Here's a message I sent out to my students a few weeks before the start of class about this. When the semester is done, I'll ask my students to fill out an anonymous survey, and I'll report both on that and on my personal conclusions. I don't know what the result will be (though I have my hopes and my guesses), but that's why it's an experiment.
I'm very much looking forward to our class this Fall. As you know, law school classes — much more so than most large undergraduate classes — rely on class participation. I don't grade students' in-class comments, chiefly because I'm a big believer in fully anonymous grading. But I would like to see more and better class participation, because it helps both the participant and the other students learn, and because it makes the class more interesting for the students (and for me).
Because of this, this semester we'll be conducting an experiment: The rule will be
(1) no laptops in class — that's no laptops, not just no Internet access — but
(2) one student per day will take notes [on a laptop,] which will then be circulated to the entire class.
Several law professors at other schools, including some I know well and trust, have conducted such an experiment, and report that they have gotten great results. Class discussion, they say, is much better. Students are less distracted, both by things on their own laptops and on their neighbors'. Students don't feel pressured to take verbatim notes (since that's very hard to do in longhand on notepads), and instead focus on identifying the important points and tying them together. Students are therefore listening more actively, and are more ready to discuss things and answer questions.
Also, most of the other professors report, anonymous surveys at the end of the semester show that most students like this system more than the normal laptops-OK rule. (The few exceptions report that students are on balance indifferent to this new system.) So it sounds like a win-win, which is why I decided to try it here as well.
After the semester is over, I will ask you folks to anonymously report back on the results; you will then also be able to compare your in-class experience in this course with your in-class experience in the other courses, which to the best of my knowledge aren't conducting this experiment. While obviously the different subject matters might be a confounding factor, I think that on balance the survey will likely yield useful information. Armed with it, I'll know whether to keep on this track in future classes, or to switch back to the laptops-OK rule. And my colleagues might be able to take advantage of the results as well.
In any case, I wanted to give you some advanced warning, so that when class starts next Wednesday (August 20), you'll
(1) know what will happen,
(2) know that you need to bring a notepad and a pen (I found the four-color pens to be especially useful when I was a student), and
(3) know that you could leave your laptops in your lockers and save some back strain.
I'd also like volunteers to take notes for that class and the classes the following week; I'll soon have a more formal system set up for that. A special bonus for the volunteer notetaker: You won't get called on that day or the following class day. So please e-mail me if you'd like to volunteer. I in turn will e-mail all of you the syllabus in a couple of days.
Again, looking forward to seeing all of you next week,