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Monday, April 09, 2007 

Laptops in the Classroom

A column by Georgetown Law Prof. David Cole has gotten a lot of attention on law blogs lately. Volokh, PrawfsBlawg, Concurring Opinions, and others have all chimed in about this topic: laptops in the law school classroom.

Prof. Cole banned laptops in his classroom. He had two reasons for instituting this policy...
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).
This is a pretty touchy issue among law students and, apparently, some law professors. The vast majority of my fellow students use laptops in class. Even though I own a laptop, I'm not one of the in-class users. I have a few reasons for this. First, it's easier for me to take notes by hand. It's easier for me to scribble something out and jot additional notes in the margins than it is for me to manipulate Word at note-taking speed. Second, I spend enough time staring at computer screens enough as it is. Adding a few more hours a day of computer screen staring isn't going to do my eyes any favors. Third and finally, I just like handwriting my notes. I'm used to it. It's comfortable for me. However, I recognize that I'm in the minority. Most of my classmates are pro-laptop. They take better notes by typing into a word processing program.

Prof. Cole has good points. The one that stands out to me is the distraction point. It's hard to not be distracted by other students using the internet, playing solitaire, or IMing people. It's not that I'm incredibly interested in what's currently the hot topic on PerezHilton.com or anything. When websites load, IMs pop up, screens change, or whatever, it draws one's attention. It's reflexive. Even if you put on blinders to kill your peripheral vision, you still have to deal with all the laptops in front of you. Of course, there are always distractions in any classroom. I don't think it's fair to focus on laptops as the one great evil.

I'm not sure I agree with Cole's point about handwriting forcing a student to think critically and process information. That might work for some people, but it might not work for everyone. In fact, I think it's a safe bet that it doesn't. Some people just take better notes using a computer. That's the best way for them to process information. I say let them. I'll suffer through being occasionally distracted while they update their MySpace profile.

Computers crash. Pen/pencil and paper do not.

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