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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Banning laptops, taping classes

A recent post on banning wireless at Chicago Law School prompts me to ask how many readers of this blog ban laptops during class.

I do, with one exception. I assign four students (rotated alphabetically) to take notes for each class and post them on the course website. As a general matter, these are the only students permitted to have laptops during class hours.

I also audio-record every class with a hand-held digital audio recorder and post the recordings on the website. In this way, I eliminate any possibility that students will not be able to obtain an accurate record of the class proceedings. I was warned that this tactic would reduce class attendance, so I made a special point of memorizing my students' names (there are 85 of them), keeping track of those who skipped, and e-mailing them later to ask what's up.

I've found that the results have been entirely beneficial. Attendance has been fine, and the attention level is much higher than the pre-laptop days. The single greatest benefit of the policy is that students make eye contact with me and each other, not their screens. They also stop behaving like maniacal stenographers, transcribing every word without trying to understand what is being said. Finally, there is much more pressure on me to question them rather than drone on in lecture format -- a format that Gutenberg surely rendered obsolete with the invention of printing. (Why is there any point to listening to a lecture in person rather than simply reading a transcript in the comfort of your home?)

But perhaps others have different experiences with bans on laptops?

Posted by Rick Hills on April 16, 2008 at 08:55 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I would not take a class by any professor who banned laptops for an exam-based course. Why? I learn best by typing my notes on a computer. Typing takes up a lot less concentration for me than writing my notes; I find that I pay more attention now and miss fewer things than in undergrad when I was without a laptop. Forcing a student to handwrite notes will not necessarily make them pay attention. (I can doodle with the best of them and have entire sheets of post-modernist doodle-art from some undergrad classes). I will agree with the Student who commented at 7:40:51: I sometimes take "book notes" for particularly difficult cases and just fill them in during class. Additionally, I “outline” my notes as I go (rearranging, bolding, listing elements, etc) which makes exam prep quite efficient.

As for having four students take notes, I would not benefit from that at all. My notes are not straight dictation–I put a lot of effort and thought into organizing them to make them cognizable later. I also think I do a great bit of learning of the material during the note taking process; again, I don’t take dictation, but I organize as I go. This files away the material in an organized fashion in my head and often helps me understand things while in class. When I miss class and get notes from someone else, I find that, no matter how good of a note taker they are, it’s like trying to read a textbook. The words are foreign to me and I have to put a lot of effort into trying to suss them out, which is inevitably a frustrating endeavor.

With regard to the audio recordings, while I love the idea (I am hearing impaired and record all my classes anyway), it’s not helpful if you don’t have your own notes. Even though I record all my classes, I only listen to the few bits that I missed in class. I insert a marker in my notes with the minute on the audio so that I can skip directly to the part I missed and fill it in. It’s simply impossible to listen to the whole class, every class. Listening to audio is exhausting (no visual cues), as well as extremely time-consuming.

To respond to Professor Markel’s question: I thoroughly enjoyed your Criminal Law class and felt that I benefitted from the internet ban. (I was even a little disappointed that you never enforced it in my class.) However, my personal opinion is that you shouldn't ban laptops for a 1L mandatory class. First, students such as myself who simply learn better with laptops would not have any autonomy in the matter. Second, 1Ls are a pretty twitchy, nervous lot and more likely to pay attention in class than 2Ls and 3Ls. Third, I found that, for your Criminal Law class, your teaching style plus an internet ban was pretty effective in holding the attention of students.

That said, there are certain classes which would benefit from a laptop ban. Paper-based courses, especially those with limited enrollment (think 15 - 20 students) are much better without laptops. If a student doesn't have to take notes for an exam, the laptop becomes a distraction as well as an irritation for surrounding students, ultimately causing the discussion to suffer. There should be a mandatory laptop ban in all such courses.

Elective classes are somewhat different than mandatory classes. If, for example, Professor Markel makes his Sentencing class (in which students have an option of writing a paper or taking an exam) laptop-free, that’s fine. Students have advance notice and can opt to either take the class as a paper class or not take it at all.

Posted by: Alyssa Lathrop, 2L | Apr 17, 2008 2:30:42 AM

I would absolutely boycott any professor who banned laptops. To me, this professor thinks in generalizations and fails to realize that different students have different learning styles, and many students are likely to find laptops extremely helpful. For example, I (and many of my classmates, I can see their screens) often outline the completed readings before going to class. It's so easy to just drop a few lines and insert any additional information the prof has discussed that you had left out.

Also, there are certain classes that are hard to follow--hard subject matter, or an obtuse case. It is often extremely helpful to use the internet as a resource to read some background information on the case, to actually be able to understand what is going on, without feeling totally lost.

Further, often, when I am particularly confused on a certain point, but it's a question that is maybe too complicated to ask in class or the professor is not at the proper stopping point to answer questions, it's extremely helpful for me to be able to immediately email my question to the professor--before I forget it!

I think it is extremely judgmental for professors to think a certain learning style is "better" than others. We are big kids. If we are learning ineffectively, that's our own prerogative. However, usually we realize fairly quickly which techniques are helpful or harmful to our overall ability to comprehend a course and which class note taking techinques ultimately work for OUR OWN learning ability.

I might additionally point out that typing is so much more efficient than having to sort through a zillion handwritten notes in our textbook or looseleaf sheets of paper that get lost in our backpacks.

Posted by: Student | Apr 16, 2008 7:40:51 PM

I agree with the traditionalism which seeks to avoid keyboarding mechanics during the lecturing process and ancillary interactions. Our time is one in which an as-yet nascent technology soon may progress to facilitating the resolution of the conundrum of laptopping thru class, namely, speech recognition. There is a British company called speechmachines which has teachable software I use in my work. It is too complicated and laborious for practical application in the lecture hall yet, but likely we will see the time dawn when it is commonplace.

The great utility of the typed word is searchability, which saves time. Audiofiles remain linear unidimensional archives in structure, and though essential and useful, require 85 iterations of transcription, where machine rendering thru speech rec could do nearly as well. My current work in the medical profession has shown to me speech rec is saving us money and easing the arduousness of zealous 'stenography'.

Posted by: JohnLopresti | Apr 16, 2008 2:03:41 PM

I agree with Student's comment that note-taking styles vary, and that one student's notes very frequently aren't helpful for another. I also think that the benefit of having taped classes is probably illusory. As a student you tell yourself you're going to check the tape, but in the face of the prospect of digging through an hourlong (at least) recording to find one point, it somehow never gets done. An actual transcript would be different, but I can't really imagine a law school (or at least mine) paying for a stenographer to transcribe tapes to text.

At the same time, I hate laptops in class, for all of the reasons usually disucssed (distracting, transcript-taking, lack of real discussion).

I think that whether a laptop ban is reasoanble probably depends more on the type of class and how you examine. For classes where profs want students to absorb the gist of material and an analytical approach (seminars and paper classes), by all means ban laptops. But for larger doctrinal classes where you actually are trying to drill in a few dozen nuanced points in an hour, I think banning laptops will only mean that everyone learns to write by hand very, very quickly, and advantage the few students who tape record lectures and create transcripts. In other words, if you don't want students to focus on rote memorization and regurgitation, don't examine in a way that rewards rote memorization and regurgiation.

Posted by: Another Student | Apr 16, 2008 1:20:50 PM

Common in the professional world, that is. And "relatively" is another modifier I should have added.

Posted by: Auguste | Apr 16, 2008 11:39:28 AM

One problem with banning laptops, in my mind, is the fact that Tablet PCs are now very inexpensive and therefore common (and will presumably continue to be so). I haven't been a serious student (outside one-day seminars) in far too many years now but you can believe if I were to do it again I'd take all my notes on a tablet. Obviously, that's not the kind of activity being aimed at by the laptop ban but if it has that effect, I'd call it unreasonable.

Posted by: Auguste | Apr 16, 2008 11:36:31 AM

I'd point out one concern students have with a plan like Professor Hills's is that we might like our note-taking style and think we are actually pretty good at it. I don't want to trust those random four students to do a good job at it. It would be a massive increase in time devoted to your class only if we also had to listen to the audio tape of each class again to take our own notes.

There is a very strange disconnect here between what students think is best for them (note that students can take notes by hand in any class if they choose, and some do, but most don't) and what professors think is best for students. Maybe we students do need some outside force keeping us in line, but I would note two things. One, we are pretty good students by now, and as most of us are in our early-to-mid twenties, and we're in law school! Two, most professors enforcing this ban probably have no experience taking notes on laptops when they were in law school themselves.

Posted by: Student | Apr 16, 2008 11:16:29 AM

I'm curious about attempts to help students learn to use laptops more effectively. The "maniacal stenograph[y]" Prof. Hills discusses sounds very familiar, and, in my experience as a student, not terribly helpful. During my own law school education, I started using mind-mapping software instead of a straight word processor, and found that I was able to maintain a greater sense of interaction with my professors and produce more helpful notes. Most students know no way other than Microsoft Word to keep notes, and since Word is so poorly matched to note-taking, the exercise becomes an unengaging one during which minds are prone to wander to instant messaging, Facebook, etc. I wouldn't want to become a software salesman at the front of the classroom, but some redirection of student's efforts to take down every word in a word processor could pay significant dividends.

Posted by: Matthew Phillips | Apr 16, 2008 9:57:12 AM

I really like Rick's idea about making the audio available after class. It satisfies those who really want to create verbatim/transcription notes after the fact. But they cannot do it in class. Instead, they must make eye contact, work to get the "gist" of things, and think things through on the fly and participate. We might pitch it as what happens during a deposition: You need not and should not take verbatim notes when the other side is questioning a witness; you need to listen carefully to the answer and capture its essence for any follow-up or cross-examination questions while the dep is going on. You can look at a transcript or listen to the record later.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 16, 2008 9:55:23 AM

Rick, this approach of yours seems to satisfy most of the interests students have raised in opposition to laptop bans except that sometimes some students are using the internet to fish out information that would be beneficial for class discussion: e.g., what did the unedited case include that the edited class version did not, etc.

I'm seriously contemplating a ban on laptops for my sentencing law and policy class in the fall, which is an elective, but I'm a bit more leery of doing it for the criminal law class to 1Ls next spring, since they can't really vote with their feet. Should that make a difference? Maybe it will depend on how the results look after the ban next semester.

I have enforced my ban on the internet against a couple students this semester and they are required to take notes by hand instead, but I think they feel like they are being picked on b/c I happened to discover their internet usage. But internet usage isn't the only bad thing about laptops, so perhaps the experiment makes sense...

Posted by: Dan Markel | Apr 16, 2008 9:41:17 AM

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