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Friday, April 05, 2013

Laptops and book readers

A question for the laptop-banners in the audience: What do you do about book readers (Kindles, iPads, Nooks, maybe even some larger smart phones)?

In all of my classes, I assign a lot of supplemental materials (additional statutes, proposed bills, sample pleadings), which I upload to my course blog and expect students to print out and bring to class. And I teach Civil Rights entirely from unedited cases that the students are expected to bring to class. This equals a lot of paper, some burden and cost to them (paper, printer cartridges or ink, or the time of printing in the library), and lot for students to drag with them to class. So maybe it would be fair to allow those students who wished to use some reader in class (especially for all those cases in Civil Rights). I must admit to being swayed in this direction by reading that Justices Scalia and Kagan use Kindles on the bench.

So: Should I allow students to bring devices just for reading stuff? And can I do that without undercutting the no-laptop policy? Note that my laptop hatred is not about students surfing but about stenography, so I am not overly concerned (at least not at the moment) if a student who uses an iPad to read the statutes also starts looking at Facebook instead of paying attention. And can I allow readers and still ban laptops (my theory is that most students today have both, so there won't be any unfairness)?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 5, 2013 at 11:10 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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1. "And can I allow readers and still ban laptops (my theory is that most students today have both, so there won't be any unfairness)?"

We don't.

2. "Note that my laptop hatred is not about students surfing but about stenography, so I am not overly concerned (at least not at the moment) if a student who uses an iPad to read the statutes also starts looking at Facebook instead of paying attention."

Can you explain this more? I've never seen this rationale at any point.

Posted by: Adam | Apr 5, 2013 12:35:49 PM

Students with laptops often become stenographers--they try to write down every single word that is said and are so focused on getting every word that they're not really listening to, or participating in, the conversation. And they are not going to be able to take notes this way in any real-world context--trial, hearing, deposition, client meeting, conference; so I want them to learn to listen, take a few brief notes, and flesh things out later. I also record every class, so students can review (just as they'll get a transcript or recording of the deposition).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 5, 2013 2:27:26 PM

I don't believe that most students today have both, and I do think that students with laptops who don't have readers or tablets would feel frustrated and maybe obligated to buy them. If your concern were not being able to see faces because giant laptop screens are in the way, then tablets and smartphones and things with smaller screens are a great improvement. But stenography, I'm not sure-- I was the type of student who tried to get every word down, and I did so just as diligently in college with pen and paper as I did in law school with a laptop.

Posted by: vapnanimous | Apr 5, 2013 4:24:50 PM

I am currently both a college professor and law student, so I spend my day on both sides of the podium. From both perspectives, I disagree with your laptop ban. By the time a student gets to law school they have developed a preference and style of learning. And are probably pretty good at it. Your preference may have merit on average, but not at the individual student level. In the process of discouraging the stenographer you limit the choice of tools for others.

I frequently take a laptop to class because I draft a segment of my course outline from the case readings before class and adjust it during the discussion. If I was forced to print out my draft outline, hand write notes, and then retype them, I would resent the unnecessary steps and expense. I also access other materials during cross-over discussions (e.g., notes from a criminal law class during an evidence class, or torts material during civil procedure).

I advocate a strict scrutiny standard to classroom technology policies: narrowly tailored and the least restrictive.

Posted by: Phil C. | Apr 5, 2013 4:42:44 PM

I hadn't really thought of the "not being able to see faces" argument. But it's a good one that I'm happy to adopt as an ex post rationale.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 5, 2013 5:20:38 PM

I'm new to law teaching but find it enormously helpful to see my students' faces! I pose questions and then I can see who is nodding, who looks confused, and who looks like s/he has something to say.

Posted by: vapnanimous | Apr 5, 2013 7:13:56 PM

I'm a recent convert to pdf annotating apps on the ipad. I now find it much more difficult to deal with sources that I can't convert to pdf format.

In your courses these apps would allow students to read, highlight and take word-searchable notes that are preserved in electronic documents (and thus much more easily converted into outlines etc). The more sophisticated ones also make organizing and processing materials much easier through tagging and automatic sorting/searching. They also eliminate the issues you identified in printing/lugging paper. You should let students who rely on these programs to bring their readers to class. Forcing them to use hardcopies would eliminate the many efficiencies these create.

Posted by: Brian Ray | Apr 6, 2013 2:54:01 PM

as some specific support for howard's first justification, it seems likely (and i believe i've seen literature suggesting) that when limited to writing by hand, something about the process of 1) selecting which concepts, and then, which particular words, to record, and 2) physically constructing the symbols composing the record, far outstrips typing in terms of long-term potentiation (i.e., memory and learning in general; including, but not limited to, conceptualization and retention more specifically). i believe i've also seen literature suggesting that we're far better at spatially locating and recalling handwriting/handdrawn figures (in handwritten documents) than we are at locating the same words/phrases/concepts in type (in typed documents)...which has some significance for law school, i think.

Posted by: clurker | Apr 6, 2013 8:19:44 PM

Personally, I think that the solution to laptop abuse is to make the class so complex that they have to pay attention and so interesting that they want to. I don't worry about stenographers - I even let students tape record my classes so they don't feel like they have to take dictation. But if you are worried, try calling on them, randomly. Try giving pop quizzes. There are all sorts of ways to disrupt the routine and encourage students to listen actively, which I suppose is the goal.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Apr 7, 2013 8:04:10 AM

I believe policies banning laptops in the classroom are extremely silly. I also think that Professors who have strict attendance policies and revel in "cold-calling" are just plain naive. After the first year of law school, and especially in the third year, students just don't care that much about the material. In fact, I have come to realize this: Professors who ban laptops and cold-call excessively are generally new at teaching. These new Professors seem to think (or hope) that their students are as enthusiastic about the material as they are. Older Professors, on the other hand, have pretty much given up on these sort of things and just lecture, which is something I like a great deal. In fact, let me give you a summary of some of the practices of the older Professors at my law school:

-- absolutely no "cold-calling"
-- no assignment of casebooks; instead, they assign student treatises, such as from the "Understanding" series.
-- no powerpoint slides
-- no attendance policy
-- no interactive website teaching materials, such as TWEN

Posted by: MGM | Apr 8, 2013 9:01:44 AM

MGM, when I was a law student (2004-07), none of my professors used Powerpoint. When I became a law professor, I modeled my teaching after my most effective (for me) professors. But after my first set of evaluations came in, my students unanimously suggested that more visual aids would be useful. So, now I use Powerpoint.

If future groups of students suggest that my slides aren't useful, I'll be glad to stop using them. They are much more time consuming to prepare than lecture notes. As is, for that matter, coming up with interesting and relevant hypotheticals.

IMO, restricting yourself to lecturing restricts your effectiveness. It's not just about trying to get our students excited about the material, but also about helping students with different learning styles to learn the material. Not everyone responds well to lecturing. In fact, when you lecture for more than 10 minutes, there is a quite pronounced moment when you can see students disengage. They lean back in their chairs, make less eye contact, etc. It's quite stark.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 8, 2013 12:36:35 PM

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