Banning Laptops in Class:

Georgetown law professor David Cole explains why he banned laptops from this class:

Some years back, our law school, like many around the country, wired its classrooms with Internet hookups. It's the way of the future, I was told. Now we are a wireless campus, and incoming students are required to have laptops. So my first-year students were a bit surprised when I announced at the first class this year that laptops were banned from my classroom.

I did this for two reasons, I explained. 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).

I don't think it is a big surprise that Professor Cole is pleased with the results. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that many of his students were too.

How does banning laptops work in practice? My own sense has been that my class is much more engaged than recent past classes. I'm biased, I know. So I conducted an anonymous survey of my students after about six weeks — by computer, of course.

The results were striking. About 80 percent reported that they are more engaged in class discussion when they are laptop-free. Seventy percent said that, on balance, they liked the no-laptop policy. And perhaps most surprising, 95 percent admitted that they use their laptops in class for "purposes other than taking notes, such as surfing the Web, checking e-mail, instant messaging and the like." Ninety-eight percent reported seeing fellow students do the same.

After wireless was installed in all of our classrooms, we adopted a classroom computer use policy at Case limiting laptop use to class-related activities. I share David's concern about laptop use, particularly the natural tendency to let transcription replace actual note-taking and the potential for one student's non-academic use to distract his or her classmates. I mention the policy at the start of every semester, but I generally trust my students not to abuse their laptop privileges, knowing full well that some students are surfing the web, or worse (particularly in the back). Nonetheless, I have been reluctant to ban laptops from my classes. Given Cole's experience, I might need to reconsider. [For my reconsideration, see the comments.]


UPDATE: Rick Garnett has thoughts at PrawfsBlawg here.