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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Laptop Policies

Jonathan Adler has a post on laptop policies, pegged to a Washington Post story on the subject.  Jonathan's post moves me to disclose my own laptop policy, which I introduced this semester.

My problem with laptops was threefold.  First, of course, there was the effect on class discussion.  Second, there was the disconcerting fact of trying to teach to a roomful of people who were only visible from the nose up, like a crew of bank robbers wearing bandannas over their mouths.  Third, I felt that too many students were doing something close to transcribing, rather than listening and taking selective notes.  Some students object to laptop bans on the grounds that no professor should think his words deserve such rapt attention; I think that's true, but that this means students should focus on the important things rather than taking down every word.  When I finished a thought and paused, the sound of tapping of fingers on keyboards trying to capture everything I'd said made it sound as if it was raining indoors.  

So, this semester, I instituted a substantial but not complete laptop ban.  Up to three students can sign up to take notes by laptop on any day of class, provided that they distribute their notes to the class by the following day.  Students can of course take notes by hand, and can tape the class if they want to transcribe at home.  I figured triple redundancy would allow students not only their own handwritten notes but also three sets of typewritten notes to compare and absorb into their outlines as they see fit.  

My view is that class discussion has indeed improved.  Of course students can still find other uses for their time; I read the occasional magazine in class, and so do they.  I don't object to surreptitious inattention, and my own objection to laptops was never primarily Internet-based, although I do think the use of laptops for that purpose distracts others.  The field of vision for the students and for me is better; we are a group of physically embodied beings in a class talking to one another, not just a collection of hardware with eyes.  Even those students who don't participate regularly (my fault -- I should do more random calling) seem to be following the discussion better.

The policy seems to have worked very well in my first-year class, and to have occasioned more resistance in my upper-year class.  I have received the standard anti-paternalism and pro-consumer arguments, which I acknowledge while still insisting that my greater experience actually counts for something and that it is my place to frame the rules for our learning environment.  What is interesting to me is that the real objection seems to be to sharing notes.  Even those students who have expressed a strong preference for note-taking on the ground that it helps them learn better have refused to take notes, because they believe it gives others a competitive advantage.  I question this argument: if you believe you learn better by taking your own notes, and (as some have argued) you believe that learning from others' notes is not as useful, then surely you will enjoy a competitive advantage from taking your own notes even if you must share them at the end of the day.  What is interesting to me is that a number of students in this class have expressed a strong intensity of preference for taking their own notes, but even so it can be difficult to get three people a day to sign up to take notes in that class.  Apparently their intensity of preference for note-taking is outweighed by their intensity of preference against sharing notes.  

I don't think mine is a perfect policy, although I do think it's a fair one, one that tries to balance my interest in providing what I think is a sound classroom environment against some students' own strong preference for note-taking.  I am considering upping the number of permitted note-takers.  But I am also convinced that the change has been beneficial on the whole.  And while I respect mild versions of the anti-paternalism argument, I am not sufficiently persuaded by them to abandon the policy altogether (particularly when, as on the comments to Jonathan's posts, commenters argue that if others are distracted by what they do on the Internet during class time, it's not their problem), although I am open to suggestions about how to modify it.  Comments and shared experiences are welcome.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 10, 2010 at 10:14 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I don't allow taping of my classes for several reasons. First, I don't like being taped. In class, I may tell jokes and small asides, and I don't want this to become a part of the school's history. Second, some of my students object to taping because THEY are being taped as well -- I call them by last names, and they don't want their unfortunate responses preceded by their last names to become school history either. Taping creates a very unhealthy dynamic, sort of like having an inspector in class -- I would feel it's there; my students would feel it's there. It's just creepy. Finally, there is a pretty good chance that taped lectures will affect attendance, and I don't want to waste class time taking attendance.

Posted by: anon | Mar 12, 2010 4:02:31 AM

Why "allow" taping?

Why doesn't the school install taping equipment and make all lectures available as an internet download, and iTunes podcast, or, if concerned about somebody getting a legal education for free, a library checkout or a password protected intranet download only available for matriculated students?

Posted by: David Gipson | Mar 11, 2010 3:45:25 PM

Undergrads seem to be all over the map. I remember talking with a law colleague who sat in an undergrad class at Princeton (I think his son's) and everyone was using laptops -- and surfing.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 10, 2010 10:14:15 PM

For what it's worth, I teach about 100 students per semester at my undergraduate school, and in all my years there I can remember three students (total) using laptops, one of them this semester.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Mar 10, 2010 8:14:26 PM

I have blogged more than my fair share about this issue and my ultimate solution, which was a complete ban, with every class recorded and the audio file made available on a course blog. I could not be happier with the results, both from a discussion and atmospheric standpoint. I blogged about the results of a survey I did last semester, which showed general support for the policy, although a concern that their notes were not as useful as if they had computers (which just prompts me to say, "You can and should learn how to take better notes").

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 10, 2010 8:10:29 PM

I get maybe 25-30% of students in my undergraduate classes using laptops - thus far it has not been much of an issue. The only thing that comes to mind on this point is that the undergrads get really riled if the powerpoints aren't available online before the class starts. ;-)

In graduate classes, which are usually pretty small, sometimes all of us have laptops (since we are reading articles and dont want to print them out). It doesn't seem to have dampened discussion.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Mar 10, 2010 6:48:59 PM

Do other graduate programs (or even undergraduate programs) have these controversies? If so, I don't hear about them. Is it a particularly lawyerly approach to deal with the issue (if it is one) by enacting rules?

I propose an analogy:

Laptops bans : good learning :: Sarbanes Oxley : good governance.

Or a function:

y = f(x) where y equals good learning and x equals the laptop ban. What is the function?

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Mar 10, 2010 3:17:07 PM

I am a first year law student. I have one class with a restriction on laptops. I can honestly say that I learn far less, discuss far less and am engaged in the material far less for lack of my laptop. The reasons for the ban seem to primarily be for the professor's benefit. I think this is not the best reason to make a rule. I can say that with few exceptions the discussions in my laptop restrictive course is mediocre. Given the chance, I could easily point to other courses I've taken where students were more involved. Of course, that isn't a perfect comparison given different teaching styles, material, etc., but neither are statements that a laptop ban seem to be well received.

In short, it is the professor's classroom and it is his prerogative. But I am against taking away an acceptable method of learning that might work best for a student, even if the sound or look of that learning annoys the professor.

Posted by: undisclosed | Mar 10, 2010 12:34:12 PM

Many professors have reported that laptop bans improve participation in their class. But I'm curious whether those results would scale up. I'm reminded of a joke about a magazine editor who received a memo on gold paper. "Wow," he thought to himself, "this memo really stands out in the pile of papers on my desk!" So he decided from then on, he would put all of his memos on gold paper.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 10, 2010 12:19:19 PM

Don't fear paternalism! When I was in law school, I used to play "hangman" with my neighbor. That would occupy our attention for a few minutes, but even that would get boring. With the web at my fingertips, I would be hopeless. I used to tell myself that I needed to be more captivating in class in order to keep my students off the internet -- I think that's setting a very unrealistic bar. If I had a choice between listening to myself talk and surfing the web, I'd surf the web. I also think we need to encourage our students to stay engaged even if they're not entertained at every moment. Engagement despite boredom is a core lawyerly attribute, given many of the tasks we're called to do. This semester is the first time I've banned laptops, and I like what I've seen thus far.

Posted by: rob vischer | Mar 10, 2010 11:04:25 AM

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