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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The rise and fall of laptops in the classroom

A discussion on the Civ Pro ListServ on how attorneys take notes (by hand or computer) morphed into another discussion of laptops in the classroom. Based on people who posted, it was something like 6:2 in favor of the ban. I record classes and make the audio available for those who want to relive the class verbatim and a couple people do the same. Reviewing previous discussions of laptop bans among Perma-prawfs and guests, the results are more mixed.

The pervasiveness of laptop bans caused me to think about the rise and fall of laptops, which tracks with my life in legal education:

• I started law school in fall 1994. One student in my 100-person section used a computer to take notes and I recall one professor stopping mid-lecture to stare at the screen in wonder. I think the number was about to about 5 by the end of the year. Most students did not even have laptops for writing projects.

• I started teaching as a VAP in 2001 and probably 80-90% of students used computers to take notes. When I started at FIU in 2003, that number was probably at 100 %.

• In fall 2007, I “recommended” that students not use laptops and urged them to try to go the first month of class without them. No one in two Civ Pro sections took me up on the offer. Several students complained about my attempt in the end-of-semester evals.

• Around 2008, some law professors began writing about how much they disliked the prevalence of laptops in the classroom--citing concerns for students surfing, distraction of others, and ineffective note-taking. I recall a piece in the Washington Post by David Cole (Georgetown) as one of the first public arguments. Others quickly jumped on board.
• In Winter 2009, I prohibited them in all classes. (This was my first semester after my faculty tenure vote--I regret that I did not do it pre-tenure for fear of student blowback). There were slight murmurings, but nothing major. I was one of about five FIU profs who did this around that time, albeit without coordination. So I think the students had become used to it.
• Studies purporting to show that handwritten notes are better began cropping up around 2013-or-so. The big Oppenheimer/Mueller study appeared in early 2014. The studies over the past 5 years are mixed.
• I continue to ban them from my classroom and have no intention of changing. I believe, based on talk in the hallway, that about 1/3-1/2 my faculty bans them, including many professors teaching doctrinal courses in the first year. More generally, profs are all over the map; I cannot tell--either anecdotally or empirically--whether we have reached the point that a majority of profs ban them.
• None of my students complains or even questions it anymore.
• I allow laptops for students given that accommodation by our disability resource office (obviously). I have seen a slight uptick in students given laptop use as an accommodation--1-2 students a year in the past 2-3 years. I suspect the increase in professors banning laptops has triggered that increase in accommodation.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 23, 2019 at 08:53 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink




Posted by: educator | Aug 9, 2019 12:37:44 PM

what recent grad said x100.

The research is mixed and not a universal finding, so I hesitate as an educator to deny some students a preferable and more effective tool to aid their learning. I share a sampling of the research with my students at the beginning of the semester, and give a little talk about being in graduate school and a professional learner (in the sense of being aware of research on adult learning, and studying smartly). As long as they aren't disrupting class with their computers, I leave the decision up to them. If any particular student's laptop usage interferes with my teaching or appears to be disruptive to other students learning (a decidedly rare occurrence), I reach out to the student.

Note: I have in mind here larger doctrinal courses, not clinics or seminars. I still wouldn't ban laptops in such classes, but they arguably involve different considerations.

Posted by: Kevin Lapp | Jul 25, 2019 4:29:24 PM

As someone who had to get an accommodation to use a laptop for note taking due to a disability, I urge you to reconsider your ban. Being the only person in the room with a laptop made me the target of catty remarks about being "special" as well as unwanted queries about my disability and outright charges that I was gaming the system. Even at the best of times, it was a reminder that I was different and my professor considered me less than ideal because of my disability. The legal profession is already a tough place for people with disabilities - please consider changing your practice to avoid being part of that problem.

Posted by: Recent grad | Jul 25, 2019 2:12:25 PM

Roger, I teach in an all party consent jurisdiction, but the state Wiretap Act in my state (California) does not apply to class recording. The relevant statute only applies to "confidential communications," and the statutory definition expressly excludes "any . . . circumstance in which the parties to the communication may reasonably expect that the communication may be overheard or recorded." I think that exclusion is pretty typical for state eavesdropping statutes: Notice of the recording, or even just circumstances indicating it would be reasonable to know it was recorded or someone was overhearing it, means the statute's prohibition doesn't apply.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 24, 2019 7:48:46 PM

Question for those of you who record your classes: are you in one-party-consent states, or do you require students to consent to the recording, or allow students to opt out of being called on? I have a policy against recording my classes for this reason and for privacy reasons, but I think I am an outlier.

Posted by: Roger | Jul 24, 2019 10:10:05 AM

Ah, I see. I've noticed the generational difference, too, in the few hearings I've seen.

I'm rather curious about which is ultimately better. I took notes by hand throughout law school, even in courses that permitted laptops. Still, I have my days when I wonder if it's actually better, or if I'm being inefficient simply for nostalgia's sake--and whether I'll be able to keep it up as in practice.

Posted by: DH | Jul 24, 2019 9:04:04 AM

The starting point was a prof who wanted to include the following on a Civ Pro syllabus: "In settings where attorneys take notes while carefully thinking about what they are seeing and hearing -- such as witness interviews, client meetings, depositions, phone calls, negotiations, and court hearings -- practicing attorneys tend to take notes by hand, not on computer." Someone responded, talking about seeing young lawyers taking notes on computer during hearings, deps, etc. That triggered a flow of posts about laptops in the classroom.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 24, 2019 8:09:18 AM

Is there any way you could share the broader conversation from the listserv about taking notes as a practicing attorney? I'm a tech-savvy young lawyer, and I'm very curious.

Posted by: DH | Jul 24, 2019 7:44:39 AM

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