distractions that existed back in the dark days before laptops. I don't buy this. I've been know to do the New York Times crossword occasionally (although never in class); sometimes I even finish it. And back in my student days I did sometimes doodle in class. But the appeal of such diversions pales in comparison to the allure of computer-based entertainment. I've never spent hours on end doodling or working on crosswords, but computer Boggle is enough to put an afternoon at risk, and I've lost entire days to Civilization II (which is why I don't dare buy Civiliation III). And of course I spend hours absorbed by the internet (maintaining this site doesn't help in that respect). Computers have many uses, but among other things they are remarkably appealing toys. And to the extent that a laptop is being used as a particularly appealing toy, it doesn't belong in the classroom.
The second response students usually give is that they are responsible for their own education, and that if they choose to spend classroom time doing something other than taking notes or participating in class, it's their business. To some degree, this is true. But I believe that the impact of laptop misuse extends beyond the individual student. There is always the potential for distracting classmates, whether intentionally or not. And more importantly, when a student who has been web browsing or playing games is called upon to participate in class, it usually brings discussion to a grinding halt, as the student struggles to reorient herself. This affects the learning experience for everyone, not just for the individual student.
Finally, students—especially first-year students—should not underestimate the impact that failure to pay attention in class may ultimately have. I'm now in my seventh year of teaching, and I've noticed that over time student comprehension of material covered in class has declined as laptop use has increased. In particular, the results of last year's exams showed that large numbers of students failed to grasp and retain points that I emphasized in class. Time after time, students memorized the so-called black letter law but failed to understand any of the subtleties of application. It's those subtleties that make up much of the practice of law, and it's those subtleties that provide fodder for classroom discussion. It's possible, to be sure, that I've become a worse teacher, although I like to think that's unlikely, given that both my command of the material and my comfort in front of the class have improved dramatically over time. More likely, I think, is that students simply aren't paying attention as they used to—and they're paying a price.
I'm not going to ban laptops from my classroom. That horse has already left the barn, and in any event I think that laptops can play a positive role in class if used properly. But my experience over the last couple of years should provide a cautionary note to students who pass the time in class playing games, perusing web sites, or sending email and instant messages: you may think that you're multitasking, you may think that you're still getting what's important from the class, but there's a good chance you're not. Best to think about this now, before your grades—and job prospects—are affected.