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Experiment with a No-Laptop Policy for Class:

Here's a message I sent out to my students a few weeks before the start of class about this. When the semester is done, I'll ask my students to fill out an anonymous survey, and I'll report both on that and on my personal conclusions. I don't know what the result will be (though I have my hopes and my guesses), but that's why it's an experiment.

Dear [Students]:

I'm very much looking forward to our class this Fall. As you know, law school classes — much more so than most large undergraduate classes — rely on class participation. I don't grade students' in-class comments, chiefly because I'm a big believer in fully anonymous grading. But I would like to see more and better class participation, because it helps both the participant and the other students learn, and because it makes the class more interesting for the students (and for me).

Because of this, this semester we'll be conducting an experiment: The rule will be

(1) no laptops in class — that's no laptops, not just no Internet access — but

(2) one student per day will take notes [on a laptop,] which will then be circulated to the entire class.

Several law professors at other schools, including some I know well and trust, have conducted such an experiment, and report that they have gotten great results. Class discussion, they say, is much better. Students are less distracted, both by things on their own laptops and on their neighbors'. Students don't feel pressured to take verbatim notes (since that's very hard to do in longhand on notepads), and instead focus on identifying the important points and tying them together. Students are therefore listening more actively, and are more ready to discuss things and answer questions.

Also, most of the other professors report, anonymous surveys at the end of the semester show that most students like this system more than the normal laptops-OK rule. (The few exceptions report that students are on balance indifferent to this new system.) So it sounds like a win-win, which is why I decided to try it here as well.

After the semester is over, I will ask you folks to anonymously report back on the results; you will then also be able to compare your in-class experience in this course with your in-class experience in the other courses, which to the best of my knowledge aren't conducting this experiment. While obviously the different subject matters might be a confounding factor, I think that on balance the survey will likely yield useful information. Armed with it, I'll know whether to keep on this track in future classes, or to switch back to the laptops-OK rule. And my colleagues might be able to take advantage of the results as well.

In any case, I wanted to give you some advanced warning, so that when class starts next Wednesday (August 20), you'll

(1) know what will happen,

(2) know that you need to bring a notepad and a pen (I found the four-color pens to be especially useful when I was a student), and

(3) know that you could leave your laptops in your lockers and save some back strain.

I'd also like volunteers to take notes for that class and the classes the following week; I'll soon have a more formal system set up for that. A special bonus for the volunteer notetaker: You won't get called on that day or the following class day. So please e-mail me if you'd like to volunteer. I in turn will e-mail all of you the syllabus in a couple of days.

Again, looking forward to seeing all of you next week,

Eugene

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Class Discussion:
  2. Libertarianism and Actions Within Institutions:
  3. Experiment with a No-Laptop Policy for Class:
152 Comments
Libertarianism and Actions Within Institutions:

I've often seen people -- usually not libertarians -- argue that some supposedly "authoritarian" or "collectivist" action within some institution is inconsistent with true libertarian principles. Doug Berman's comments about my experiment with banning laptops are one example, but I've seen many, in many contexts.

I generally find those arguments quite unpersuasive. Libertarianism -- even a relatively mild presumptive libertarianism such as the one to which I adhere -- is a philosophy related to the proper limits on government power, especially the government's power when acting as sovereign. It tells us little about the right course of action for nongovernmental actors, or for actors within institutions (such as workplaces, universities, and the like) that happen to be run by the government.

Consider, for instance, dress codes or other appearance regulations. Libertarians, even squishy ones, would surely condemn laws banning baggy pants or nose piercings (with the possible exception of some minimal nudity bans). But they would insist on the right of private institutions -- restaurants, workplaces, schools, and the like -- to impose such regulations on their patrons, workers, or students. And my sense is that most libertarians wouldn't even have much of an ethical view about whether such institutions should impose such regulations. Some might think the regulations reflect a pointless obsession with appearances, or unduly restrict people's self-expression. Others might think the regulations are quite reasonable; but in any case, there's no inherent libertarian view on such regulations.

What about such dress or appearance regulations in government-run institutions, such as government workplaces, government-run schools, and the like? Some libertarians might be more troubled by such rules, because the government is involved in enacting them. But my sense is that many might find them to be just fine, if there's good reason to think that the rules improve the efficiency of the institution. The government as employer is not the same to libertarians as the government as sovereign. (K-12 schools are more complex, since there is some government coercion there, but even there my sense is that many libertarians would find dress codes permissible.)

More broadly, many libertarians are happy to participate -- and run -- institutions that are "collectivist" (from families to religious communities) and "authoritarian" (such as traditional workplaces that are not run on democratic lines, or hierarchical churches). It's true that some libertarians might not like most such institutions, but most are just fine with them. Again, there's no inherent libertarian view on the subject.

Now there might be situations where for reasons either of constitutional law, professional ethics, or perceived efficiency (especially efficiency in the use of government money, something that to libertarians might have an ethical dimension), libertarians may oppose certain kinds of restrictions even when the government as sovereign is not involved. Campus speech codes are an example: Many (though not all) libertarians may oppose them even at many private schools, on the theory that such speech codes undermine the atmosphere of freedom needed for effective teaching and research. But that stems from a certain view about what works well in a university, and a view about what university life ought to be like, and not from general libertarian principles. And still more libertarians likely think that speech codes at public universities are unconstitutional, but that probably has to do with their sense of the First Amendment at universities, and not from broader libertarian reasoning that would be applicable to speech at all institutions -- for instance, I imagine that many libertarians are just fine with at least certain kinds of civility rules in most workplaces, including government-run ones.

So if someone wants to argue that some policy in some institution -- especially a government-operation institution -- is unsound, or should be seen as unsound under libertarian principles, that's just fine. But saying that it's "authoritarian" or "collectivist" and libertarians should therefore presumptively oppose it strikes me as not much of an argument.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Class Discussion:
  2. Libertarianism and Actions Within Institutions:
  3. Experiment with a No-Laptop Policy for Class:
40 Comments
Class Discussion:

Some commenters on the thread about no-laptop policies in law schools (and the related thread on libertarianism and actions within institutions) asked: Why not rely on each student's own judgment about whether laptops are too distracting to them? Shouldn't we assume that our adult students generally know best what's best for themselves?

It's an interesting question (a question of ethics and good sense rather than of rights-based constraints on government power) to what extent universities and law schools should be paternalistic to the students who have chosen to attend. A simple example: Many professors require students to hand in a rough draft of a seminar paper at a particular date, rather than just handing in a final draft. (If the student is late with the rough draft, they may get penalized, and in any event the student understandably thinks that the professor's rule is a demand and not just a request.) The main reason for this is to help discipline the student into getting a rough draft in early, so that the student can profit from the professor's comments, and so the student will produce a better paper and learn more about the subject and about writing in the process. Is that improper, because it's unduly paternalistic? Should I stress to students that the rough draft deadlines are optional, and that if they don't want to hand in a rough draft, that's likely to be a mistake but it's entirely up to them? I'm not sure, but I think the right answer isn't obvious.

But in this post I want to focus on something else: The role of class discussion in legal education. I want to argue that students — though they of course pay lots of money to us — are not just customers of legal education, but are also in a sense a sort of employee: Law school classes rely on students' participating in the class, as a means of helping educate the other students. Learning, the theory goes, is a cooperative endeavor, in which students benefit from hearing each other's comments.

This is most obvious in seminars, classes that are usually of twelve or fewer students, in which most of the discussion involves students discussing the materials, or each other's papers. Naturally, the discussion is guided by the professor, but the point is for the students to learn by having a conversation. That's the format for seminars in most subjects, I think, and certainly for law school seminars.

Because of this, both attendance and discussion are required in seminars. If you don't show up, your grade might be reduced; likewise if you don't talk in class. If the professor calls on you, passing is not an option. (In some large classes, professors offer a no-hassle pass option, but if you pass in a seminar, the professor may well publicly reprimand you, and might penalize you more formally if you keep doing this.) The reason isn't paternalistic concern for the particular student. Rather, it's that the student's job is to participate, in order to create the class discussion that is supposed to be the mechanism through which all the students learn.

Likewise, some seminars involve students commenting on each other's rough drafts or on each other's presentations of their works in progress. This means that students must hand in rough drafts on time, or else they won't be available as subjects for discussion, and for the other students to practice their editing skills and their constructive criticism skills. (This is why I don't need to decide whether a mandatory rough draft policy is improperly paternalistic when the students just hand in the rough drafts to me: The seminar I teach is heavily organized around students' commenting on each other's work product, so punctual submission of rough drafts and other stages of a paper is necessary for the benefit of the other students, and not just of the submitting students.)

Most law school classes are between seminars and lectures: The professor talks more than he does in a seminar, and class discussion is less important than in a seminar, but class discussion still takes up a large part of the time, and the professor's conversations with the students — and sometimes students' conservations with each other — are an important pedagogical tool. Some question whether it's an effective tool; perhaps we'd be better off lecturing more and drawing the students in less. But most of our classes do heavily rely (rightly or wrongly) on this tool.

This means that whether students are paying attention in class affects not just themselves, but their classmates. Students who tune out, either because they're distracted by non-class materials, or because they are so focused on taking verbatim notes that they aren't really mentally engaging the information, aren't doing the job they're supposed to do. (Again, I recognize that they're not being directly paid for the job, but rather have to pay us; but part of the educational transaction is that they get an education and a credential in exchange for money and class participation.) When fewer students participate in class, other students get less out of the class discussion. When a student is called on and doesn't give a good answer, other students get less out of the class discussion (especially since time is wasted, and the conversation is interrupted).

In my view, the main impetus for the non-laptop policies has not been paternalism towards students who choose to tune out. That may have been part of some professors' concern, but it wasn't the deciding factor for me, and I suspect it wasn't the deciding factor for most other professors who have experimented with these policies. Rather, the concern is about the impact of laptops on others — both (1) the distraction to other students when someone is surfing the Web or (even if Internet access is turned off) is playing solitaire, and, probably more importantly, (2) the perceived decrease in class discussion stemming from laptop use, and the hoped-for increase in the number of participants and the quality of participation when people stop using the laptops.

Now I'm not sure whether class discussion improves as a result of no-laptop policies. I've heard favorable reports from others, but the reason I'm calling this an experiment is precisely because I don't know for sure whether the results will be positive (though I've heard enough to suggest that the results are unlikely to be highly negative). But I don't think they can be faulted — whether on libertarian reasons or others — simply on the grounds that they are paternalistic towards the students, in the sense of stopping each student from doing something because we think that behavior is bad for that particular student. Rather, we're trying to improve class discussion, a discussion through which each student's participation benefits the other students as well as the participant.

That's a familiar policy, as I've said, for seminars, where attendance and participation rules are commonplace. And I think it's also an ethically permissible policy for larger classes that generally rely at least in part on student discussion, and not just on lecturing.

181 Comments