« Kmiec on the Obama Administration and Civil Rights | Main | Steven Pinker on Gollywaddles »

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Hello and what's your laptop policy?

Hi, folks, and thanks to Dan for inviting me to join the December chorus!

I'll start out with a question that was raised in a meeting today:  How many law schools require incoming students to own a laptop? We (the South Carolina "We") adopted a mandatory laptop purchase policy a few years ago and are now reaping the full benefits and detriments that accompany laptop use in the classroom.  On the positive end, students are able to type their notes during class and more easily transform those notes into outlines.  They can research cases and explore other course-related materials under the direction of their instructors.  They can use their laptops to type their final exams.  On the negative end, students are also playing video games, eBaying, and viewing internet porn.  They instant message and email one another.  Even worse, in my opinion, they are less engaged in class and more engaged in transcribing my every expressed thought, word for word.   

This semester, I and my fellow first-year section colleagues prohibited our students from using their laptops in our classes.  The results were intriguing (see my rhapsodizing here).

But, understandably, our students fear that the anti-laptop contagion will spread and question the ability of faculty to ban laptops from their classrooms in light of the laptop purchase mandate.  We have since established that there are excellent, non-classroom reasons for our mandatory laptop policy, but are curious to know whether other schools require their students to have laptops.

Thanks in advance for any and all thoughts on this matter.

Posted by Susan Kuo on December 4, 2008 at 01:48 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Hello and what's your laptop policy?:


As an English teacher before law school, I saw examples of the many differences kinds of learning preferences. As a law student, I have come to understand that I learn best when my hands are active and my brain is at least somewhat engaged on a secondary task.

In class, I generally type all of my notes. I also surf the web, check my e-mail and write to-do lists. However, these "busy tasks" have not decreased my ability to comprehend the material. Rather, in the two classes in which I could not or did not surf the internet, I had much more difficulty paying attention to the professor.

I've done more than fine in school, and I'm in the top 5% of my class. Because I know I would do less well, and have done less well, in a class *without* internet or my laptop, I strongly urge professors to consider that not all students learn the same way.

Posted by: RAM | Dec 12, 2008 12:28:13 PM

SFJD, thanks for the comprehensive and candid answer. I will be passing on all the comments to my colleagues; they will be very interested in your thoughts.

I'm not sure where I stand with respect to the mandatory purchase requirement, but rationales for it include (in no particular order):

- typing memos and briefs in law school;

- typing law school exams;

- communicating with professors and accessing TWEN and Blackboard;

- conducting on-line research; and

- becoming familiar with technology so as to better communicate with other lawyers and future clients.

Posted by: Susan Kuo | Dec 10, 2008 2:01:47 AM

I am a Golden Gate University grad here in the Bay Area. I am probably your worst nightmare, because I was one of those students that did well, seemed prepared, and yet almost 80% of the time in my larger lecture classes I was on the internet and not paying attention to you, or at least only paying enough attention so that I would not sound like an idiot if you happened to call on me. I think possible solutions to eliminating laptop zombies in your classrooms is cutting off the internet, having smaller, more intimate class sizes, and/or wielding the cold call with impunity. (Or not being boring?)

Our school did not mandate laptops but I purchased one my second semester of my first year. I had never even seen a laptop inside a classroom as an undergrad and I thought it was crazy at first. I noticed it was much easier to not pay attention, and throughout law school I would surmise that at any given time, half the class is taking notes and half the class is online checking emails or buying clothes.

I actually valued my laptop in class specifically for the reason that I could so easily tune out when I decided paying attention was unnecessary. I was pretty good at deciding when this was the case. When it was broken or out of batteries for some reason, I unfortunately had to pay attention because it was much more difficult to tune out. I am saying this half sarcastically and half serious. I was still an excellent student and got excellent grades (and passed the bar first try) but if I were a professor, I would definitely either cut the internet or ruthlessly cold call anyone with their eyes glued to their laptop screen for more than 5 seconds.

I definitely disagree that taking notes is crucial with a laptop, often you take better notes by hand because you are thinking and then writing, rather than just trying to furiously type everything the professor says as I would so often see my classmates doing. The only place I see a clear advantage is examination essays, even though our professors always told us there was no difference in handwritten and graded essays. (And when studying and making outlines, it was nice to be able to search my notes electronically).

It seems rather cruel and unusual to require laptops and then not allow them in class. What other uses are there? If you want typed essays then give them typewriters or have them use computer labs, or rent computers to them for essays. (Which our school actually offered.) Or cut off the internet access in the classroom? That would at least weed out all the people who are not just playing solitaire or minesweeper. What are these "alternative" reasons sufficient to mandate students with already crushing debt to put down another 1K on a new laptop?

Posted by: SFJD | Dec 9, 2008 1:41:04 PM

Thanks for all the great comments. I don't know if many (or any) other schools require students to purchase laptops, but I do think that many students already have laptops. And I suspect that most of the ones who do not would buy one if their schools had policies like the one at Alabama.

My laptopless 1L section was so engaged and engaging this semester that I would consider prohibiting laptops again in the future. I cannot say that it makes me feel more comfortable to teach without laptops -- it actually made me even more self-conscious than usual because my students had nowhere to look but at me. But I did feel that my students had a better grasp of the materials, and class discussion was richer and more nuanced than it has been in previous, laptop-filled years. Nevertheless, I am leery about hampering some students (those who use their laptops in an appropriate manner and who benefit from laptop use) in my quest to be more effective overall. Professor McCreary and her article provide much food for thought.

Posted by: Susan Kuo | Dec 5, 2008 4:17:50 PM

As the author of the above-referenced article, I would like to clarify any misunderstandings the excerpt might lead to. The students referenced in my surprise conclusion, mentioned above, made up a minority of the students surveyed, but enough that it warranted addressing. Many students use laptops appropriately and to their advantage, thus, I do not advocate a full ban on laptops. Instead, I recommend that some profs of first-year classes spend a week or two without laptops. When laptops are used, I have an area in the front of the room where no laptops are allowed, creating a distraction-free area for students who prefer to hand-write notes.

As to profs liking life better without laptops, sure, it’s quite nice. But part of what I discuss in the article is how I believe the professor’s role should involve what’s best, pedagogically, for most of the students—not what makes the professor more comfortable. I also review issues related to adult learning and learning theory—concepts too often left out of this discussion. (In my laptop vacation this fall, indeed, I enjoyed it (although participation levels were not noticeably higher; I already had a fairly high rate of participation). And from that, it’s tempting to ban them altogether. But I keep in mind the students who are better able to organize and manage their time using their laptops, and I resist that temptation.)

But I think what was most revealing in the survey (and article) are the students’ comments. Not being a part of a professor's evaluation, students’ comments were not biased based on a like or dislike of a professor and that person’s ban. Those comments provided a great level of insight—on both sides of the debate.

Posted by: Jana R. McCreary | Dec 5, 2008 9:06:20 AM

Here's a relevent SSRN posting entitled "The Laptop-Free Zone":


Here's an excerpt from the abstract:

This article reports and analyzes the data collected through an IRB-approved survey of almost 450 law school students at three different law schools regarding the students' views of laptops and reported distractions caused by laptops. . . . Additionally, the article provides information to be considered in teaching adults and to different learning styles, namely, global and analytic learners, and how those concerns are matters to consider in the laptop debate.

. . .

As a surprise to me, the survey also showed that many students make the decision to give up their laptop after experiencing attending a class without one, noting they would not have been willing to go through such an experience by their own decision. However, once they experience not using a laptop in the law school classroom environment, they often change their method of taking notes and report improved learning and classroom experiences.

Posted by: David Raeker-Jordan | Dec 4, 2008 1:07:48 PM

Last semester, I had the privilege of taking a professor who banned the use of laptops but who, after each class, presented the class with a summary of what was covered. I was more engaged than I otherwise would have been because I wasn't distracted by the computer or distraught about not acquiring a thorough set of class notes.

Posted by: Justin Carlin | Dec 4, 2008 10:16:23 AM

Alabama does not require laptops but factors a $1500 computer purchase into the cost of attendance and offers laptops to some students as part of a scholarship package. So they are fully expected.

Can someone provide evidence of transcription? Faculty complain about it, but I've seen a lot of classmates' notes and they are almost all bullet-pointed outlines, not transcripts. I characterize my own notes as critical minutes. I have not seen a transcript yet.

(My handle is outdated; I'm a 2L.)

Alabama faculty recently announced a new laptop policy, which I won't presume to interpret.

Posted by: Bama 1L | Dec 4, 2008 10:00:27 AM

I find note-taking on laptops invaluable. There are times that I'm just overwhelmed by the material, and my brain isn't processing, but I type what the professor is saying by reflex. I then have the chance to go back and see what he said; I actually get that material down rather than not having it at all. I would argue that, as a result, laptops allow me to be MORE engaged in class: typing is so instinctual for me that I can be thinking about the material on a higher level while still writing down the main points for future reference. Additionally, I can touch type, and can look at the professor while I'm typing. When I write, I have to concentrate on getting my info written before we move on to the next point, scribble quickly so my handwriting is illegible, and have to turn my attention away from the professor to write in my notebook.

Like Judith, I also find that the students who will be distracted from class by their laptops know themselves well enough not to bring them. And I similarly will zone out in class or doodle on my notebook if I have one. We'll always find a way to be distracted. The problem arises when a student's actions on the computer distract everyone behind him when the people behind him wouldn't be otherwise distracted, which is both annoying and disrespectful to the professor. I have no suggestions for this other than to allow students to change their seats at some point after the first day, so that students who know they're going to goof around on the computer half of the time can be in the back (assuming they don't jettison the computer entirely). Still, people in the middle of the room fooling around on the computer is a small price to pay for the convenience of laptop note-taking.

Posted by: UVA1L | Dec 4, 2008 9:56:16 AM

At Iowa, laptops are not required though most students have them. Not all use them in class - it varies in a given class between about 60 and 90%. As a student, I understand your concerns, but I'm not in favor of laptop bans. First, the bans generally lead to resentment of professors. If the professor is really good, we'll get over it, but it's honestly difficult in a law class to use handwritten notes. I don't take notes verbatim, but I do like to shuffle my notes around a lot, create outlines, etc., and I don't have the time to go home and type up notes from the notes. In classes where I have been forced to write out my notes, I haven't used them. I've given up or they've gotten lost. I also am a very slow hand writer and tend to get writer's cramp more quickly than other people.

As for effectiveness in the classroom using a laptop, yes, there are going to be students not paying attention because they're doing other things. It's true. But that's just as true without the computer! In high school, I had a tremendous problem with "zoning out" in class. I really wanted to pay attention, but my attention span was just too short. In law school, I rarely have that problem. Doing other things (mindless things) actually keeps at least half my brain focused on the professor. Compulsively checking e-mail or playing Tetris helps me to concentrate. I think students also figure out what works for them. There's no way to force someone to pay attention, but by making laptops optional, you give them the option to find a way to pay attention. Some students don't have my problems, and are better without laptops. I have noticed that as 3Ls, fewer of us are using computers, and I imagine some students have a bad semester and then learn that the only way to discipline themselves is not to use a computer. Others turn off IM during class or use a word processor that blocks everything else out. There are plenty of ways to go about it.

Posted by: Judith | Dec 4, 2008 8:55:26 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.