Over at Dorf on Law,
Michael Dorf has this interesting post on discouraging laptop use in law school classrooms.
Bart (mail):
I was among the first in my law school to use a laptop computer and found the device invaluable.

Professor Dorf fears that students will be busy taking verbatim notes in class, distracting from class interaction, and then for some reason not go through the process of outline making at the end of the semester before exams.

My experience was completely different from the professor's expectations.

From the beginning of the semester, I started working on my outline using the outline function of my word processing program. I did most of the work on my outline before class when I reviewed the case readings.

When I came into class, I would only make occasional additions into my draft outline from the professor's comments. This freed me up to participate in class without missing anything in my note taking.

However, best of all, by drafting my outline a little at a time through the semester, I was not crunched for time trying to make an outline out of a jumble of notes from half remembered classes at the end of the semester.

This system freed me up to participate in Moot Court and Law Review while also seeing my wife and sleeping.
11.30.2006 9:50pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Outlines were much easier once I moved to a laptop (2nd semester, first year). If "class discussion" were worth anything, Prof. Dorf might have a worthwhile complaint, but I never found class discussion to be very useful except in seminars. Watching someone get grilled by a professor, or listening to someone who doesn't care or didn't read is utterly pointless. If I hadn't had WiFi my second and third years, I might have lost my mind. Down with laptop bans!!!
11.30.2006 9:58pm
In the words of Okay, Go... here we go again.

The arguments are getting pretty tired... Professors argue that students don't know how to take notes, they waste time copying verbatim, they use it as a crutch, they waste time in class on the net, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

Students argue that professors are overly paternalistic, that different people take notes differently, that not everyone learns the same, and that if professors made their lectures interesting and engaging, people wouldn't wander onto the net, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

Until someone figures out how to do an empirical study proving or disproving any of this claims, I say faculty should be free to ban laptops with two conditions:

1. There policy is clear *before* registration.
2. If the course is a required (i.e. 1L course) there is an alternative section where laptops are allowed.

Then, let the students decide. Isn't it about time we started acknowledging that being *graduate students* law students may have developed their own study habits that they know work for them? And at the same time acknowledge that faculty have good insights into how to present the material, and allow them to co-exist in an environment where *information and choice* allow everyone to be happy?

11.30.2006 10:29pm
And yes, I realize it should be "these" and "their". I'm tired. I have actually been studying. With my laptop. Outlining. :P
11.30.2006 10:31pm
KB (mail):
I don't have any experience from the professors' side of the podium, but I've been through law school during the dawn of the Laptop Era (J.D. 1995) and during the Modern Age (LL.M. 2006). The second time around, I found my computer to be a great learning tool, and I think that both of the professor/columnists have grossly underrated its value in class, when used properly.

Before laptops were in common use, there were many students who attempted to take verbatim dictation of lectures by hand, and there were many students who concentrated on other distractions (magazines, crossword puzzles, letter writing) during lectures, especially in large auditoriums. Laptops have enhanced the efficiency of both types of students in avoiding learning, but they don't prevent students from engaging in class if they are inclined to do so.

Laptops and wireless access, when used properly, can enhance the classroom experience. Sometimes it can be mildly embarrassing for the professor, especially when in-class access to Lexis and Westlaw enables students to expose weaknesses in casebooks. On one occasion, I saw a student point out that one of the opinions under discussion was no longer good law (and hadn't been for over ten years before the casebook was published), based on some in-class Shepardizing. On another occasion I was able to challenge one of the key points being made in the class discussion of a Supreme Court opinion, because I was able to download the full text of the opinion online.

I also disagree with the professors' assessment of the effect of laptops on outlining. Of course, if a student merely acts as a secretary in class and tries to use the transcript as an outline, he will be disappointed. But I used my laptop during my pre-class reading, massaged the notes in class, and then refined it further during my review during the exam period. The result was far better than what I was able to do with handwritten notes and my home computer during the early 1990s.

It's the 21st Century, and laptops are a contemporary tool. Like chainsaws, TV sets, and Glocks, they can be used for positive or negative purposes. Instead of demonizing the tool, professors should coach students on its proper use. No matter what you do, you're still going to have a certain percentage of people checking out during class, but those people would probably be staring out the window anyway, if they didn't have wireless access.
11.30.2006 10:34pm
KB (mail):
Sorry, but I have another point that I forgot to include in my first comment. The trend these days is for law schools to strongly encourage or even require laptop use during exams. I doubt that this is for pedagogical reasons. It probably has more to do with administrative efficiency for the law schools, and I can understand that.

However, if law schools are going to require the use of laptops when it suits their purposes, should professors be allowed to discourage or ban them, even when their use makes things easier for students? Most law professors would condemn such a double standard, if governmental action were involved.
11.30.2006 10:41pm
Justin (mail):
I went from 50% to top 3% of my class by not taking my computer to class. Side benefit.
11.30.2006 11:10pm
Jeremy T:
Stop with the paternalistic law professor crap already. Class time is mostly useless. Real learning doesn't happen in class, at least not for most people.

Being able to play games and check e-mail in class is the only way most recent graduates (like me) were able to get through the horror that is law school. Listening to some professor drone on about the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine is just too somnambulant to tolerate without some computer-assisted diversions.

Maybe students learn better without laptops. I probably would know a little more law than I do now if I'd listened attentively instead of playing solitaire. But big deal. I'm an adult, I paid my tuition, and I should be able to fiddle with my computer during class if I want to.
11.30.2006 11:25pm
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
Too many law professors think they are Professor Kingsfield from the Paper Chase, and that every word they utter is magic. They think no student could learn who isn't looking at them adoringly.

Most students would learn a lot more law if the socratic method were dumped completely or severely deempasized in favor of actual lectures that stream continuously useful information from the professor.

Says the "Dog"
11.30.2006 11:48pm
Proud to be a liberal :
Students should have some shame about surfing the net and playing solitaire during class. What I have found amazing is that some students surf the net while their professor is being observed -- with another professor being able to observe the search for plane tickets and reading e-mail.
I would say that discretion is the better part of valor and students should not surf the net or use e-mail for other non-class related activities while other professors and administrators can observe them.
12.1.2006 12:27am
I type so much faster than I write that if I had to take hadnwritten notes, I'd spend all my time copying things verbatim. As is, I can type as fast as the prof can say relevant things, and faster.
12.1.2006 12:50am
Public_Defender (mail):

I say faculty should be free to ban laptops with two conditions:

1. There policy is clear *before* registration.
2. If the course is a required (i.e. 1L course) there is an alternative section where laptops are allowed.

Geez. Alternative classes for the laptop dependent? A new entitlement? Does the ADA cover that?

I agree with "Dave!"--a laptop can be both a useful tool and an annoying distraction. A student who cannot use one is not prepared for practice. But a student who cannot function without one is also not prepared for practice.

Let some professors allow laptops, others restrict them, and others ban them. Welcome to the real world where your every whim is not catered to.

And yes, some law professors are boring. That doesn't give you the right to play surf the web during class. It's just as rude to play computer solitaire as it would be to lay out the cards on the table in front of you. Hiding it behind a screen just makes it less honest.

You've paid good money for the right to sit in that classroom, so try to salvage as much value as you can while you're there.
12.1.2006 3:46am
Public_Defender (mail):
My last post was mocking in tone. This is the more serious one.

Sometimes a lawyer makes an argument that does more harm than good. Dave! did that.

Dave! was right about laptops being both a useful tool and a distraction, but if I were a professor, attitudes like his would encourage me to ban laptops just to smack down his laptop entitlement theory. In law practice, sometimes you can use laptops, sometimes you can't. Get used to it.

Second, students, if you want to continue to use laptops to take notes in class, police yourselves. One of the main reasons professors ban or restrict laptops is abuse. Professors are justifiably annoyed when students surf the web, IM, etc. Students who do those things in class make it more likely that the professor will stop all laptop use, including note taking.

Maybe professors should tell students that after two or three incidents of in-class web surfing, all laptop use will be banned. That would encourage students in the fifth row to police students in the fourth row. Of course, the students in the back row are hopeless. They always have been. Some things never change.
12.1.2006 4:21am
dougjnn (mail):

I graduated law school (a top ten school) in the misty days of yore, during the Ancien Regime (1980) before laptops had been invented and when personal computers were still barely useful complicated toys for a small coterie of techno nerds that consumed much time and provided little benefit (unless of course you were teaching yourself computer programming preparatory to founding one of the most profitable companies in history.)

If I were going to law school today, I'm certain I'd want to use my laptop to take notes in class, and that that would aid, rather than retard, my learning there..

In some circumstances there are arguments against taking notes but rather focusing entirely on listening during back and forth discussions, particularly during seminars. Maybe not good arguments, but some. Announcing that classroom note taking by pen rather than keyboard is preferable for all though, is nothing more than prejudice that how it did it or would still like to do it must be best for everyone.

Actually it's rather remarkable to me that more than one prof who presumably has gotten at least reasonably comfortable using a computer keyboard by now, still imagines that keyboarding is inherently more distracting for everyone than penning away, old school style. Wonders never cease.

Discouraging or prohibiting internet usage in class is something else entirely. I can easily see how in many cases it's a distraction. I can even see how looking up cases on Lexis/Nexis would be a distraction. You're supposed to have read the cases going into class, and to be focused on the prof's challenge of your understanding of them during it. Law profs using classic case study methods are typically trying to lead their students down a certain path of reasoning. If they're any good it's profitable for students to follow that path. If they aren't so good the student should try to figure that out fast and shuffle his courses around to take that one when someone better is teaching it.

Still if it were my class I'd offer that advice at the beginning and then let students make their own decisions.

Goofing off in class is simply a waste. It's not something students from less well off backgrounds nearly ever do. I did have a very few classmates who did well on first year exams solve crossword puzzles in class, mostly as a way of showing off I think. None scored at the very top of their class. As I said, a waste.
12.1.2006 4:53am
I used my laptop throughout my law school career. And I used it to play solitaire while listening to lecture. Doesn't mean I wasn't paying attention - I was. I particpated in in-class dscussion, took notes, and learned what there was to learn.

What I found was that when all I was doing was listening to the prof speak, I would often get bored and "tune out". By having a mindless game going in the background, one that required only a small amount of my concentration, I was able to stay awake and pay attention to the lecture. By contrast, when I tried to read email or surf the web, I found that that took up too much of my attention and I couldn't follow the lecture. A simple game like solitarie or snood was just the right balance.

I do this to this day - when attending a CLE class, I'll often play games on my cell phone. And I pick up every relevant word.
12.1.2006 9:57am
What's wrong with trying to capture as much of the substantive class discussion as possible? Verbatim notes aren't required, but I found that getting most of the class content put me in an excellent position at outlining time. The most important points aren't always evident right away -- sometimes they don't become clear until later in the semester, when more material has been covered. Comprehensive notes can be an excellent tool for reconstructing what happened in class even if the student didn't quite grasp the importance of it the first time around.

For this reason, I always found that getting the notes down was the most important part of attending law school classes. Class participation was my second priority, but I did that rather often and actually enjoyed it. I won't say that I NEVER surfed the web, but I tried to avoid doing that when anything useful was happening. It was a good way to tune out while professors grilled unprepared students, though -- that is always painful to listen to and seldom results in anything worth writing down.
12.1.2006 10:02am
James Dillon (mail):
I'm a recent ('03) law school graduate, and I never used a laptop in class, even on final exams (I think that NYU has since made laptop use mandatory on finals, but it was not when I was there). I did well in school, and I think that the lack of a laptop was more of a help than a hinderance. I wasn't distracted, as many laptop-using students were, by solitaire or movies (yes, I saw students sometimes watching DVDs in class!), and having to go back and craft outlines from my handwritten notes forced me to think over the material more deeply than I might otherwise have. In my experience, most law students greatly overestimate the value of using laptops in class and on exams.
12.1.2006 10:04am
And yes, some law professors are boring. That doesn't give you the right to play surf the web during class. It's just as rude to play computer solitaire as it would be to lay out the cards on the table in front of you. Hiding it behind a screen just makes it less honest.

No, it makes it less blatant. It would be rude to make a show of ignoring the professor, to attempt to embarass him or her. There's a difference in type as well as degree in physically laying cards on a desk for the whole class to see.

I've passed the bar now, pending admission, and I can say clearly that the three years I spent in law school were, without question, an enormous waste of time and a terrible burden financially in the form of debt. The things I did learn could have been accomplished in a fraction of a time.

The best professors were interesting, in the sense that I would attend their lectures for entertainment value even if not otherwise obligated. The worst professors were effectively alternate delivery devices for the text.

But some days the only reason people were there was because it was required. And the professors who enforced the policies were, pretty much without exception, the least interesting, least insightful, least competent teachers available.

Then again, quality of teaching seems to be about 173rd on the list of criteria for a law professor. There is a remarkably large divide between what makes a great scholar and what makes a great teacher.
12.1.2006 10:17am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
In the commercial world, lots of folks bring laptops to meetings, both group and 1-to-many style, and they are sometimes called on to pull up a reference. Some folks read mail on their Treos, but that's usually cool. I find that the best tool for notes here is a spiralbound, for free associations, transcriptions of conference calls, random thoughts, and so forth. Most of it is junk, not worth the penny of paper and ink, but it can be awfully handy to have to do nothing but a sequential search to find the notes from a particular meeting when it does become necessary. I usually recognize while I'm writing something that I will want to refer to later ("How to get the coffee machine working again") and box it and write more carefully.

Like JB said, I type faster than I write -- if I were taking a lot of notes I might be tempted to use a laptop. I absolutely wish I'd had a digital camera for a lot of math and chemistry classes -- I do use one after particularly productive whiteboard sessions. (High-tech was a Bic 4-color pen that we all clicked in unison with the professor's picking up a new color chalk.)

Do students still use tape recorders in class? I like to think that if I were back in school I'd understand what Dad meant by "I'm paying $50 for each lecture -- keep that in mind when you skip class!" and I really would go to the library after each lecture to review and rewrite my notes. (I know what the squiggle at the end of a paragraph means: I dozed off while that guy at the front of the auditorium was talking. I wonder what that looks like when you're typing?)
12.1.2006 11:33am

"A student who cannot use one is not prepared for practice. But a student who cannot function without one is also not prepared for practice."

Really?? I've *never* had to be without my laptop. Anywhere. Neither has my wife, in her 6+ years of practice. But then again, she's not a PD, so her firm actually has laptops. ;)

Seriously, my point wasn't that students should be "entitled" to use them. It's that nearly every single argument I've heard from professors against laptops treats a symptom (students not paying attention) not the disease. The result is that in a class of 100%, you penalize the majority who are using laptops effectively to try to punish the handful who don't, while completely ignoring the real problem. (That the material is disorganized, that the lecture is bad, etc.)

But, now that you mention it, I think laptop users should be a protected class! :)
12.1.2006 12:44pm
Prof to 1LS: If laptops impair my ability to teach effectively, why shouldn't I be able to ban laptops?

1LS: Really? Laptops impair your ability to teach? How?

Prof: Well, the keyboard tapping is distracting.

1LS: I guess. But suppose a professor thinks that paper and pencil would impair his ability to teach effectively. Given your logic, couldn't he argue for a ban on paper and pencils?

Prof: Who is arguing for a ban on paper and pencils?

1LS: That's not my point. If you claim that …

Prof: Find the professor who wants to ban paper and pencils -- then we'll talk.
12.1.2006 1:02pm
We all learn in different ways and at a different pace. I hated any distrations in class. In three years of law school I think the only "boring" class I had was Remedies -- and that's because the professor was an insufferable bore and arrogant jackass who delivered stream-of-consciousness dribble. I ejoyed getting called on in class and calling on professors. But that's me. I know some guys who were significantly brighter than me who preferred to sit in the back and surf porn/chatlines/sports, etc. And they turned out fine.
I like the Dorf approach.
(btw, as an attorney, I can't imagine not having a pda and laptop.)
12.1.2006 1:04pm
Bart: I am saving your post to show my kids when (and if) they decide to go to lawschool.
12.1.2006 1:07pm
elChato (mail):
I think the problem is not laptops but internet access. I am constantly filling idle moments in depositions and other down time (sitting in court waiting for the judge to show up) surfing the net and emailing. I couldn't do that of course in the middle of making an argument or asking a depo question.

The point is, even in really good classes there is a lot of down time, where nothing particularly interesting is happening. It's only natural that students will fill this time by using their internet access. Human nature being what it is, that leads naturally to people being more interested in that than class discussions, even if they ought to be paying close attention. I have no doubt it's annoying to professors.
12.1.2006 1:40pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
I've seen this from two sides -- first as a lecturer attempting to keep people's interest, and second as a student. I just got back from one of those weeklong Executive MBA modules that a lot of places have, and sat through a week of lectures of varying quality.

The bottom line to me is that the laptop provides a true test of the contract between the student and the teacher. As a student, particularly one who is taking time off from an executive position to get training, I consider my time valuable. I am, or my firm is, paying big bucks. My time is not best served when teachers manage to stuff 10 minutes of useful information into 50 minutes of lecture.

Sure, teachers deserve respect. So do students. The teacher agrees to provide useful information in a palatable manner. The student agrees to pay attention while the teacher is doing it. When the teacher fails, the students stop paying attention. I'll respect the teacher -- I won't demand my money back, I won't be disruptive, and when the teacher stars fulfilling his or her part of the bargain, I'll start paying rapt attention. Until then, I'll get work done. In contrast to the ineffective and inefficient teacher, at least I'm discreete. A student who fails to fulfill his or her part of the bargain but is disruptive is called a heckler. A teacher who fails to fulfill his or her part of the bargain but demands the attention of those he or she is failing is called tenured.

The problem is that the professors believe the students are obligated to keep their end of the bargain while they don't feel the need to reciprocate. So, they feel put upon when they see the result of their inattention to the craft of teaching. They are offended because the students do not recognize the entitlement they sense.

Most of the lectures I give are at seminars and workshops, where that contract is much more explicit. If I am teaching a bunch of physicians and notice that they are surreptitiously pecking away on their blackberries and reading email on their laptops, it doesn't mean that they are failing to give me the homage I deserve. It means I'm not teaching them they way I should. I'm wasting their money and their time, and they are letting me know. They pay *my* salary; I don't pay theirs.

Perhaps tenured professors should rethink their sense of entitlement. Rather than focus on what they are owed, they should focus on what they owe their students.
12.1.2006 3:27pm
srp (mail):
I teach MBAs and use the case method and the issue with laptops (which I allow) is not that they make me feel bad. The problem is that quality discussion in the classroom is a public good and laptop use definitely hinders production of that good.

Ideally, I shouldn't have to talk very much at all, just intervene at key points to reframe the issues or point out a technical approach or link to a concept from the readings. That ideal is reached rarely, primarily because many students prefer to free-ride even though I grade participation. The class discussion process is supposed to be an engine of mutual discovery for the students, where they test one another's ideas and ability to communicate. The person hurt by a student's inattentiveness and distraction isn't me--it's other students. If you think other students aren't well-prepared or cogent, it's your job to raise your hand and call them on it. Classes that behave that way will learn way, way more than passive classes that force me to be the devil's advocate and intellectual policeman.

Laptops are a small part of the problem, but they do contribute. The screen not only blocks eye contact with me, it prevents students from looking at each other and listening to one another. This occurs even if the device is used for taking notes. Handwritten notes don't have nearly that effect. (And don't kid yourself--anyone can tell if you're taking notes vs. surfing the web by the pattern of keystrokes, so it is as rude to engage in this activity on a laptop as it would be to read a newspaper.)

I simply treat laptop use as one of those unavoidable modern nuisances. At this point, lots of students can't even take notes by hand, having almost no experience with it. The bigger question is why are they taking notes stenographically instead of actively engaging in the discussion?
12.1.2006 5:01pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
Well, having just got back from one of those, what I noticed is that during the case studies and discussions, most folk weren't glued to their laptops. The peak laptop periods were during lectures and, God help me, some of those God-awful teaching videos some folk seem addicted to using.
12.1.2006 8:50pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I just finished my final semester of law school today. My online poker account is up to $247. I started with $20 at the beginning of the semester. However, I do remember hearing a Professor in Property II talk about how you must do 403 balancing or something like that...or was it Insurance Law...or maybe Evidence...I can't recall. I was too busy playing poker to bother with that stuff.
12.1.2006 9:33pm