The Case FOR Banning Laptops in the Classroom

So what are the arguments for banning laptops? I believe there are some good ones and some good sounding ones, but I also think there are more subtle issues surfacing. I’ll come back to that.

1. Laptops are a high-definition distraction and students cannot resist looking and clicking if the screen is right in front of them.

I believe one faculty member even described laptops as heroin- so strong is the need to look at the screen and ignore the professor. This is quite a good argument, actually. If a parade of clowns was going by the windows of the classroom everyday, the instructor would pull the shades. If students brought televisions or radios or wore iPods into class, the instructor would insist that they be turned off. Isn’t the laptop a similar distraction?

2. Even if they are not a distraction to these digital native/millenial students, they are a distraction to the students around them who cannot avoid seeing what is on someone else’s screen.

This is a variation of (1), but it lays bare the fact that the classroom is a social space and not a collection of individuals. This is key. In a social space, you are expected to pay attention and track the conversation. If you fall asleep at the opera, few people will mind and it won’t affect their enjoyment of the performance. If you start to snore, you’ll get shushed or sharp elbows to remind you that you are in a social space. You cannot, however, shush a screen.

3. I cannot see the students’s faces when they are behind their laptops. It is harder to connect with the students.

I think this is a great argument for banning laptops because it communicates a desire to connect with the students. The problem is that from the student’s side of things, they don’t always see this effort to connect.

How much connection is needed to teach? How much connection is needed to learn? It’s really not something easily quantified, but I don’t think many people will disagree that it is important.

4. Students need to learn to listen and analyze without taking notes and especially without typing. As lawyers, they will be in many situations where they cannot have their laptop open and the classroom is a good place to start learning these listening skills.

This is a fairly week argument in my opinion. Students do need to learn listening skills, but I don’t think the classroom is a great laboratory for that. Listening to instructors in the classroom is not too similar to listening to clients or listening during to your boss.

Some of these are pretty strong arguments and they speak to the need for faculty to be able to control the educational environment and optimize it for learning. But students are too often unaware of what the instructor is doing – how they are teaching – and sometimes even what they are teaching.

"Hiding the ball" is a hoary old chestnut I hear pulled out all the time about legal education along with comparisons to Professor Kingsfield and the Paper Chase. That movie came out in 1973 – 24 years ago and a LOT has changed since then.

Faculty are in charge of their own classrooms, but like any position of authority, they have a responsibility to their students. Learning is work, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery.

I think the laptop issue is a proxy for the discontented relationship between faculty and students in many cases. It is also, therefor, an opportunity to explore a path to greater connectedness.

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