David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, thinks laptops should be forbidden from classrooms. So he banned them from his first-year lectures. Then he wrote about it in the Washington Post. Pop over to Laptops vs Learning to read his reasons; they won’t be particularly surprising.
More unexpected were his students’ reactions.
About 80 percent [of students] 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.
Why did so many students like this deprivation? I suspect it is because there was less pressure to take notes. How can this be, you ask? It’s simple. Cole allowed two students to use laptops and takes notes for the class. I suspect most of the 30% who didn’t like the policy thought they would have written better notes – or didn’t like the idea of free-riders.
So here’s a problem. Should some students be deprived of preparing notes to their satisfaction for the sake of better classroom dialogue?
Before I answer that, here’s some background.
In my second year of law school, I bought a laptop. The spiffy iBook allowed me to work in the library and – wonder of wonders – take notes during lectures. I can type faster than I can write with a pen, and the results are more legible, so this was something I appreciated. At the end of the year, I was wishing I could type my exams.
Unlike many students, I only used the laptop as a glorified type-writer for note-taking. I did not use it for in-class diversions. Only a handful of times did I reference a website to check for information.
Lest you think I had amazing sets of class notes, I should point out I’m not a good note-taker. Being a thought-heavy kind of person, I tend to get involved in classes and forget to transcribe the professors’ lectures. This means I would have liked to use my laptop to make audio recordings of lectures, but the range of the on-board microphone was insufficient – and I suspect professors would have forbidden it.
My laptop didn’t get as much mileage in seminars. When students are evaluated using research papers, thorough records aren’t as important. A pen and pad of paper was usually sufficient to organize my thoughts.
This means that my attitude towards laptops in classrooms is rather complicated. By and large, I think they allow note-takers to record better, more legible notes. I also think Cole is spot-on that they detract from the classroom experience, and do not contribute much to the classroom learning experience.
The solution? Ban laptops, but make audio-visual recordings of every lecture. This podcast approach lets students participate in class without worrying they will miss an important point that will end up on the exam. If attendance is a concern, just subtract a grade from truant students – or remember the people who skip class aren’t usually the ones who improve class discussion.
(Hat tip to Slaw)
More follow-up: For those who worry about podcasts causing truancy, Adventures in Ethics and Science has an innovative approach to maintaining class attendance – give tuition rebates.