Laptops in the Classroom

During the semester now nearing its end, I conducted an experiment in which I strongly discouraged my first-semester first-year civil procedure students from using laptops, for reasons largely captured in Sherry Colb's FindLaw column published in early September. I reproduce the text of my policy at the end of this post. I'm going to query my students about their reaction to the policy in the anonymous course evaluations they'll shortly fill out, and I'll report on the results when I have them in January. I've been pleased by the level of attention and my sense so far is that while students were initially skeptical, they adjusted. On a typical day, the number of students using laptops is 0 or 1 (out of a class of 27).

For now, I thought I'd just add an anecdote. Mostly through carelessness, I neglected to discourage laptop use in my seminar this semester, even though there is even less need for taking detailed notes in a seminar than in a doctrinal course. Thus, about half the students brought their laptops, which have sometimes proved an attractive nuisance. For example, yesterday, in discussing a student paper, the following two questions arose: 1) How many cities in the United States have populations greater than the state of Wyoming? 2) Is the percentage of the population of Utah that is Mormon larger or smaller than the percentage of the population of Rhode Island that is Catholic? Answering these questions was in no way urgent, and the second question turns out to be trickier to answer than one might think because of flaws in the way the data are collected. Nonetheless, while the discussion about other points continued, tacitly encouraged by me, at least 3 of the 16 students in the seminar busily used their laptops to track down answers, paying at best modest attention to the discussion.

Here's the policy I included in my civil procedure syllabus, which others are free to borrow:

Use of Laptop Computers and Other Electronic Devices

Nearly all of you come to law school accustomed to taking notes on laptop computers. I strongly urge you to try to break the habit. A raised screen creates a barrier between you and the class. It encourages you to take verbatim notes rather than listening and writing down the most important material. And it will impede your ability to undertake an extremely useful exercise at the end of the semester: the distillation of your handwritten notes, case notes and other materials into a succinct outline; students with notes taken originally by computer will be tempted simply to treat those notes as an outline. Generations of students (including mine) succeeded in law school without laptop computers, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they were better able to give their undivided attention to class. Moreover, you will find that in many professional contexts—client meetings, strategy sessions with colleagues, depositions, etc.—you will be able to take notes, if at all, only by hand. You would do well to grow comfortable doing so now.

Nonetheless, I do not prohibit laptop use in my classroom. If you decide you do wish to use a laptop computer to take notes, please note that this is the only purpose for which you may use it in class. You may not use your computer to surf the web, check email, IM your classmate the answer to a question I’ve asked, or any other such purpose (except on those rare occasions when you need to look up web-based material relevant to the course, such as a statutory provision). This prohibition applies equally to use of Blackberries, Treos, mobile phones, and other handheld devices. Unless you are expecting genuine emergency news, turn off such devices before coming to class. I will not specifically police this prohibition, but if I notice someone using a laptop or other device for a forbidden purpose, he or she will lose the use of the laptop for the duration of class that day; repeat offenders will lose the use of the laptop in class for the duration of the semester.