« Solum on Reasons | Main | EV and PS on Foreign Law Clerks »

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Banning Laptops from the Classroom

Image Preview A good friend who teaches at a great east coast law school recently told me she had her very best class this year. She has been teaching law students for many years and always had good evaluations, but had felt that it was difficult to keep second and third year students engaged in her upper level elective. This year, she decided laptops had a great deal to do with her students distractions. She made them the following offer – they would begin the semester with two weeks of a no-laptop policy. She would in turn post her teaching notes on TWEN. After the first two weeks, the students would take an anonymous vote on whether the no-laptop policy should remain for the rest of the semester. The results: the students loved it. They found themselves more engaged, more involved in the class discussions, and the course evaluations were the best of all years. My friend told me however she would be worried about trying out this classroom policy as a non-tenured new prawf, because there are some students who were, at least initially, resistant.

My understanding is that in business schools there is a trend of banning laptops. According to the Chicago Tribune, at the University of Michigan Law School, a computer system has been installed to block students accessing the Internet during their scheduled class times: “Some students get around the system by borrowing the account names and passwords of students who aren't in class at the same time. “One of my jokes is that I'm willing to compete with Minesweeper, but not with the entire Internet," said Michigan law professor Don Herzog, who initiated the faculty discussion that led to the Internet ban. Herzog said that when he first suspected students were checking the Internet during class, he sat in the back of his colleagues' classes as an experiment and saw that about 85 to 90 percent of students were surfing. Even a special lecture by a popular faculty member didn't stop students from getting distracted.” The Tribune also reports that Harvard University law professor Bruce Hay, along with another handful of HLS prawfs, banned computers from his wireless-enabled lecture hall this past year. "Frankly, if I was in their position, I would be tempted to check my e-mail. I understand it," said Hay, who teaches civil procedure and law and psychology. "But when a lot of people do it, it becomes demoralizing and distracting."

Finally, on the other side of the debate is the University of Chicago Law School, professor Randy Picker, who reportedly “has no intention of banning laptops or Internet access. About 90 percent of his students bring computers to class, and he encourages them to use the university's wireless connection to pull up his PowerPoint slides or research a topic raised during class discussion. "Obviously the Web is something of a distraction, but there are a lot of distractions," Picker said. "My job is to make them want to pay more attention to me than what is on the screen."

I am wondering how much do prawfs in other schools find laptops to be a distraction to quality classroom learning and whether there is a broader trend in various schools.

Posted by Orly Lobel on July 27, 2006 at 02:34 PM in Orly Lobel | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Banning Laptops from the Classroom:

» Banning Laptops in the Classroom from Educational Policy, Ethics,
That's the title of a recent entry at PrawfsBlog, a legal blog, law students using laptops in the classroom. LINKA good friend who teaches at a great east coast law school recently told me she had her very best class [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 31, 2006 1:21:34 PM

» Is Law School Too Paternalistic? from Law and Letters
Law students are mature enough to know that whatever form the lecture/discussion takes (Powerpoint, classic lecture, or heavily Socratic/dialogic) there are also many ways to process the material (taking notes by hand, by laptop, or by making their o... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 3, 2006 6:06:32 AM

» Banning Laptops in the Classroom from Preaching to the Perverted
Since law professors who blog seem to bring up banning laptops at least twice a quarter, I thought I should bore you with a law student post about law professors who want to ban laptops in the classroom. I’m just coming off of a long business organizat... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 1, 2006 12:29:27 AM


So, my wonderful fantabulous law school beat Harvard Law School to the punch on something. But, I have to say that on I am not on my law school's side:

A proposed ban on wireless at Harvard Law is generating controversy. Apparently students prefer to instant message than pay attention to classroom discussion. The school is considering a ban on wireless in the classroom. Socrates is probably rolling over in his grave. Other law schools may be tempted to follow HLS' lead.

Okay, for the record it seems HLS is following our lead. This year was the first year my law school decided to do this very thing. Unbeknownst to me, being a transfer law student, I arrived starry-eyed on campus only to be greated with this email upon my arrival:

TO: All students

The law school has expanded its wireless management capability to be able to turn on or off a student’s wireless access based on whether that student is in a class or in an exam. This management tool (a combination of hardware and software manipulation) will allow us to manage the wireless network to a finer degree, for instance, allowing some network functions to continue, such as file transfers, without allowing other functions, such as web browsing. One of the benefits of this change is students will be able to save their exams to the network independent of whether the exam is blocked or unblocked. Students can choose to leave wireless on at all times and the access control will be determined by their activity.

Another benefit of this new technology is that web access can be limited during class times for students enrolled during a given class without limiting such access to others. Over the past several years, instant messaging, email correspondence, and web surfing have become an increasing problem during class periods, one noticed and objected to by faculty and students alike. Some web-based activities can be useful during class sessions, and indeed some professors have made use of web technologies for class sessions. Other activities, however, create competition for student attention, distract fellow students and, most faculty believe, lower the overall quality of class discussions considerably. Accordingly, the decision as to how much web access a student will have during each class session or exam will be made by the professor teaching that class.

Director of Information Technology.

Fabulous. And let me be clear that it is pretty rare that a professor will turn on the wireless during class. Honestly, at my old law school I did spend time using the internet in class. Admittedly, some of that time was spend clandestinely, emailing and other tabboo activities. But there were pluses too, in that I could look up cases on Lexis, read statutes we were discussing like the Federal Rules of Civ Pro, and paste them directly into my notes (which saved time doing it later).

I understand that the faculty is seeing wireless as entirely subject to abuse, but they should let the grading curve be stabilizer. People who do nothing but surf the web may be less likely to get a good grade in the course. When grades in this degree program are so important, why not let that be determinitive of the outcome over the duration of the course?

I'll tell you why -- because despite my past abuses, I somehow found my way to the tippy top of my law school class. I think this should say something about the malfunctions of traditional legal education rather than placing the blame on outside influences. If the socratic method were really that great of a learning tool, would surfing the web in class lend so little effect on grades? If my professors were so absolutely riveting, or the class discussion so fascinating, would I succumb to the temptation of getting on the internet for non-class related purposes?

I realize these questions are easily answered in the fact that fundamentally students should respect their instructors, which necessarily implies that one should pay attention in class. It is for this reason that I have not publicly spoken on this topic before.

But I cannot escape the nagging feeling that this decision is decidedly paternal. If we are going to be lawyers, i.e. professionals in three short years working on cases with millions of dollars at stake, shouldn't we be allowed to choose for ourselves which path to pursue? I am not arguing that using the internet in class is the right choice; I am simply asking that the school not take that choice away from us. The school should have enough faith in itself as an institution that we will not waste the $35,000 we pay in tuition each year to learn how to be professionals. Perhaps we can start our education by being treated like professionals, rather than being treated like high school students, or worse (remember the good old days when you couldn't have a cell phone or pager at school? And if you were caught with it they took it from you?). Let's not regress (even if some of our fellow collegue's behavior often feels as though it has).

And for those faculty who feel strongly enough about this, then they should ban laptops in class altogether, as some professors at this school already chose to do. Education obviously existed successfully for hundreds of years without laptops in the classroom. If the greatest legal minds in the country are sticking to an antiquated legal education paradigm, then leave it to the next generation to man the shift to the new paradigm.

Posted by: Droit Femme | Sep 24, 2006 12:16:34 PM

As Bart can attest, I think I successfully banned use of the internet in my classes. I walk around with a remote powerpoint clicker; there are high penalties for violations too (you won't be able to use your computer again in class). Most people are grateful for this regime, though not all. If you want to get additional deterrence (and a Stasi-like atmsophere), some profs will give points to rats (er, cooperators!). (I haven't had to resort to that yet.)

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jul 28, 2006 7:31:51 PM

[blockquote]I was trying to make the point that this behavior doesn't just hurt the students who choose to surf the net. It also adversely affects the learning experience of the other students.[/blockquote]

Blaming others for personal ADD is offensive. If you're
sitting in class and insist on paying attention to the people
around you with laptops instead of listening to the lecture,
then the problem lies in your own behavior, *not* that another
student is surfing the net. Even if all laptops were removed
from the classroom, students would *still* find distractions.
Arbitrary punishment of everyone across the board simply because
some students are "distracted" isn't a concrete reason to ban

Posted by: Zen | Jul 28, 2006 4:41:13 PM

As someone who has the learning disability dysgraphia, I have used a laptop in class since the seventh grade. Having a laptop in seventh grade sounds wonderful but it can lead to feeling ostracized. It was hard until i got to college where others where using them, and in my law school classes pretty much everyone had one, for once i didn't feel like i was different. Laptops are not the cause of distraction they are a tool of distraction, they student are disinterested and the laptops give them opportunities to do something else, if there are no laptops it doesn’t mean that students will pay attention any more, it will just mean they will be distracted by another medium (i.e. reading for another class or evening doing a crossword puzzle, that i have scene many classmates without computers doing the NYT crossword.)

Posted by: Ryan Cleary | Jul 28, 2006 2:01:31 PM

I love the idea of trying a no-laptop rule out for 2 weeks and allowing the class to vote anonymously as to the continuation of the rule for the semester. I also think that the more tenured faculty implement this sort of rule, the easier it will be for junior faculty to do so. Rally, tenured faculty!!!

Posted by: Anon | Jul 28, 2006 10:00:11 AM

I'll be a traitor to my race and say that they should be banned. Personally I find it impossible to not be distracted by the internet, no matter how interesting the class room discussion is. And as a poor note taker, I LOVE the idea of having the lecture notes available. And like recent grad said, it is distracting when others are playing games or surfing the net on their laptops.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 27, 2006 11:05:06 PM

To respond to Zen ... I, too, would like to give students the benefit of the doubt, but three years of law school proved that to be a largely futile and wasteful exercise.

Also, Zen's post isn't responsive to the point that, yes, we could let students decide to waste their tuition dollars if they want to. But I was trying to make the point that this behavior doesn't just hurt the students who choose to surf the net. It also adversely affects the learning experience of the other students.

Posted by: recent grad | Jul 27, 2006 8:43:35 PM

This was the subject of extended colloquy several months back on the AALS Contracts list-serv. I would say that the vast majority of commenters supported either a ban on laptops, a ban on Internet usage, or actual intervention in the wireless field so as to make connection impossible. A few took the Randy Picker position. What I couldn't tell was the level of sample bias, if any. Was a professor cheesed off about laptop usage more likely to be vocal about it than one who either was not, or was resigned to it? The affirmative answer to that question seems intuitively obvious to me.

The idealist in me says an appeal to anything but the students' maturity and courtesy is enabling behavior and fosters dependency. But the idealist in me also thought the students would read the material without threat of being called on. . . .

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jul 27, 2006 6:10:11 PM

The wholescale banning of laptop usage should not
be implemented to punish the sins of the few. That is the
biggest load of paternalistic, nanny-like crap I've read yet.
Most law students are adults, not children. Further,
there are students who actually use their laptops to
take notes and *not* surf the net. OTOH, if students
want to tap happily away their legal education by focussing
on the net instead of class, and otherwise waste their tuition dollars
then they should be free to do so. Live and learn, kids.

Posted by: Zen | Jul 27, 2006 6:07:00 PM

I just graduated from law school and didn't use a laptop in class (because it was too much of a pain to lug my computer to and from school every day). But most of the other students did and I am not surprised by the statistics cited in the article for the number of students who were online during class. As a student, I found others' computer use distracting at best and direspectful at worst -- not only disrespectful of the professor but also of the other students. I can't count the number of times when a student who was surfing the Internet would be called on, yet unable to answer, thereby leaving it to the rest of the students to pick up their slack in the discussion. It's also just incredibly rude to ignore the people in the room with you in favor of emails and IM's unrelated to the class.

I was in a seminar class of about 20 students in the spring. The professor set up the tables in a U-shape to facilitate discussion. But most students were on their laptops. Every week, I would look around the room and see a room full of zombies staring intently at their computers and typing furiously; I could see them checking email, IM'ing, reading the NY Times on the web ... And this was for a paper class! There was absolutely NO need to take notes. Also, this was one of the more innovative, leading-edge classes at the school where class participation in the class makes the class. I might feel differently if professors took advantage of what the technology can offer -- such as instant access to online resources -- by way of enhancing the classroom discussion. But I've heard of only ONE professor at my school who did that, and even that use was sporadic and an after-thought.

I think that if I were a professor, I would follow the lead of those in the article and ban Internet access, if not laptops altogether. Here's what my rule of thumb would be: If you can't do it in a client meeting, don't do it in class. I've heard many people, including professors, say that if the students don't pay attention, it's their choice. But that choice also has a negative affect on others. Also, a lot of the students in my law school classes had never worked in a professional environment before (unlike myself) and I have to believe that they'll simply take their poor habits into the workplace with them. Last summer I was a summer associate at a large firm and witnessed many lawyers focusing on their blackberries during meetings, just as students surf the web during lectures (though one could argue that the students' internet usage was probably overwhelming unrelated to law school altogether, while at least the lawyers were probably viewing work-related messages.)

Law school is a professional school and so shouldn't we be learning professionalism as well as the law? And what's wrong with encouraging people to strive for a higher standard of behavior?

OK, enough of my rantings. Back to enjoying my post-bar exam freedom (while trying to block out all memory of the exam questions).

Posted by: recent grad | Jul 27, 2006 4:29:46 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.