Monday, August 21, 2017
Think Twice Before Banning Laptops: A Note on Accommodations and Diverse Thinking and Learning
I mentioned in last week’s blog about my inability to remain focused on our law school's voluntary pre-orientation program for incoming 1Ls due to events related Charlottesville. As I continue my efforts to remain focused, I’ll try to spend a few minutes talking about a topic that many of you likely discuss with your students, either during a similar orientation or pre-orientation program or in workshops or individual conferences: whether students should handwrite their notes or take them on a laptop.
The use of laptops in class rightfully generates much discussion on faculty and ASP mailing lists, particularly at the start of the semester. The discussion has even entered the Twitter realm (for example, here and here; H/T Prof. Ellie Margolis and Prof. Katherine Kelly).
I know there is a lot research and concerns out there relating to laptop use and taking notes. For instance: (1) students may often find it difficult to follow classroom dialogue while trying to type everything down that is discussed in class; and (2) there are potential distractions related to laptop use in class—both for the student doing something that he/she should not be doing on the laptop and for those students sitting near this student.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the research and concerns. I understand that laptops can create tempting distractions for our students. And I agree that we don’t want students “zoned out” from using laptops in our classes. But, we should also not want to “zone out” students who may need to use a laptop in class as a critical learning tool for them.
So, I want to caution folks before they decide to ban laptops entirely in the classroom. I want folks to remember that banning laptops may create a situation where students with an accommodation for a learning disability are forced to disclose that they have a learning disability. This forced disclosure may not be an issue for some students—they may not complain or make much of the ban, or they might not care that they are the only student in a 70+ class who has his/her laptop out in a no-laptop use classroom. So, a complete laptop ban may not be that much of an issue for some students. But, it could still be an issue.
If you are a strong proponent for absolutely no laptop use in class, perhaps your student affairs office might be able to not place students who have laptop use as an accommodation in your class. Of course, this recommendation may only work if you happen to teach a course that is also offered during the same semester by a faculty member who does not have a laptop ban.
Perhaps, someone like a student affairs or ASP professional may have a chat with those students who are disengaged in the classroom to see what may be contributing to the disengagement. Is it solely the laptop? Or, as those of us in the law school ASP world know, are there other academic or non-academic factors that may be impacting the student’s ability to “follow along in class”? Are the students distracted by a laptop disengaged because the laptop is in front of them? Or, is something happening outside of the classroom that may be motivating the student to disengage on the laptop? Could it be easier for a student who is having a challenging time in law school to disengage, rather than continuing to try and fail?
One more recommendation if you are a strong proponent for absolutely no laptop use in class: maybe, reconsider why you have the no laptop policy in the first place.
Do we assume that students who handwrite their notes never disengage? Or, can a student on a social media account be just as "zoned out" as someone daydreaming or drawing an elaborate doodle on his/her notebook paper?
Do we assume that someone who has a laptop will automatically be programmed to type everything down verbatim in class and, thus, not follow along in the classroom dialogue? Do we assume that someone who is handwriting his/her notes will not automatically try to write everything (or as much) down in class and, thus, will follow along in the classroom dialogue? I suspect we have had many students in our classrooms who prove and disprove both assumptions.
Do we assume that those students who are using a laptop are naturally worse note-takers—that they have not developed or cannot develop with guidance (from great ASP folks, like us!) effective methods for taking notes in a law school class? Do we assume that those students who handwrite their notes all have developed the proper method for effective and efficient ways to take notes in a law school class? Again, I suspect we have had many students in our classrooms who prove and disprove both assumptions.
And, finally, are we even aware of, or do we automatically discount, the various computer applications out there that might be geared for diverse learning styles or that might help keep our students’ notes better organized?
We often try to train our law students on flexible thinking—that there may often not just be a black or white answer to things in the law; that there, frustratingly, is often a large shade of gray in the law; that the answer to many questions in the law may often be “It depends.”
Perhaps, we can practice a little of what we preach. Just because we may not be able to take effective notes using a laptop in a law school classroom doesn’t mean our students are unable to take effective notes on a laptop in class. And just because we may not have needed a laptop to succeed in law school doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else could not succeed in law school by using one. Some students may actually need the laptop to help them succeed. And a “black" or "white" law might actually say that they are entitled to use a laptop in class. (OJ Salinas)