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.