Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Laptops in the Classroom: An Unhelpful Distraction?

I know this suggestion is fraught with difficulties, but I think it is worth considering:  maybe law professors should restrict or ban the use of laptops, particularly in large classes. In talking with struggling students, I have found a couple of common problems that are probably widely shared by many other students.

The first is the one we all know about.  Students are surfing the Internet, answering emails, instant messaging, etc.  They grew up multitasking with technology and think it works.  A recent empirical study, however, showed that multitasking significantly interferes with the long-term ability to apply information that was obtained during the multitasking.  They are hamstringing the very skill they will need for success on exams and for learning to apply the law in effective ways.

The second problem is that students who are not surfing, etc., are too often acting like stenographers, typing continuously everything they hear in class.  They are passively and indiscriminately recording a load of information, much of which will not be useful to them.  I have recommended to several that they close their laptops and begin taking notes by hand.  They come back and tell me that they are forced to discriminate among ideas and that they are significantly more intellectually engaged in the discussion.

Another nasty piece of this is that law schools are finding that students are using their computers to attack other students during class by spreading messages simultaneously to all the students ridiculing answers, attacking individuals’ intelligence or character, etc.  It is bad enough when someone does that to a student on a particular day, but what schools are finding is that some students are routinely targeted by a handful of other students.  It was so bad at one school that the dean wrote an article about it, warning other schools that the practice is more rampant than we realize.

Finally, I hear complaints from students about how distracting it is to have nearby students surfing the Internet, etc.  It can be tough to pay close attention when a screen three feet in front of them is flashing websites and videos.  How many of us could conduct class while trying to look past a screen full of moving images?  No wonder some of our students seem surprisingly distracted and disengaged.

I know that restricting students’ use of technology in the classroom is controversial; but many students are hurting themselves; and, worse, many are interfering with others’ learning.  At the very least, we need to figure out how to stop the abuses.  That’s a tough thing to do from the front of a room with sixty students and dozens of laptops.(dbw)

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