Laptops in class

Laptops in law school classroom.In the Law School in Trinity, the proportion of my students using laptops in class has increased year by year, though they have not yet reached the levels attained in US law schools, where the vast majority of students have laptops in class. Whether this is too much of a good thing, however, is now a serious matter for debate: are benefits of the technology outweighed by the capacity for distraction (taking notes vs updating facebook)? The University of Chicago School of Law has turned off wireless internet access in class, Harvard Law School has considered banning laptops in class, various individual law professors have actually done so or negotiated them away, and there is even a law review article on the issue. Now, Law School Innovation reports on an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, headlined “Survey Gets Law-School Students’ Thoughts on Laptops, Writing, and Ethics” (sub req’d). Some extracts:

Law-school professors are fed up with students using laptop computers in class to surf to Facebook, eBay, everything but LexisNexis. And some have even banned the distracting machines. But results from a new survey show that an outright ban might not be such a good idea.

The 2008 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, released today, suggests that, when used wisely, laptops can actually enhance student engagement. The survey found that class-related laptop use correlates highly with reported gains in several areas, including critical and analytical thinking.

Students who used laptops for class-related activities, like reading case briefs or taking notes, were more likely than students using laptops during class for other purposes to be engaged in classroom discussions, synthesize concepts from different courses, and work hard to meet faculty expectations, the survey found …

I broadly agree with these findings. I’ve been on both sides of these laptops, and I’m going to break ranks and admit something to those students reading this blog: from the front of the class, I can often tell when someone is concentrating on the screen for reasons other than the class. For example, it’s pretty obvious if you’re furiously typing away while everyone else is doing nothing at all, studiously failing to answer a question I’ve just posed – gotcha! you’re drafting an email or updating a profile, aren’t you? Now, this is an extreme example, but there are lots of obvious examples short of that, and even if I don’t notice every non-classroom related usage, I do notice a lot of them. And in my class, you run the risk of having a few questions directed specifically to you just when you’re deepest into your online distraction. But I don’t see myself going any further and seeking to turn off the wifi or even ban the laptops. I think that the benefits of technology far, far outweigh the detriments. And, in any event, people who are bored in class will daydream even if they don’t surf.