The National Pulse

Profs Kibosh Students’ Laptops

More law schools are banning them as a distraction—or worse

Posted Nov 1, 2007 3:44 PM CDT
By Jill Schachner Chanen

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When first-year students show up for Suffolk Uni­ver­sity Law School professor Kate Nace Day’s constitutional law class this winter, they may be in for a surprise. Day has decided to ban what has become a staple of modern-day pedagogy and student life: laptops.

On sabbatical last year, Day had a chance to think about the problems laptops pose in the classroom, particularly for women, so she decided to take a stand. Day says students complained they were dis­tracted and in some cases upset when other stu­dents viewed obscene videos or sent harassing text messages.

The tiered seating arrangement of most law school lecture rooms allows students to easily see what others are doing. “Laptops are pedagogical nuisances,” she says.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

Day is stepping into the debate over the promise of technology as a pedagogical tool—a promise that many say is unfulfilled. As a result, law schools are re-evaluating their decisions to force technology on students through laptop requirements and wireless networks.

Only 15 years ago, law schools began experimenting with computers in the classroom. For many, including Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Ronald Staudt, computers held great potential that education could be enhanced by pulling up cases in class or learning through online sources.

“The idea in my mind was to engage students in using these learning tools in an active learning process in the classroom,” says Staudt, associate vice president for law, business and technology.

Instead, many law school professors say that laptops have turned students into mere stenographers, in addition to allowing them to watch porn or gamble online.

For Chicago-Kent, which was the leader in computer-assisted learning in the early 1990s, “it would just be a very awkward thing for this institution to say we are rejecting students’ rights to use tools that we pioneered.”

The number of faculty members banning laptops at Duke University School of Law prompted a reversal of its laptop requirement, according to Richard A. Danner, senior associate dean for information services.

Duke allows faculty to control the use of laptops in class, Danner says. But so many profs had some ban on laptops that students began to question why the machines were required. “That affected our discussion,” he says, and it was one of the reasons the school dropped the requirement.

“It is so hard to control,” Danner says. “And that then leads to faculty saying, since we can’t control that and since we can’t control [the students] to behave, you can’t use your computer at all.”

Students see their own upsides and downsides. Christopher Sprowls, a student at Stetson Uni­ver­sity College of Law, says his property professor banned laptops because students spent too much time scrolling through their notes when asked to respond to questions or present cases.

Without laptops, students were more engaged, says Sprowls. But because they are so used to working on laptops, the ban created more work—such as retyping notes into their computers and running to the library to print out the notes to prepare for class.

Ohio State University law professor Douglas A. Berman isn’t bothered by what his students do in class. If students want to play poker or watch porn during class, so be it, he says, though he knows his opinion is out of the mainstream.

“I have students who don’t come to class. I have students who are paying attention and say dumb things. But so be it,” Berman says.

Berman’s only concern is when one student’s behavior distracts another’s learning experience. It is a lesson he learned all too well when sitting in on a colleague’s evidence lecture during the March NCAA basketball tournament.

“I noticed a student’s laptop with the basketball scores on the screen,” he says. “I got distracted looking at the scores.”

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