Banning Laptops in Class:

Georgetown law professor David Cole explains why he banned laptops from this class:

Some years back, our law school, like many around the country, wired its classrooms with Internet hookups. It's the way of the future, I was told. Now we are a wireless campus, and incoming students are required to have laptops. So my first-year students were a bit surprised when I announced at the first class this year that laptops were banned from my classroom.

I did this for two reasons, I explained. Note-taking on a laptop encourages verbatim transcription. The note-taker tends to go into stenographic mode and no longer processes information in a way that is conducive to the give and take of classroom discussion. Because taking notes the old-fashioned way, by hand, is so much slower, one actually has to listen, think and prioritize the most important themes.

In addition, laptops create temptation to surf the Web, check e-mail, shop for shoes or instant-message friends. That's not only distracting to the student who is checking Red Sox statistics but for all those who see him, and many others, doing something besides being involved in class. Together, the stenographic mode and Web surfing make for a much less engaged classroom, and that affects all students (not to mention me).

I don't think it is a big surprise that Professor Cole is pleased with the results. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that many of his students were too.

How does banning laptops work in practice? My own sense has been that my class is much more engaged than recent past classes. I'm biased, I know. So I conducted an anonymous survey of my students after about six weeks — by computer, of course.

The results were striking. About 80 percent reported that they are more engaged in class discussion when they are laptop-free. Seventy percent said that, on balance, they liked the no-laptop policy. And perhaps most surprising, 95 percent admitted that they use their laptops in class for "purposes other than taking notes, such as surfing the Web, checking e-mail, instant messaging and the like." Ninety-eight percent reported seeing fellow students do the same.

After wireless was installed in all of our classrooms, we adopted a classroom computer use policy at Case limiting laptop use to class-related activities. I share David's concern about laptop use, particularly the natural tendency to let transcription replace actual note-taking and the potential for one student's non-academic use to distract his or her classmates. I mention the policy at the start of every semester, but I generally trust my students not to abuse their laptop privileges, knowing full well that some students are surfing the web, or worse (particularly in the back). Nonetheless, I have been reluctant to ban laptops from my classes. Given Cole's experience, I might need to reconsider. [For my reconsideration, see the comments.]


UPDATE: Rick Garnett has thoughts at PrawfsBlawg here.

I find this dreadful!! is disconcerting for me to be lecturing and to see my law students typing away. I know some of them are cruising some nonsense. But I also know that when I'm engagign them, it stops. I just don't see legislating.

Also, I teach from powerpoints and web simultations. I teach unique aspects of land use &environmental law. I want my students hittin Google Earth. I've had some of my most exciting class times when a studnet gives an "Ah-Ha" from the back of the room because of some finding. As law profs, we need to be interactive.

Finally, as one of the protected-class of citizens, the illegibles, I never could have made it through law school 100 years ago if Apple hadn't made the first laptops for me to type my notes in Microsoft word in Outlining fashion. I needed it ...badly!! I can't take that away from others like me.

This is just a bad idea.
4.7.2007 9:08pm
sum budy (mail):
Banning laptops to encourage student participation is like killing the patient to cure the disease.

I'm a 3L. The "policy" conversations and socratic method which were interesting as a 1L just don't cut it anymore. Just give me the information I need to do well on your exam, and don't worry about whether I study by reading a transcript of class, quickly jotted notes, or by skipping class altogether and just reading the book. When I want a real chance to participate in a dialogue with the professor and my classmates, I'll take a seminar -- where 20 students are much more likely to be able to have an engaging give-and-take with each other and the professor than in a 150-student lecture, where perhaps 3-4 students each day may relish the opportunity to be grilled. Perhaps I should mention the number of times that a professor has spent 20 minutes answering the question from the one student out of 150 who can't wrap his mind around a point which is incredibly obvious to everybody else?

If you want students to be engaged in a lecture, then be engaging. I have had plenty of professors where every word out of their mouths was important, relevant, and interesting. I can guarantee that my mind did not stray in those classrooms. I have also been in classes where I realized quite quickly that 50% of each class was irrelevant to my interests and/or the exam.

Or, perhaps most importantly, why would you subjugate me to the torture of handwriting? I haven't taken handwritten notes in years. I find it physically painful to handwrite a paragraph. Why would you force me to do that?

Finally, students learn in different ways. Some prefer to make a transcript. Others take pinpoint notes. What difference does it make to the professor? And while it may be an ego-buster to see a student working on a crossword or checking e-mail, does it really matter at the end of the day? I mean, we're the ones paying $35k a year for the right to sit in your class.
4.7.2007 9:33pm
John (mail):
Banning laptops in blog commenting! All comments must be mailed in!

While there may be some classes where laptops perform a useful function, as Thinker suggests, the proof of the pudding is surely in the eating, and Prof. Cole says banning laptops tastes pretty good! (Sorry for the metaphor.)

One note--Thinker apparently used his Apple to organize his handwritten notes made in class without a computer. No one wants to deny students that.
4.7.2007 9:33pm
I've been in a laptop-banned class, and a laptop-allowed class.

Part of the disconnect is what law professors want, versus what they actually have. My impression is that most law professors would prefer if students were interested in the law for the sake of the law, and just couldn't get enough legal theory. Most law students are there for career opportunities, even (especially?) at the top schools.

If the good professor wants to deliver a dissertation on 17th century common law, he should feel free. If the students have good reason to believe it won't be on the exam (and it won't be), they have no particular incentive to pay attention. Banning laptops merely deals with the symptoms.

I don't have an effective counter to his anecdotal evidence w/r/t to the student surveys; perhaps he should see if the quality of the final exam he receives improves.

[As for the 'distraction' argument: I perceive that as mostly a red herring. Very few websites are so distracting that they command the attention of neighbors. If the students are smart enough to earn the right to be in your classroom, they're smart enough to look forward...]
4.7.2007 9:35pm
If my professors had done this, I would've just skipped class more often.
As sum budy said above, if you want 150 students to listen with rapt attention, say something interesting. In most classes, ninety percent of the lecture is irrelevant to doing well on the exam.
4.7.2007 9:44pm
RMCACE (mail):
Let market solve this problem. Ban laptops for the first two weeks of class. If the students are really learning better and taking more effective notes, they will want to keep without the laptop. Once the students are informed of the costs and benefits of each approach, they can make an informed decision.
4.7.2007 9:49pm
In the classroom where I lecture currently, my students are sitting at desk w/computers built in.

Makes all this irrelevant.
4.7.2007 10:02pm
Confession: In Tax class Thursday- I was watching Amen Corner on
4.7.2007 10:04pm
Funny. If a professor's lecture is so boring that nobody pays attention then the answer is to force them. Hmm, and here I thought the students were the ones paying the professors. Personally, I was one of the 3-4 students out of 60 who used a spiral notebook for notes. But I always was amused at the attitudes of law professors who somehow thought they didn't work for the students. Forced attendance is bad enough. Now I have to listen to some guy give the same lecture as last year, which, by the way, I already have the outline for?

I never understood why the profs didn't just email the entire semester's worth of notes to the class at the beginning, or maybe at the beginning of each chapter, then there might be a point to going to class.

Tell you what, prof, when you start coming up with new lectures year to year, people can stop checking their email. Until that time, why not let the customer do what she wants?
4.7.2007 10:10pm

A better test of whether students "liked the laptop policy" is whether they don't bring their laptops to other classes, where laptops are not banned.

Many theories can explain why students might favor the laptop policy when they are banned from using laptops. Eg: Basic principles of cognitive dissonance would suggest that students would modify their beliefs about laptops to comport with the rule (no laptops allowed) in the banned class.
4.7.2007 10:15pm
MikeTheActuary (www):
I'll offer this suggestion: Ban the laptops, but make an exception for tablet PC's.

While you would still have the risk of non-class-related computer use, you at least get past the disadvantage of computers being used in stenographic mode, while retaining the advantages of electronic note-taking.
4.7.2007 10:21pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

I did this for two reasons, I explained. Note-taking on a laptop encourages verbatim transcription. The note-taker tends to go into stenographic mode and no longer processes information in a way that is conducive to the give and take of classroom discussion. Because taking notes the old-fashioned way, by hand, is so much slower, one actually has to listen, think and prioritize the most important themes.

This seems kind of silly. I used to take meticulous notes w/o a laptop and since my writing is so bad, I printed everything. I tended to be far less engaged than the average law student because I spent so much time taking notes. Though, I did quite well, esp. in those classes where I paid the closest attention and took the most meticulous notes. Meticulous stenographic class notes, and not missing any classes, at least for me, could entirely substitute for class preparation.

The whole "processing" thing seems a bunch of psychobabble, not unlike law professors saying learning black letter law from outlines is "bad" because it prevents you from being able to "think like a lawyer," which is utter nonsense. The better notes you take the better you will learn the material (if you have a competent professor, of course, which most law profs are). You can learn how to "think" like a lawyer by listening to a good professor go over what she wants you to know from the cases and how she puts the cases together. Class preparation, and reading and briefing cases -- preparing for class -- at least for some students, is not necessary. If laptops help one take notes more effectively -- which they certainly do -- then taking them away will simply make the learning process less effective.

Where Cole may have a point is that wired laptops provide too much of a temptation for distraction, via emails, IM's, Myspace, and games.
4.7.2007 10:34pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
How do you think students coped with horribly boring lectures in the days before laptops? One might read the text for another class, or doodle, or when all else fails sleep. Back in the Pleistocene era when I took undergraduate chemistry almost everyone slept during the chem lectures. One day as I was exiting the lecture hall, I noticed one of the other professors who co-taught the class was asleep too. An urban legend has it that one professor actually fell asleep as he was giving his own lecture! If only we had had laptops with Internet hookups in those days, life in the lecture hall would have been more bearable.

Being able to give an engaging lecture is a real gift, and few professors have it. They don't even know enough to vary the pitch of their voices. Speaking in a monotone is the best way to induce sleep other than dimming the lights. Doing both is better than a sleeping pill, but not quite as good as C-SPAN.
4.7.2007 10:36pm
RMCACE: "Once the students are informed of the costs and benefits of each approach, THEY [emphasis mine] can make an informed decision."

Laptop policies are typically all or none within a particular class: Students who believe that laptops aid their learning are, in some sense, harmed by NO laptop policies. Students who believe that laptops cause distractions (which impair learning) are, in some sense, harmed by policies that allow laptops.

Are you arguing that individual students should decide whether or not "they" want to use laptops?

If so: Should a small group of laptop loving students be able to "harm" a larger group of students who are distracted by laptops (and whose learning is impaired)?
4.7.2007 10:36pm
sum budy (mail):
Here's another thought:

If paying attention in class is so important, start giving real credit (rather than "if you're on the border between two grades" type of credit) for class participation.
4.7.2007 10:49pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
God no, don't ban laptops. Let the goof-off students fail themselves.

I tell my students every semester that I don't care about attendance. They can listen to me lecture, read the textbook, talk to the genius down the hall, channel it from the stars.. whatever. All I care about is passing the exams. If they don't learn the material somewhere (and I'm a great resource, if I do say so myself) and they don't do the assigned homework (and then some on their own) they will not pass.

So the midterm comes up and guess what? Those who have huge gaps in their homework grades and who I haven't seen in class are easily a full standard deviation below the rest.

Your job is to present the law to your students as an academic subject, not to make them learn it. Your law students are adults and are responsible for their own decisions, for good or bad. If they refuse to make responsible decisions they are only burning their own money. And I say you should sit back and enjoy the fire.
4.7.2007 10:49pm
Cathy (mail) (www):
2 points:

One, that I did 5 out of 6 semesters with a laptop. I did one without. It's probably true that I paid a bit more attention during the handwriting semester, but when it came to studying for the final my chicken-scratches were useless. I had to get copies of notes from my friends - who'd typed them.

Secondly, particularly given how one's future career and earning power as a lawyer correlates to how one performed on their exams, a professor would have some nerve setting up roadblocks to prevent students from using the learning tools they need to succeed.
4.7.2007 10:54pm
Charley Foster (mail) (www):
I am of the class of '04, so a laptop was an explicit requirement at my law school. I sat near the back of the tiered classrooms in a couple of my classes and found it endlessly amusing that whenever the professor would begin to saunter up the steps along one side of the lecture hall, the solitaire games and movie videos on a good half the student's screens would zap closed. I recall once when the classmate sitting in front of me was called on, his solitaire game collapsed to the bottom of his computer screen and ROM Law jumped up to replace it. He successfully negotiated his grilling and when the professor moved on down went ROM Law and up came the interrupted game of solitaire.
4.7.2007 11:13pm
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
I generally agree that banning laptops in class is unnecessarily paternalistic. My largest concerns have always been that what one student is viewing could distract other students, and that students can IM answers to each other. If students fail to pay attention -- and I'm doing my job -- they are only harming themselves (and my experience has tended to bear this out -- those students with the worst attendance records consistently score the lowest on their exams). I also grade class participation -- and not just for those who are on the border between grades -- so if students completely tune out, that might impact their class participation grade (though if a student is able to multitask in class, without distracting others, more power to them).

4.7.2007 11:17pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
In my final semester of law school, I finally took a class where, (to my horror), the Professor - BU's Ken Simons - banned laptops. I don't think I've *ever* been more engaged in the discussion over the course of the entire semester, or learned so much without taking many notes.

During the break in the 2 hour class, I take out my laptop and check my email, which is enough to feed the addiction.

It helps that the class is a seminar with no final exam, i.e., my grade is in no way outline-dependent. I think banning laptops for big lecture classes is overly paternalistic. I have no problem with it in smaller classes.
4.7.2007 11:28pm
sum budy (mail):
Professor Adler -- I don't generally find what other students are doing distracting. Why do I care what they're doing? It's sound that distracts me, not sight. If I were distracted by the sight of another student playing a game or viewing a video, I would say something. Or perhaps, pick a better seat. But I don't think I've personally ever experienced that.

The one possible exception is Mike BUSL07 losing a pinball game in the middle of criminal law class. That was a distracting sight like none other.
4.7.2007 11:37pm
I like the laptops' distracting effect. Separates the wheat from the chaff - if people can't help but be distracted by the person playing Bejeweled in front of them, all the better for me if they miss something important coming out of the professor's mouth!
4.7.2007 11:37pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
sum budy - I did not "lose" pin ball games. It's just that sometimes I scored fewer points than others. Oh, and Shapiro gave me an A. :)
4.7.2007 11:41pm
Jake (Guest):
I was one of the few handwriters in my class (2006). It worked for me, but I wouldn't want to force it on everybody (just as I wouldn't want to be forced to use a laptop). I would think the better approach for reducing inappropriate laptop use would be (1) being interesting; (2) disabling the wireless internet; or (3) wandering around the classroom as you lecture.

For attendance problems see suggestion (1) above; or, you could always pull out a question like this one, from a computer science class I took long ago:
"Given the function zanzibar as defined in class, what will be the output from the computer code 'zanzibar(42, 4);'?"
4.7.2007 11:43pm
Thomas Alan (mail):
I seriously suggest that students stop taking notes altogether.

I learned early in my career as a student that my handwriting sucks. What's more, my handwriting gets worse if I write in a rush and it takes up a good deal of my mental reserves (a whole lot more than typing). So I started showing up to class naked (no notebook or book) and listened to the lecture without the stress of writing down key notes for later. My grades shot up and I got a ton more out of class. Not coincidentally, I also enjoyed going to class more.

In the years since I've begun this, things have gotten even easier since most professors use powerpoint now and just post the real notes on the internet.

As a side note, it's also an ego boost to get better grades than other people seemingly without trying.
4.7.2007 11:55pm
I heard a story of one professor requesting that the wireless hub in his classroom be turned off. Don't know if it is true, but it might be a good middle ground. One other issue is that many "elite" law schools let you take your notes into the final, and having the laptop with them already makes it easier to cut and pas I mean review them.
4.8.2007 12:08am
sum budy (mail):
Mike BUSL07 -- I must thank you for one of the funnier in-class moments of my 1L year.

Shapiro gave you an A? I'm impressed. I didn't get an actual A (as opposed to A-) on anything until my second year. I'm also not so fond of 3-hour timed exams that are issue-spotters with word limits. If you give me a word limit, you're going to either get a well-organized essay that deals with a few issues, or you're going to get me to show you that I know how to resolve every issue you placed on the exam, not both. Jacobson's "show me everything you can see" exams with no word limit are better that way.
4.8.2007 12:16am
Thomas Alan (mail):
BTW, those who are saying the professors should just give up and let the poor students fail are missing the point of what it is to be a teacher. A teacher's goal should always be to maximize their pupil's learning even if the student themself is one a roadblock.
4.8.2007 12:19am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I love the new technology, and use it heavily. But if you think you're going to be going clickety-clack in the middle of a jury trial, or an appellate argument, you've got another think coming. That goes for playing solitaire, too. As far as the teacher forcing learning upon goof-offs ... what will happen to them when they get out in the real world, and have no one there to maximize their learning, save an opponent who will maximize it by giving them a good pounding?
4.8.2007 12:41am
RMCACE (mail):

I am a 3L. I have used a laptop for every class for notes. I am not a transcriber, but I am a fan of the Masters, March Madness, and have an MLB season pass. I am the king of distractions. Even with them I learn better with the laptop.

That being said, many students have nver even considered the pluses and minuses of laptop use. There is a "market failure" in terms of available information to students on laptop vs. handwriting. Make sure the students try both, and let them decide what helps them learn best. Since they are competing against each other, they will choose whatever gives them an advantage.
4.8.2007 12:53am
Thomas Alan (mail):
As far as the teacher forcing learning upon goof-offs ... what will happen to them when they get out in the real world, and have no one there to maximize their learning

They'll be goof-offs with a little more knowledge and understanding of the law.

Those that mature will. Those that won't will blame the teacher anyway for being too boring or hard or whatever. When have you ever seen a goof-off that took responsibility for their own failures? The teacher's job remains to educate their students.
4.8.2007 12:58am
Sarah (mail) (www):
My Russian classes were like unto a "no laptops allowed" class, because, well, the only people in the class who knew how to type in Russian didn't own laptops. It was a pain, and I studied twice as much (and missed easy vocabulary-based test questions anyway) because I don't write fast enough to have caught every little thing that was said. I probably spent ten hours online looking for ways of getting a cheap word processor that could handle Cyrillic, that last academic term.

If you're willing to stipulate that nothing said in class will be unique (that is, it'll all repeat stuff they're assigned to read on their own) OR will, alternatively, not be in any way on the exam, then sure, do whatever you want to your students (bearing in mind what they're likely to say about you on RateMyProfessors.Com). But if your classes are the primary method of communicating information that needs to be recalled later, banning laptops is just being cruel to those without great memories. Especially to the ones who don't have enough time to go find a quiet place to sit and type out all the stuff you just said, before going off to another class.

Besides, it's easier to goof off and zone out to the point of being completely lost when you're limited to a pen and paper -- when you've got a computer up, you can do five or six things at once and not lose track (and can avoid the panicked "flipping through papers madly" effect) of your "this is what's going on now" notes. The only thing I've ever seen banned in any classroom I'm in, beside food and drinks, was newspapers. And unlike the food and drink bans, that one was actually enforced by expulsion from the classroom.

Dave Hardy: in my experience, there's either a stenographer or a microphone or a video camera in court, so most people don't need to take notes -- and the attorneys rarely look like they're paying much attention to what's going on.
4.8.2007 1:12am
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
sum budy - Jacobson was awesome - I miss him. I still have that file with his best quotes that was going around.
4.8.2007 1:23am
Legal Duckling:
The best way to eliminate inappropriate computer use is to limit class size. It's pretty obvious who is playing solitaire or web surfing when there are only 20 people in a small classroom. Especially when the prof has arranged the desks in a horse shoe shape so that everyone is looking at each other.
4.8.2007 1:30am
Some years back, our law firm, like many around the country, wired its offices with Internet hookups. It's the way of the future, I was told. So my first-year associates were a bit surprised when I announced at the first orientation this year that laptops were banned from my office....
4.8.2007 1:36am
Brian G (mail) (www):
I just finished law school in December (and found out I passed the bar this week) and made a sweet chunk of change playing online poker during class.
4.8.2007 1:41am
Cornellian (mail):
I hope that Georgetown makes this policy clear to all incoming students so that they can make an informed decision about whether to prioritize a law school that treats students like children for the sake of the professor's ego. Professor Cole might do well to remember those students he condescends to are the ones paying the bills.

I am a good typist, I take notes much better on a laptop than with handwriting. I don't transcribe and I don't appreciate some clueless prof insisting otherwise, I know how I work. If any prof in a class I was taking in law school tried to ban laptops, I'd drop the course the same day.
4.8.2007 1:49am
Empass (mail):
Professor Cole's first reason is paternalistic and his second is equally served by disabling internet access.
4.8.2007 2:09am
Cornellian (mail):
And to amplify on my "ego" point, Cole's article says allowing laptops makes for a "much less engaged classroom." Why exactly, is that a problem? I'm sure it makes Prof. Cole feel better to think that his students are paying attention and "engaged." However, as any 2L or 3L student can tell you, being "engaged" in class has absolutely nothing to do with getting a good grade. Quite often the best grades go to those who sit near the back and don't say a word all semester. The main priority for law students, sometimes the only priority, is their grade. If they think they'll do better taking notes on a laptop, they should be free to do so, notwithstanding that it might be difficult for Prof. Cole to accept that the "engaged" students aren't learning any more than the rest of the students, and probably aren't even going to end up with the top grades.
4.8.2007 2:11am
Thomas Alan (mail):

However, as any 2L or 3L student can tell you, being "engaged" in class has absolutely nothing to do with getting a good grade. Quite often the best grades go to those who sit near the back and don't say a word all semester.

So active learning has no bearing on performance in law school. Interesting.
4.8.2007 2:29am
I was one of the very few notetakers in my year. I would say that as a group we did better than average. Some of the laptop people did very well, too, but more did worse.

As a rule though, the laptop versus handwriting choice seems to be up to the individual student. If an laptop user is harming himself by being distracted or mindlessly typing down every last word, the consequences are his to bear. That is not to say that the only thing that matters to a student is grades -- Cornellian obviously has never tried to get a professor to write his clerkship recommendation (or, at least, doesn't know what the professor wrote). But, at least to a libertarian, there are very few reasons to deprive the individual of his choice on the matter.

There is the externality that a laptop user who is disengaged lowers the overall quality of the classroom discussion for everyone else. But overall I think this effect is very slight.
4.8.2007 2:39am
Hattio (mail):
I have to say that my first year we had a Torts professor who could have been bottled as a sleeping pill. And didn't really know how to explain anything very well. I didn't have a laptop and so took handwritten notes. But one enterprising student set up chat room so folks could ask questions and kick around concepts without getting the professor down some endless sidetrail. I often asked what the chat room consensus was on some issue at the end of class.
4.8.2007 2:44am
Cornellian (mail):
So active learning has no bearing on performance in law school. Interesting.

Paying attention in class definitely helps one's grades, but participating in class does not. Law school exams are largely about paying careful attention to what a prof says is important, then looking for those themes in the fact pattern the prof gives you on the exam. Putting up your hand in class does nothing to help your exam performance and, if anything, might make it worse. However, class participation makes a prof feel good so they consider it very important. I don't blame them for that, if I was a prof I'd feel better about teaching if I thought my students were paying attention. However, given a choice between making the prof feel better and doing well on an exam, well that's a no brainer for me.
4.8.2007 3:19am
From 2L above: [As for the 'distraction' argument: I perceive that as mostly a red herring. Very few websites are so distracting that they command the attention of neighbors. If the students are smart enough to earn the right to be in your classroom, they're smart enough to look forward...]

As one of the few who chooses to take notes on paper, this is absolutely false. Perhaps it's less noticeable when you have your own 18 inch screen in front of you, but the Drudge Report screams across the room, as do celebrity gossip sites. It's also hard not to feel annoyed when a student studying PGA golf in steaming video demands to hear a question again.

Laptops don't distract themselves though, the internet does. Blocking that would be an ideal solution in my view, and I think more students would consider leaving it home if they didn't have the ability to IM classmates, ect.
4.8.2007 3:20am
Espen (mail) (www):
If your students surf the web rather than listen to you, you don't have a laptop problem.
4.8.2007 3:43am
Where do textbooks fit into all of this? Should we ban textbooks from classrooms? After all you could be reading the textbook instead of paying attention to the professor. Is it more important to pay attention to the professor or the textbook?

Even if you are doing your job maybe there is something structurally wrong with the way the incentives and disincentives of class and exams are set up. I hardly think laptops are the most pressing problem with law school classes. The only reason laptops occupy any room at all in the professorial mind is because when they look out on the room from their position at the podium, law school professors see a sea of laptops, and when they listen they hear the clicking of keyboards.
4.8.2007 8:45am
Tom Tildrum:
One key point that Cole doesn't mention is how his students did on his exam. At the end of the laptop-free semester, were they more prepared for the exam questions or less?
4.8.2007 10:08am
David Maquera (mail) (www):
I have lousy handwriting and never could read my own notes, which is why I enjoyed using a laptop in law school. As for internet surfing, my law school in 2000-2003 didn't have internet access in the classrooms so really the only distraction for a law student would have been a pre-loaded game of solitaire (which is boring). I agree with a previous poster, David Cole does sound paternalistic (and perhaps a bit insecure).
4.8.2007 10:44am
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
"Paying attention in class definitely helps one's grades, but participating in class does not."

Cornellian, for a lot of folks, including myself, participating in class is a means to pay more attention in class. At least that much is true, aside from the question of whether participating has any independent learning value.

Speaking of which, it's been my experience that while occasionally someone comes out of the blue to get an A+, the vast majority of good grades go to students who sit up front and don't shy away from raising their hands.

I still think banning laptops in large classes is misguided, but not because it fails to improve learning.
4.8.2007 11:30am
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
Additionally, I do think that the professor is the master of the classroom. If he wants to ban laptops, so be it. If it proves a spectacularly unpopular move, his enrollment will plummet. Basically, this is something that the market can work out, (assuming no across-the-board collaboration by profs).
4.8.2007 11:32am
Peter Wimsey:
What a bunch of whiners. If Cole wants to ban laptops, let him ban laptops. IME, a laptop-using student who does well on an exam will do equally well if he takes notes by hand - the individual words the prof says are just not individually that valuable.
4.8.2007 11:32am
Recovering Law Grad (mail):
Whether wireless should continue in the classroom was an issue constantly discussed at my law school. And every time it was raised, several students would cry out with arguments about paternalism and, more frequently, with counter-arguments to those put forward by the anti-Internet crowd. But, counter-arguments were the only arguments I've heard from the pro-Internet group; there was never any affirmative reasons as to why it was a good thing. I still haven't heard these arguments. Why is this a good thing? What is the pedagogical reason?
4.8.2007 11:36am
Josh Adams (mail) (www):
I recently graduated undergraduate school and i have to say that a policy like this would have been devastating to me. I used FreeMind to map related concepts together, and just take extremely detailed notes in general. These were invaluable to me. Notes by hand didn't allow me to group concepts that were talked about at different times except by developing cryptic systems that no one but me could use, and that I couldn't save for posterity because I wouldn't remember grouping symbols in ten years.
4.8.2007 11:51am
On The Way...:
If schools disable internet use in a classroom they should structure the limitation such that access to Westlaw and Lexis are still available. Restatements and the UCC get HEAVY in hardcopy, especially when combined with a casebook!
4.8.2007 12:23pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I think that RLG has a good point. It really isn't the laptops, per se, that cause the major problems, but rather, that they are hooked to the Internet.

Now, I will admit that there are a certain percentage of us who are addicted to computer games. My father's choice is Solitaire. Mine is FreeCell, with Minesweeper as an alternate. Other members in my family have different obsessions. But I chalk it up to some sort of genetic predisposition. And these games seem to quickly bore most people.

If I were in law school (again), I would probably not use a computer to take notes. Rather, for me, it is the physically writing the notes that is important to my remembering things. I discovered in HS that I work best by taking written notes, and then rarely looking at them later. Indeed, my penmanship is so bad that they are often almost unreadable. And this proved true for me through as an undergraduate, as well as in engineering, business, and law graduate schools.

On the other hand, I also would not be that distracted by the other students surfing the Internet, etc. I was one of those students whom the other students hated in law school - I sat in the front row and participated as much as I could. It kept me awake, helped me learn the law, and kept me from having to talk about cases that I had not read (profs almost never pick those who volunteer in class a lot when they need victims). And when I was confronted about it by a group of other students, I pointed out that I was paying for it, and if they weren't getting their money's worth, like I was, it was their own fault for not participating.

Final note - don't buy HP laptops. HP has had a laptop I purchased for a student for almost a month now, and has been contacted by one of us probably every other day. This is the third time it has gone in w/i 7 months of purchase, and we keep getting promises that it will be expedited, prioritized, etc. In the last three months, they have had it more than we have. I first used HP computers 35 years ago, and have been a fan of their products ever since, currently owning three calculators, three printers, three computers, and a scanner of theirs. No more.
4.8.2007 12:36pm
Sarah wrote:

Dave Hardy: in my experience, there's either a stenographer or a microphone or a video camera in court, so most people don't need to take notes -- and the attorneys rarely look like they're paying much attention to what's going on.

That approach works if you are only concerned about writing post-trial proposed findings or cross-examining a longwinded, multi-day witness, but the transcript won't be ready until the next day at the earliest in most cases. Even if you have a realtime feed (and most trials don't), you still have to go back and find the testimony on-screen when you need it. Judges don't necessarily have the patience to accomodate that. It's really a lot easier and better to listen and write down the parts that will be useful in cross, so you can just stand up and do it when the time comes, so taking notes by hand in class really does have real-world applications.
4.8.2007 12:45pm
Keep laptops, ban law school as a requirement for taking the bar exam. Law school is not needed by students, it's just a business. Let people take bar exam prep courses in preparation for a drastically raised passing score on bar exams. Anyone who passes such an exam with a very high pass score, would be akin to a graduate of a top 20.

It'll NEVER happen.
4.8.2007 1:03pm
just one point (mail):
An early commenter said, Or, perhaps most importantly, why would you subjugate me to the torture of handwriting? I haven't taken handwritten notes in years. I find it physically painful to handwrite a paragraph. Why would you force me to do that?

As a recent graduate, I will say there is one good reason: the bar exam. I don't know how many states allow computer usage for the bar, but most do not. And if you haven't been doing any handwriting for 3 years (or more), it is quite a culture shock to 1) begin preparing for the bar, 2) realize you have no choice but to write out the answers, and 3) not be able to read your own handwriting.

I realize this is a peculiar reason to insist on handwriting, but it's not a minor one either. If you aren't keeping your print or cursive up to some kind of standard, don't be surprised if the graders of your essays can't understand your answers.

My 1L Contracts professor had a very unique exam style, which I didn't understand at the time (including no computers allowed on the exam, although he allowed them for class). Later I learned that it was a mirror of the Bar exam. In retrospect, I appreciate his prescience.
4.8.2007 1:19pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I find it ironic that this is happening in famously liberal law schools (I'm not totally sure about Georgetown but I'm assuming). Even though liberal law profs are willing to rant and rave in favor of laws like the ADA they apparently believe in doing exactly the opposite. Not everyone learns the same way. Some of us find it crazy difficult to stay awake in class (10 hours of sleep and caffeine pills don't do it I need to read/talk/be stimulated). Being able to use laptops in class is a godsend as I can use the laptop to keep awake but it doesn't steal all of my attention the way a book might. I usually learn more by reading than lecture so knowing I would just fall asleep without the laptop I probably just wouldn't go but then I might miss things the professor says that aren't in the book.

Different people simply have different ways of learning. Some students probably learn better by having transcripts (tho just get them from a student note taking service if possible) and studying them latter. It isn't the professors role to tell me how I should learn as long as I'm not distracting the other students.

Now I agree that laptops often distract the person using them but my sense from various classes I've been in is that they aren't particularly distracting for the students sitting next to them. But even if the are there is a simple solution for this problem create a laptop free zone. Make all the students who want to use laptops sit in the back of class (where the people who are going to browse the web usually do) or on the left side of the classroom. This business about needing to protect the non-laptop using students is just a cover for the real point of trying to force the students to learn the way the professor likes or look attentive.

Things like banning laptops in class reveal a fundamental lack of understanding by the professor that not everyone learns the same way and he is probably screwing some people over. Of course the students who find they can't learn in this environment probably drop so he doesn't get to hear from them. Not to mention the misunderstanding that the students aren't being paid to learn but rather he is being paid to lecture. Unfortunately I'm the only TA in my department that I know of who takes this attitude.
4.8.2007 1:23pm
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
I agree with many commentators that wireless is more of a problem than laptops themselves. Unfortunately, disabling wireless in an individual classroom during class is not always an option.

At Case, the university decided to install open-access wireless throughout the entire campus. I chaired the committee that oversaw installation in the law school, and we sought a mechanism that would enable professors to disable internet access in classrooms during class if they so chose. The university was opposed, and since they were footing the bill, we did not put up too much of a fight. The benefits of wireless generally, including enabling students to conduct research and access legal materials anywhere in the school, including the library, ourdoor courtyards, student organization offices, and nearby coffeeshops, are just too great.

As I noted, my initial inclination has always been to let students do what they want. I ask students to be conscientious of their classmates, but I generally trust them to act responsibly.

If I could disable wireless during my large ConLaw class, I might (though I would not in my environmental law class, because it facilitates real-time research and interactive learning). Absent that ability, however, I remain inclined to allow laptops in class. David's article caused me to reflect on this choice, and I appreciate his perspective and the comments posted to date.

4.8.2007 1:53pm
As others have mentioned, the best part about laptops for me is the ability to read my own notes. Especially in classes where there is a lot to take down, I scribble pages of notes and then cannot read them an hour later, let alone when it comes to exam preparation time. Having a laptop has made me a better test taker because I can actually spend time reading my notes, not deciphering them.
4.8.2007 2:03pm
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
I agree that type-written notes or an outline is useful during an exam, but this does not require having a laptop in class. I took hand-written notes in class, and then used them to make an outline when I prepared for the exam. In my experience, the process of turning my hand-written notes into an outline was tremendously beneficial in processing and synthesizing the material. This can be done on computer, but I know many students are tempted to take the shortcut of cutting-and-pasting from their class notes, and I don't believe this provides the same benefit.

4.8.2007 2:15pm

Laptops don't distract themselves though, the internet does. Blocking that would be an ideal solution in my view, and I think more students would consider leaving it home if they didn't have the ability to IM classmates, ect.

Interesting point. Concerning Internet where I am assigned, traffic is shaped. There is no access to Napster, Grokster, eDonkey, Kazaa Gnutella, etc. Why? They're crawling with virii, worms etc. Students know this when coming on campus - and there is still a large assortment of porn, chat, gambling. Facebook, mySpace to keep a student "busy", if that is their choice.

Really the problem is noise. I can't stand laptops, because I don't like the feeling that an army of crickets are coming to attack. Technology innovators really need to make I/O systems that are quiet and acknowledge that notes are often taken in meetings, etc, where said notetaking can be distracting when done using laptops.
4.8.2007 2:17pm

As a 3L who, admittedly, sometimes trolls the internet during class and knows many others--some who do and some who do not--I can tell you with confidence that you do NOT have to worry about it affecting others around that student. Although worries about class room attention and discussion are without doubt valid, a student on the internet or IM simply does not bother those around him or her, unless perhaps it's a small 10 person class. If not, and the class is larger, there are many things counseling against it affecting those around him or her--it's impossible to see the person's directly in front of you, behind you, or more than one seat to the left or right of you.

Thus, the only distraction would stem from someone on the internet to the left and right of that student. And, with much experience on this and knowing others with the same experience, I can say that it simply does not bother me. First, if I noticed someone on the internet I wouldn't think twice. Second, it's near-impossible to read the computer screen of the person next to you from your position, although you could perhaps make out images or large type. Third, and perhaps most significantly, most students tend to not look (or try not to look) at others' computers for fear of seeming as if they're copying their notes.

That's just my quick take on the matter. Also, I've been on IM in class as well, and it's unquestionably too difficult (mostly because of timing issues) to IM answers to another student (beyond the fact that it's simply not worth the trouble).
4.8.2007 2:35pm
jvarisco (www):
Surely the proper remedy for inadequate note-taking and listening is reduced grades? The way to keep attention is to be interesting, not ban laptops. Is he going to kick out doodlers too?

What is Georgetown ranked? Low enough that students need to be taught study skills?
4.8.2007 2:46pm
If you're so distracted by somebody reading the Drudge Report on a laptop screen, to the point that you have trouble following the lecture, you have deeper problems than other people's laptop use.
4.8.2007 3:33pm
Reinhold (mail):
Professor Adler,

You give a class participation grade? Why? What about students who think you have more to offer them than they have to offer the class, so they just absorb the information rather than imposing their opinions on everyone else?
4.8.2007 3:39pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
jvarisco - are you suggesting that grades should be reduced for inadequate note taking and inadequate LISTENING? Really? I'm not sure where to start with that...
4.8.2007 3:40pm
jvarisco (www):
Mike) Only if such things result in poor performance. If you don't take notes and fail the exams, then you suffer. If you don't need to take notes and ace the exams, good for you.

Of course, if it is not necessary to take notes, perhaps the class difficulty needs to be reconsidered?
4.8.2007 4:36pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

In my experience, the process of turning my hand-written notes into an outline was tremendously beneficial in processing and synthesizing the material.

Ditto for me. I found this far more important than preparing for class.
4.8.2007 4:38pm
I have to say, the kvetching by young law students about the HORROR of being forced to write notes on paper borders on the farcical.
4.8.2007 6:16pm
Harvard Educated, Class of 1901:
I have to say, the kvetching by young law students about the HORROR of being forced to write notes on paper borders on the farcical.

Yeah. And in my classroom, I've banned ballpoint pens because it's too likely to cause doodling. They can use an inkwell, just like I did.
4.8.2007 7:05pm
I must say, as a non-lawyer, my reaction to the many careerists who have a strong sense of entitlement to a career in law w/o any engagement with law makes me want to confine most of the lot of you to traffic court, simultaneously opening up that rent-seeking profession to everyone who, say, completes a notary class. I also now know the roots of attitudes that I found most unpleasant when dealing with dumb lawyers who had nothing to recommend themselves but a credential.
4.8.2007 8:36pm
Dave N (mail):
I feel VERY old, graduating from law school in 1991. In my day I took copious notes longhand and then typed them on my computer at home as part of finals prep.

But now that I teach (though not at a law school), I can see both the plus and minuses of laptop use--and I think overall the pluses outweigh the minuses.

On a related note, when I first graduated from law school and got my first job as an attorney, I asked my new boss about computers. He said that he provided his attorneys with dictating equipment because, he asked, if attorneys had computers, what would the legal secretaries do?
4.8.2007 9:58pm
Reinhold (mail):
I suppose we should still dictate to legal secretaries so we don't read the Conspiracy while writing briefs, eh? For whatever reason, law professors are obsessed with being paternalistic with law students . . .
4.8.2007 10:37pm
Irfan Khawaja:
Cole's arguments are weak.

On the question of information processing, he ignores the following obvious possibility: what if a student takes notes of a verbatim transcript variety, then sits at home and distills those notes in a "proper information processing" fashion on his own time? That was the method I used for several classes in grad school.

In fact, what Cole is demanding is superhuman: process everything that the professor is saying, missing nothing, then simultaneously figure out what part of what was just said was "essential." Do this while focusing on what's currently being said... and do it while you're figuring out what was previously said. That's not a demand for rigor or attention, it's a demand for the cognitively impossible.

As for distractions, there are multiple methods of being distracted and distracting others. There's no way to ban them all. There are, on the other hand, lots of ways of proscribing legitimate activities while claiming to ferret out the illicit.

This is pedagogical paternalism at its worst. As a non-laywer, it reminds me of the mentality that proscribes note-taking by jurors in the jury box. Judges can take notes. Lawyers can. Reporters can. Stenographers can. But jurors can't--their needs are dispensable.

There's nothing in the universe so absurd but a lawyer hasn't thought of it, and forced it on everyone else.
4.8.2007 10:48pm
zforce (mail):
You know, I've seen laptops actually help class participation. If someone isn't understanding something, they can IM a friend in the class and be like "Do you have any idea what he is talking about?" If your friend explains it to you, great. If not, you can ask the teacher knowing at least two people don't understand what he is saying and you're not just being stupid. :)

It is also useful to be able look up topics on wikipedia and what not.
4.9.2007 12:32am
Duffy Pratt (mail):

In fact, what Cole is demanding is superhuman:

Ridiculous. Generations of students accomplished what you are calling superhuman.

I went through the last three years of college, 3 more of grad school, and another 3 of law school without jotting down a single note. (It became clear that I would have to do this when I could no longer read even my block printing after about 30 minutes.) How did I accomplish this "superhuman" task? I listened.

I'm not insisting that what I did is for everyone, or even that its the best method. Just that it is possible to do without having your grades suffer. If I were in law school now, I'd probably like to have a laptop in class, but I think I would prefer it if I simply had the screen off, and touch typed the notes.
4.9.2007 5:50am
James Dillon (mail):
I was one of the relatively few people in my law school class ('03) who never used a laptop in class, either to take notes or to write exams, and I believe that it really helped my performance. I was able to listen more attentively to what the professor was saying, to participate in class discussion, and I avoided the distractions of solitaire and Web surfing to which a great number of my classmates succumbed. I even once saw someone watching a DVD in class.

Having said that, the fact that not using a laptop helped my performance in law school doesn't necessarily mean that laptops should be banned; as other comments have pointed out, it's a question of how paternalistic the professor wants to be in enforcing what he perceives as good study habits on the students. Personally I was glad to see so many other students using (and abusing) laptops in class, because it gave me a competitive advantage when finals rolled around.
4.9.2007 10:39am
'05 Grad:
I'm a fairly recent law school graduate ('05), and I found my laptop very helpful in the larger classes. I tend to take something close to verbatim notes in certain sections of a class, even if I have to write by hand. Using a laptop makes this easier, which minimizes the chance of missing something and also leaves me with more energy to participate in other sections of the class.

Not all sections of a class are equally note-worthy, of course, and learning how to tell the difference is part of the learning process. But there are times when important cases or regulations are coming thick and fast, and stenographic skills really matter.

That said, I didn't find my laptop anywhere near as useful in seminar-style classes. And I didn't have wireless capability until my final year, so I don't think that is essential. (The school had wireless, but I had an old computer because I'm cheap.)

As for class participation, by which I mean talking in class rather than just absorbing information and thinking deeply about it, it's a mixed thing.

1) It does help students stay awake.
2) Some students do use too much air time and annoy the other students.
3) It's hell on the hard-of-hearing (a growing population, what with all the iPods) if the actual course content, rather than just application of the rules, is developed by people located all over a large lecture hall.
4) Some professors discourage participation by people who don't agree with the professor's politics, and they won't get volunteers after a while.
5) Some people don't read if they know they won't be called on.
6) It doesn't fit everyone's learning style.
4.9.2007 11:48am
Irfan Khawaja:
Duffy Pratt tells us that he did well but took no notes, hence I am wrong to say that David Cole's recommendation is impossible. Sorry, but I don't buy it. Either your (a) instruction proceeded at an abysmally low level, or (b) what you were learning was ridiculously easy, or (c) what was covered in class was a regurgitation of what was covered in the text. But, having taught at the university level for 13 years, I stand by my claim: given a certain level of complexity in the material, there is no way to process information AND judge what is essential to the information that's been presented WHILE the lecture is going on. Take his recommendation literally and try it: I guarantee that it won't work, unless you have very low standards for what counts as "working."

It's not just that the task is impossible. Add to that the pathetic inadequacy of most university- and law-school instruction--the incoherence of the lecture, the tangents, the digressions, the confusions, the pseudo-Socratic method--it becomes obvious that Cole's recommendation is yet more unreasonable. What is the student to do in the class where the professor's lecture is so unstructured that the professor *himself* couldn't identify the essential elements of the lecture? In a case like that, a verbatim transcript brings the deficiency out better than anything (but a tape recording) could.

I realize that many brave souls will venture forth to say-- in the "I-walked-to-school-barefoot-in-the-snow-uphills both-ways" spirit--that THEY did without laptops and did well in school, so why can't today's callow youth follow suit? Sorry: not credible. The fact is, I've seen 13 years' worth of non-laptop-notes at seven institutions and sat in on law school instruction and seen the "handwritten note-taking" there. Sorry to burst any bubbles here, but most so-called "handwritten note-taking" is crap, totally tangential to the learning process, and incapable of passing even a minimal laugh test as a method of condensing information. Anything that could remedy that situation is to be welcomed, and laptops are one of those things.

Even if you happen to be the Goethe-level genius who can get through law school etc without notes, perhaps you could show some magnanimity to the non-geniuses who can't do what you supposedly can. Such mortals are more than inconvenienced and disadvantaged by Cole's suggestion, so the fact remains that it's a bad one.
4.9.2007 3:30pm
I was class of '00 for undergrad and class of '03 for law school. During undergrad, I did not use a laptop and took all my notes by hand. During law school, I had a laptop in every class and an internet connection in most of them. My experience:

In undergrad, I spent most of my time doodling, writing letters (I had a friend on a long overseas trip who adored getting regular long letters), or writing short stories. I would have one piece of paper on top for jotting down actual notes to the class if something important came up. And in between writing, I would put my pen down and say something in class when I had something to say.

In law school, I spent most of my time checking my email, chatting, or surfing the internet in assorted ways. I had one Word document open for class notes -- actually my notes from when I did the reading before class, where I would correct or intersperse lecture notes. In between, I would speak up in class if I was called on or had something to say.

Incidentally, in the classes I didn't have Internet access, I still used my laptop. I would have one document open for notes and would have other windows open to write short stories or play solitaire.

So although when I think about my law school experience in a vacuum, I think it was bad to have the laptop there, when I started comparing it to my previous note-taking experience, it really wasn't that different. Granted, I got more involved in most of my undergrad classes, but they were much smaller and I was more interested in the subjects. I don't think the laptop made all that much of a difference, Internet or no internet. If a professor is engaging, the class will be engaged no matter what method they're using to take notes.

Incidentally, to respond to an earlier comment about no "click clacking" in jury trials, I'm a prosecutor and our entire trial division was equipped with laptops within the past few years. They're invaluable in trial for doing quick Westlaw searches, emailing questions to your investigator or the appellate section, or doing Powerpoint presentations for evidence, voir dire, and argument. Judges also use them to modify the jury charge with issues that arise as the trial progresses. I've never spoken to a juror yet that has found them distracting, although I'll grant that the attorneys usually aren't typing on them constantly throughout the trial.
4.9.2007 5:59pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):

Duffy Pratt tells us that he did well but took no notes, hence I am wrong to say that David Cole's recommendation is impossible. Sorry, but I don't buy it. Either your (a) instruction proceeded at an abysmally low level, or (b) what you were learning was ridiculously easy, or (c) what was covered in class was a regurgitation of what was covered in the text.

Well, let's see. I graduated from Yale College with a B.A. in Philosophy, concentrating in logic and mathematical philosophy. Then, I attended Columbia University school of the arts where I studied film criticism, and then screenwriting and directing. Then back to Yale for law.

Which of these places do you think taught at an abysmally low level? Do you think, e.g. Cantor's Theorem and Godel's Proofs of Completeness and Incompleteness are "ridiculously easy." How about the construction of Turing Machines. Or Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Of course, my class on Kant's Critigue of Pure Reason was just a straightforward regurgitation of what was covered in the text.

Or maybe you think that studying the practical implications of Bazin's mise en scene ideas, and how these jibe with Eisenstein's view of montage, from the study of storyboards that people are presenting for their projects is just simple low level stuff.

Naturally, the Yale Law courses like Goldstein and Marshall's Limits of Law, or the Deutsch classes in Law and Insanity (otherwise known as Corporations), or Koh's International Business Transactions, or Amar and Marshall's Advanced Federal Courts were all cakewalks, and you could get everything out of them from the textbooks (if they had textbooks, which only Koh's class did).

So naturally, from what you said, I am either lying about not taking notes, or I flunked out. Or maybe what you are saying is just ridiculous. I did it. I'm not any kind of genius or superman. It's not as hard as you think, and certainly is not impossible. Do I really have to also say what my grades were?
4.9.2007 7:25pm