My Two Cents On Laptops in Class

To my enormous regret, I missed UM's Equity Theater because I was at a conference in Berkeley, but I'm looking forward to the promised posting of some the videos (and will link to the funniest ones). I hear it was a great show.

Meanwhile, the posting of this amusing video by NYU students, Please Repeat the Question, from their annual law school mockathon, provides an occasion for me to give my 2 cents on the laptops-in-class issue. But first, the funny:


Here are my thoughts on laptops in class:

  • I don't doubt for a second that a fraction of the students in every class are using laptops to do something other than take notes. How big a fraction is a very variable thing.
  • Anyone who thinks everyone was paying attention before laptops entered the classroom is dreaming.
  • Anyone who doubts that more students would pay attention in class if they had their laptops denied to them doesn't understand (1) the concept of the the “captive audience”; (2) the attractive nuisance aspect of wifi; (3) the mental habits of Generation Multitask.
  • Many of our students, like me, have gotten used to using a computer for all note taking. Stripping them of a familiar tool would be like telling a previous generation of students that they were forbidden to use legal pads or lined paper but had to take all their notes on index cards: something you should do only if there's a very good pedagogical reason. Students who were already paying attention will be disadvantaged by a ban.
  • Laptops create some genuine problems when non-users are annoyed by the keyboard clicking, but in most classrooms the instructor can create a laptop-free zone to accommodate those who would otherwise be bothered.
  • Laptops create some genuine problems when bad actors run something with video or with flashing colors that distracts their neighbors. Fortunately, this is both rare and not that hard to detect and deter.
  • One of my technoskeptical colleagues banned laptops in his first year class last year, and says he'll never do it again because the exams were so poor — he thinks as a result of the ban.
  • Every conference I've been to in the past few years features many members of the audience — yes, including law profs — checking email or surfing or writing something during large parts of the conference. (Not to mention that even non-laptop users read mail, or papers, or do work during faculty meetings, although there the case for paying attention often may be somewhat weaker.) There is a danger of hypocrisy.

My bottom line is that the case for banning laptops is weak compared to their potential benefits. In the end, I see them mainly as a challenge to both me and to my students.

The challenge to me is that I have to be more interesting than MySpace or Scrabble (yes, you know who you are). I suspect I don't always meet this challenge, but I'm working on it.

The challenge to my students is that they have to figure out the right tradeoff between having online fun in class, and learning what they may need to do do well on the exam and in their future careers. Law students are adults, and in the end that choice ought, I think, to be up to them.

Previously: Tell the Prof to Talk Faster

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4 Responses to My Two Cents On Laptops in Class

  1. bort says:

    maybe, like the new merriam-webster pocket dictionary, your lecture should incorporate naked women dancing in cages. that would be better than myspace.

  2. Luddy says:

    I am in a class where, literally, 90% of the “students” are using their laptops to do all the stuff in that video. I sit in the back, so I know.

    The problem is that any time almost ANYBODY is called on, they give the “can you repeat the question?” response, and often another minute is wasted re-explaining the setup to the student. Surprisingly, the answer after all of that is usually some variation of “I don’t know,” which is usually and surisingly accepted by the prof. Then (since it’s how it generally works in this class), the student to their right or left is asked the same or a similar question, only to have the whole process repeated, because THEY were also on the internet, even though they should know they might be next.

    very often the logic of not cracking down on this falls along the lines of: These are adults and they are only hurting themselves in the end. Unfortunately what is never discussed is how they drag down the discourse for the entire class. Those of us who ARE paying attention and ARE participating lose out because the class doesn’t really go anywhere interesting – simply because most students really don’t care.

    Then add on top of that the apparent injustice that none of it seems to have any real bearing on the grades for the class, since participation, for most professors, counts for nothing or next to nothing. So as long as the fake students can pull off a good grade on the all-or-nothing final exam, they get a good grade.

    This says nothing about the ethical problem of creating a generation of lawyers who is incapable of acting like a professional (and being dishonest in class IS unprofessional), who may be providing substandard work to future clients because they were shoe shopping when that was discussed in class, and the ethical problem for professors who merely shirk their duty to teach onto the real world where a firm must then teach the new lawyer how to act professionally, or a client suffers for it.

    Yes, there are exceptions, there always are. But in my experience, if it’s not a class that is so small that they risk of disclosure is too high, or the risk of being called on constantly is too great, EVERY student with a laptop will spend some or most of their time on the internet doing something. In a big class, forget it. See for yourself someday. Sneak into the back door of some large class someday and quietly sit down for a while behind everyone.

  3. michael says:

    I do give substantial class participation credit, which may be one reason why I find the problem is manageable.

    There is no system worth having that would ensure 100% attention in a large class. (A lot of those large classes are de facto requirements anyway like Evidence or Corporations — not officially required, but you’d need to have an awfully good reason not to take them; some students may not really want to be there.) The issue is how many people, how much. If someone asks me to repeat the question more than a couple of times in a year, that’s going to cost in class participation credit. (And I do negative credit if provoked, much as I hate to.)

    Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I think a substantial majority — but rarely 100% — of my class is paying attention most of the time.

  4. Carl Jones says:

    Sometimes it may be easier to forbid any tech device in order to have all their attention…

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