My Laptop Ban
Ever since Eugene Volokh shared the results of his laptop experiment, the blogosphere has been talking more than usual about laptop bans. This is the second semester I’ve banned laptops and at this point I’d describe myself as a ban enthusiast. The reasons for this enthusiasm are nothing new: my class is more engaged, class room discussions have improved, and students are asking better questions. I also hadn’t realized how difficult it is to talk to the back of a laptop screen until I made everyone close them. On this point, I would echo Howard Wasserman: I’m a better teacher when I can actually see my students’ faces. Finally, I think that the process of note-taking on a laptop often short-circuits the learning process. Kevin Yamamoto has summarized some of the research on this point here. A couple of things, however, did catch me by surprise.
The first is that my classes tend to move slower, not faster, as a result of the ban. I had expected exactly the opposite, because I used to lose time when I called on surfing students who had to be brought up to speed before they could answer questions. What I hadn’t anticipated was that students would ask more questions, sometimes significantly more. I can’t figure out whether this is because students are paying closer attention and therefore better recognize the many complications, or whether the questions are simply a form of entertainment now that surfing is no longer an option. Regardless, most of the questions are good and they improve the classroom discussion. But professors who ban laptops should realize that they might end up covering less material, not more.
The second surprise came from the results of a questionnaire about the ban that I distributed to my approximately 170 students last semester. I had always assumed that the use of laptops for note-taking began when my students were in college. But several conversations I had last semester made me wonder about the validity of this assumption. So one of my questions asked whether students used laptops for note-taking as undergraduates, and if not, why they began using them as law students. The responses indicated that most of my students did not use laptops for note-taking in college. They adopted them as 1Ls because (1) the law school required that each student own a laptop and (2) upper-level students had told them laptops were the “only” way to take good law school notes. I had not previously considered how my law school’s own policies might have fueled the spread of laptops in the classroom. I also hadn’t paused to consider the extent to which recommendations of upper-level students would encourage 1Ls to bring laptops to class. All of this has left me hoping that students encounter at least a couple of professors who ban laptops during their 1L year, so as to convey the message that there’s nothing inevitable about being a law student and taking notes on a laptop.