“Banning Laptops in the Classroom: Is It Worth The Hassles?”

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17 Responses

  1. USD Law Student says:

    there are several teachers at usd who ban the use of laptops in class. i have been in classes that ban the use of the laptop and require note taking by hand. my personal experience as a student is that laptops can be very beneficial for students who use them correctly. not as transcription devices but as devises for recording well organized notes. sadly this is not the majority of students. most laptops are used for either transcription or net surfing. they do allow for students to communicate with each other during class without passing notes so thats useful to students at least.

    im not totally opposed to banning them because most students dont use them properly but i feel like its a major blow to students who use them advantageously. it lets them gain an advantage over those who dont and may hurt them more than it helps the rest. ive found that while its an initial shock students get over it.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    Elizabeth:

    I ban laptops and have written about it some at Prawfs, including this post:

    http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2009/07/results-of-laptop-ban-survey.html

    discussing the results of the student survey I did at the end of last semester.

    This is an issue that draws a surprising amount of passion from both sides–from teachers who feel strongly about getting computers out of the classroom (in my case, for many of the ‘value-of-learning-to-take-notes’ reasons you discuss in your post) and from students who feel strongly that they should be able to work as they choose. And I don’t think either side is going to convince the other.

  3. Paul Horwitz says:

    There are lots of good reasons to ban laptops, although I haven’t. But I am not sure that the argument that lawyers will need to know how to take notes on yellow legal pads is one of them. They need to know how to take notes in an efficient fashion, and in a meeting context to do so without losing attention and eye contact. But the medium is not the issue, I think.

  4. Dan Culley says:

    I think any reasoned discussion of this issue has to begin with the understanding that law students are adults and are responsible for their own performance. As a result, the only justification for restricting their behavior is if it affects others.

    Transcription. I frequently hear this argument come up and have to admit that I really detest it (probably irrationally so), as it is the height of paternalism. Nonetheless, let me try to make a logical argument why I think it is a bad reason to ban laptops:

    To take any given amount of information and reduce it to writing, typing is easier than handwriting. Given the limitations of handwriting, students will generally find it worthwhile to summarize. When those limitations are lifted, they no longer find it worthwhile to summarize and will generally transcribe. This shows that students view summarization as a cost, not a benefit.

    You seem to take the position (which I agree with) that summarization has pedagogical value, so that students should summarize even if it saves them no effort. If you believe that banning laptops to force students to summarize is a valid exercise, then you must believe that the value of summarization to learning exceeds the additional cost from using inferior (higher effort) recording technology.

    I would probably also agree with you that the tradeoff is worth it if you were not overlooking another possibility, which is to tell students why they should value summarization and to teach them how to take good notes. The very exercise of thinking out how the students should take notes may help you identify what about summarization assists in learning, leading to a better note-taking method than simply relying on handwriting to force general behaviors. If your students don’t take your advice then, well, they are adults and can choose to perform poorly.

    I used a laptop through almost all of law school and never transcribed anything. By using a laptop, I gained innumerable advantages over handwritten notes. I could reorganize notes with very little effort, helping me to group subjects together for easier review. I could edit my notes later with very little effort, once I had a better understanding of what was essential and what was not, to condense them. I could search my notes with very little effort, so that my notes were actually useful for reviewing small amounts of material or looking up things I had forgotten. Perhaps all these things would be worth giving up if they were necessarily tied to transcribing notes, but they are not.

    Wall. I have often heard laptops described as a “wall,” but I have to admit that I have never really understood this. Laptop screens are just not that tall relative to seated students. I have never sat in a classroom where the tables were so high that people’s faces were not above their screens. If that’s what your classrooms look like, that seems like really bad design. (I can’t imagine tables that high being at a comfortable handwriting level.) Maybe you should ask them to adjust their seats higher. It’s at least worth a try before doing something drastic.

    You also seem to be implying that students have to look at their computer screens to type. I’m not aware of many people in the 20-25 age bracket that need to look at their screens to type any more than you would have to look at paper to handwrite, and it probably actually less. (If you disbelieve that you need to look at paper, I would challenge you to write with your eyes closed and look at the result.) It’s also much less disconnecting to look 15 degrees down at screen for a second than to look 70 degrees down at a piece of paper.

    Value of handwritten notes. I have taken handwritten notes many times since entering practice and have never had an issue with it, despite never taking handwritten notes in law school. Although the examples you give are nice, a junior associate is much more likely to be in a situation where he or she needs to essentially transcribe an interview or meeting. (Often, the significance of someone’s statements will not be apparent until later, so having an exact record is useful.) No amount of practice summarizing by hand during law school is going to help much with that. I have also found that typing notes in these situations has not been as much of a distraction as you seem to think. There is no reason why the computer needs to be directly in front of your face to type. Putting it on your lap, rather than the table, pretty much removes it from view. (I wouldn’t want to use that posture for a class, but it has not been an issue in meetings or interviews.)

    Distraction. I think this is certainly the most valid criticism of laptop use, as students cannot control it themselves. I have also experienced it personally and agree that page changes can be quite distracting. However, I am surprised that no one ever suggests a fairly obvious solution: privacy filters. 3M is best known for them, but several other companies make them as well. They aren’t that expensive (about $40-$50). They slide on to the laptop screen and make it pretty much impossible to see unless you are right in front of the computer. That pretty much eliminates the distraction. Have you tried requiring students to use them if they want to use laptops? I doubt you would get very much resistance.

    * * *

    I am sorry to write a comment that’s longer than the blog post, but I think that this is an issue where oversimplification, particularly failure to consider alternatives, really harms the analysis.

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    My perspective is as both a lawyer (big firm/in-house/solo) and a client. Maybe Dan and some others haven’t been in practice long enough to understand the issue about meetings. Law students and junior associates might not appreciate that they won’t always be the grunts during a meeting. At a certain stage in one’s career, the abilities to listen and to focus on clients or on the other side in a negotiation become paramount.

    This isn’t a skill you can learn overnight. If you’ve spent most of your first decade in the legal world with your nose in a laptop, you will be facing a steep learning curve, and be very alienating while you’re climbing it. I’ve certainly found it so when associates from other firms, or even my own outside counsel, adopted this posture. Especially for the in-the-lap move. The fact that no one’s mentioned it to you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t bother them, or that they wouldn’t feel better if you were listening attentively.

    As for the argument that many people don’t need to look at the screen: even if that were a common skill, not every meeting is one where transcription is important or even desirable. Again, that will become more and more the case as you become more senior, at least if you aren’t a litigator (though perhaps for litigators as well). It’s both annoying and discomfiting to feel that there’s a “court reporter” in the room when one isn’t necessary.

    You’re going into a service business. What’s convenient for you isn’t usually so important as what maintains your relationship with the client. And don’t think folks with my sensibilities are going to die out or “get with the program” in a decade or so. Email’s been around a lot longer than laptops, but there are still times when phone calls — and face-to-face meetings — are necessary. Human evolution is slower than you think.

  6. A.W. says:

    i said it before, and i will say it again.

    Your students are adults. let them make the adult decision of whether to use a laptop or not.

    indeed, there are some people who have no choice in the matter. what do you say to them?

  7. Sarah Waldeck says:

    My short answer to your headline: Yes, it’s worth the hassle. I’ll be banning them again this fall.

    Here’s a link to a post I wrote about my own experience:

    http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2009/03/my_laptop_ban_2.html

  8. Dan Culley says:

    A.J.,

    I really think it depends on the type of meeting and also on the habits of the other meeting participants. I have certainly taken notes by hand in situations where it felt appropriate, in particular where I was directly interacting with whoever we were speaking to. I also usually take notes by hand when it’s not likely that I’ll have to write down a large amount of information. I’m not saying that there isn’t plenty for me to learn about listening to and dealing with clients, but I’ve never really found the taking-notes-by-hand part of this to be particularly challenging.

    I also just don’t see how taking notes on an out-of-view keyboard is significantly more distracting than furiously transcribing by hand. Having been across the table from many people who were doing just that, I know from experience that it is really distracting.

    Moreover, there are situations, such as on some conference calls, when someone really needs to have a laptop out anyway, because we need to be able to look up and search through other documents. Frequently pretty much everyone on the call has one out for that purpose, it’s not particularly distracting, and it’s not my experience that it has kept anyone from giving full attention to what’s going on.

    Clients also have different habits and preferences too. I have been in meetings with clients where everyone was on a laptop, for much the same reasons as on the conference calls above, and that’s how the client was comfortable (and expected to be) working. That doesn’t mean that, even in that situation, I don’t keep the laptop to the side when it’s not necessary to use it.

    I’m certainly not arguing that typing is always the best way to take things down, given the situation, only that taking short notes by hand is not that difficult and it’s far from a general rule that in practice people take notes by hand all the time.

  9. A.W. says:

    you know, to all you teachers…

    if you keep treating your students like children incapable of making adult decisions, that is all they will ever be.

    If i was your student i would be insulted by the fact you think i can’t decide for myself. maybe your students are too much a bunch of suck ups to say it, but they ARE thinking it.

    And what you keep dodging is how you will deal with the student with a disability who MUST have a laptop.

  10. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for your reply, Dan. A conference call is obviously a different kind of interaction, where the eye-contact considerations I mentioned before are less significant. (Though it is possible to get through conference calls simply by bringing all relevant drafts to the conference room…) I also grant litigation practice may be different, epecially since so many discovery documents are scanned in.

    But as for other client meetings, I suggest that the positions of attorney and client are not symmetrical. Even though your client may be rude enough to spend more time looking at a screen than at you while he or she is talking to you (and rude is what it is), that doesn’t mean the lawyer should return the discourtesy.

    That said, I believe you that it’s simply more common for people to be using laptops in meetings nowadays. But this trend is a sad thing, something like the way doctors lost their “bedside manner” (though clients are also to blame, as you point out). It’s an emphasis on supposed “efficiency” over the human touch in the relationship between client and attorney. In the long run, that kind of thing will make it much less fun to practice law, and ditto for being in business too.

  11. A.W. says:

    oh for god’s sake. its losing the human touch to type?

    jesus talk about fetishizing something.

    if anything it says to my clients that i care enough to make sure i get down everything they say, exactly as they say it.

  12. Anon321 says:

    I’ve always been skeptical that wholesale transcription is really much of a problem. In my experience, maybe one in fifty students will actually attempt to transcribe most of a lecture. And while doing so might cause them to speak less than they otherwise might have, those few transcribers are not the students you need to worry about, since they’re engaged and focusing intently on the material throughout the class.

    The bigger problem comes from students surfing the web. I agree that those who do so miss out on most of the value of the class and distract others. But it’s always seemed to me that banning Internet usage during class solves nearly all of the problems that laptops pose.

    I’d also add that transcription in small doses has some value. I found that Professors would sometimes make points that were too complicated — either analytically or just grammatically — to understand completely the first time through. Jotting them down essentially verbatim and parsing them later was quite useful. That might only happen once every few lectures, but having a laptop can provide a real benefit there (in addition to the benefits related to organization and searching that others have mentioned).

  13. lawprof says:

    A.W. may be an adult, but at my school, mature and adult law students are few and far between. They are lazy, irresponsible, and not too bright. I don’t hesitate to ban laptops and my classes have improved since I did. Banning laptops is no more or less paternalistic than requiring attendance, which I surely do.

    When a student has a documented disability, they are more than welcome to use a laptop. Now you are going to ask me, “but doesn’t that OUT the poor disabled student?” To which my response is the ADA requires accomodation of the disabilty, not total secrecy in granting the accomodation (else we would have only ramps and no stairs).

  14. The main post identifies two primary concerns: possible decreased student engagement by the student using the computer and distraction of other students. A third, related to the second, is that students using a computer to engage in activity unrelated to the classroom instruction can impede an instructor’s ability to teach. An instructor may modify the presentation based on the visual signals provided by students. Those signals are eroded by the presence of students who are, for example, viewing unrelated web sites or engaging in on-line conversations.

    To address the second primary concern and the related third concern, I have divided the classroom into two halves. Students sitting on one side are only to use their computers for classroom-related activity. This has seemed to provide a reasonable solution for one not inclined to take the paternalistic routes of banning laptops or trying to restrict access to the internet.

  15. A.W. says:

    lawprof

    i will point out for the record that anti-discrimination is generally read to mean that you should not call attention to the trait unless you have a good reason. for instance, when it comes to race, companies get in trouble if they include pictures of their applicants in their files, because then it opens the door to the accusation that their obvious race played some role. of course affirmative action is a big exception to that, and there are others, but you need a justification to write down or otherwise note the race of an employee or applicant. why should it be different as to the disability of one?

    as for whether most students are childish or not, well, i see a chicken-egg connundrum. do you treat them like children because they act like children? or do they act like children because you treat them like it? can’t say because i am not there.

  16. Stephanie says:

    I am one of those “dreaded” transcriptionists in law school. I write down almost 100% of everything a professor says in class. Your assumption about transcription coming at the expense of processing what the professor is saying and participation is totally off base. Most of the time I am one of the top participators in class, and I still get everything written down. Having my laptop allows me to get the most out of my class – a very good record of what the professor lectured on as well as class particpation.

  17. just a thought says:

    I transcribed nearly everything by laptop in a class I had with Prof. Nowicki, which did not preclude me from considering the material nor from participating in class. These copious notes were invaluable when developing an outline later, as comments which I hadn’t given much weight at the time during an individual lecture had greater significance in broader contexts. That faulty initial weighting was undoubtedly a product of my own poor- or at least, inexperienced- judgment, Prof. Nowicki is a very clear communicator. FWIW, I got an A in the class, and more importantly learned- and retained- a tremendous amount of useful information.

    Conversely, in the same semester I had a class where I handwrote all my notes; in review many of these pages were comprised largely of to-do lists relating to my hobbies, sketches of classmates, etc. Much resorting to hornbooks ensued as it turned out that what little material I had noted missed key conclusions. Even on my best days, my handwritten notes were of limited use- that particular professor had a well-worn monologue sort of presentation style which frequently left me guessing what conclusion was implied in a given scenario; and responded to my requests for clarification primarily with criticism. I fared poorly in the class and lost interest in that area of law.

    In addition to handwriting and transcribing; I also had classes where I took more traditional notes on a computer; and one where I tried just recording everything to MP3 and reviewing back to those recordings while outlining (and at the gym). The method didn’t matter in the least- I fared well when professors’ teaching styles facilitated independent synthesis during my private studying, and poorly where a one-size-fits-all environment didn’t encompass my individual learning style.

    If the assumption is that classroom time is some sort of completely open philosophical dialogue where students are challenged to develop wholly new and creative analyses to be considered and tested by the group, then by all means laptops, desks, and grades should probably all be done away with… but as long as there is a final test after three months with right and wrong answers based on rules delineated in assigned cases; banning any tool which might facilitate development of an objective approach to those problems should be celebrated, and to the extent feasbile, integrated into the learning environment- albeit with the understanding that those students who don’t feel engaged or lack the requisite discipline to succeed will always find ways to daydream.