Paul L. Caron

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ayers Applauds Chicago's Ban on Laptops in the Classroom

I previously blogged Dean Saul Levmore's decision to pull Internet access out of the University of Chicago's law school classrooms (as well as Doonesbury's great take on the issue).  Ian Ayres (Yale), who launched the anti-laptops in the classroom movement in 2001 with his New York Times op-ed, applauds Chicago's laptop ban on Freakonomics:

In praising Levmore, I should be clear that there is no good a priori argument against multitasking. The case is at best an empirically-informed hunch about what is the best way to teach. I see some power to a parentalism argument that teachers should ban surfing because it impedes students’ ability to learn.

Law students are adults who generally can decide for themselves what is in their best interest — but I still don’t think it would be a good idea to have beer or magazines available in class. As someone who has played way too much Minesweeper in my day, I think some activities are just a bit too tempting.

Still, I’m worried that my own weakness is leading me to take away the rights of others. My sainted father brought me up short when, after reading my original oped, he said, “I thought you were a liberal?”

The “negative externalities” of surfing provide a stronger basis for switching the default:

The laptop screen is a billboard that is very visible to other students sitting behind the gamer. Surfing and game playing in particular can be very distracting — both visually and in the signal they send to others that you don’t care about class. Multitasking also makes students less present as participants in class discussion. Surfing doesn’t stop students from taking notes, but it degrades the quality of their attention. ...

In recent years, I’ve tried to balance student liberty with my negative externality concern by allowing surfing, but only in the back row of class. In the back row, at least, it isn’t a visual distraction. And I view these back-benchers as virtually a step away from non-attendance.

But what’s still missing is basic information on how much surfing is going on. (Levmore claims, “Every teacher underestimates the amount of Internet surfing going on,” in his or her classroom.) The content of the laptop screen is visible to the class, but remains a mystery to the professoriate. I still hear colleagues tell me that surfing is not a problem in their class because they walk around the room.

In a world where alt -tab quickly shifts between windows, it is a fantasy to think that walking around is a sufficient deterrent. ...

But even here, students push back that the implicit contract was also that professors would not teach badly. Some students see surfing as a medication to reduce the annoyance of poor pedagogy. Indeed, some clever students have even argued that surfing has a positive externality — Ayres and Levitt and Wolfers will have better incentives to teach well if they have to compete for students’ attention.

(Hat Tip: Brian Leiter.)

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Hmmm. The practice of law at one time was considered to require a disciplined mind.

Posted by: Jake | May 17, 2008 5:05:38 PM

I can see where a laptop with internet connection could be a distraction. However, there were several classes in school when I wished I had a laptop so that I wasn't just sitting there trying to look interested. (A particularly boring history class comes to mind where, by the end of the semester, I only knew how the instructor liked his vodka and the he enjoyed watching the beautiful "fish" walking down the shores of Lake Erie.)
On the other hand, I did have a laptop with a link to a friend's laptop (thanks Apple!) during a graduate-level cost accounting class. We were able to share information and send each other notes while in class. Very useful, since the instructor just *ran* through the lecture every time.
I think it's important to remember that there can be a valid use of a laptop in the classroom and it can be a useful tool for education. Just because the student is typing or paying more attention to what's on the screen than the class lecture, it doesn't mean that the student is goofing off.

Posted by: Carrie | May 17, 2008 9:51:13 AM

I guess I am just old. When I went to law school, not only did I have to walk through the snow uphill, both ways, but the etiquette was if you used a laptop in class you were being rude (it was noisy and distracting). Everyone, not just the prof, looked at you. Everyone knew who the 2 or 3 "annoying" clickers were (clickety clack went their laptops). Al Gore had not yet invented the world wide web, so the internet was still a unix based operating world--which made chat rooms inconvenient --and email had to be accessed via a dial up modem.

In my day, when we were rude we read the NYT, WSJ, or some other newspaper--the actual, hold in your hand, paper version. I saw people doing the crossword--no Sudoku back then--in class.

So I think it is not an issue of rudeness or lack of attention--as that is not dependent on the technology. Perhaps the differences are (1) laptop "abuse" is more disruptive to other students (they can look over and watch you play a game, read your email, or watch the you tube video too), and (2) taking notes on a laptop is somehow different than writing notes which somehow affects the learning process.


Posted by: Adjunct Law Prof. | May 17, 2008 6:31:08 AM

Come now, minesweeper (actually Age of Empires) was my test for attendance in law school
If I got to the point that I was playing AoE, it was time for me to stop attending classes and just learn on my own using the usual flashcards & outline methods.
Of course, I found the class room discussions banal or openly political (or worse just black letter wrong without being corrected).
By the time you have hit 2L, you should be fully capable of learning on your own.

Posted by: BorisTheBear | May 16, 2008 12:41:48 PM