Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Laptops in class -- again!

The title to this post contains a link to an article in The Washington Post by David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown. He talks about banning laptops to achieve a more engaged class. His great innovation is to allow 2 students to use laptops to take notes to be shared with the entire class. He does not say whether the duty rotates, but that sounds like a good idea.

Faculty at my law school responded eagerly to an e-mail offering this brief article for discussion. They very much want the students to engage in an active dialog, and drop their role as takers of dictation. I remember vividly being a law student, and taking feverish notes (by hand in those days!). I feared missing key statements because I did not know what words were the important ones. Law was such a foreign territory, so full of Latin and old French and ancient history, that it seemed impossible in 1-L to figure out the key phrases, the points that would be either on the exam or (worse!) in my first case as a lawyer.

Yet, law school is all about the dialog between a professor and the students. The way law school is structured, the pedagogical theory underlying it, call for arguing and tugging at ideas like pit bull puppies with a rag. Above all else, law students must be present and engaged. Laptops interfere with this attention. Students are distracted by access to the world of the Web, IM, e-mail, e-bay, or even just by taking dictation instead of thinking about what the professor and colleagues are saying.

That said, I will never ban laptops from my advanced legal research class. In a funny way, students with laptops are more engaged in my class as they check the various resources, test the queries and methods discussed. I am sure there is web surfing and chat going on -- sometimes it's obvious. But I try to keep the class engaging enough that most of the multi-tasking students are involved in the discussion. Cole, in his article, wonders how real the powers of multi-tasking are -- if we are not just fooling ourselves about that. I am convinced that there are limits to excellent multi-tasking, so I agree with his skepticism. But for my purposes, the value of laptops for testing statements about resources outweighs the downside.

The image of a classroom of laptops is from Cornell law school. We who teach often look out at rows of laptop lids!

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