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October 30, 2007

Laptops Headed Back Out?

By Austin Rice-Stitt

Students in Adam Pritchard’s Civil Procedure class better hope that their laptops come to life quickly, because the online quiz has started and they’ve got less than a minute to lock in their answers. Prof. Pritchard, the tech-savy, pony-tailed securities guru, does not adhere to the Michigan Law policy of blocking internet access during class; rather, he uses the internet to give quizzes that determine a quarter of each student’s final grade. But while Prof. Pritchard has embraced in-class computering, other professors are heading in a different direction by banning completely the use of laptops during class.

Mark West’s 28-member Japanese Law class is laptop-free. Prof. West, who dresses a lot better than you do, finds that laptops “contain lots of little diversions and distractions that take away attention from class.” But Prof. West is even more concerned that laptop-wielding students “tend to type things that I say verbatim. They don’t process the material in their brains; the words just go straight to their fingers.” Old-fashioned note-taking is preferable, according to Prof. West, because “writing is a slower process” that “forces [students] to choose what matters.” While he does not think that laptops are bad in every class and that there are “great ways to integrate them into the classroom,” for most of what he teaches “laptops do more harm than good.”
This is the first time that Prof. West has banned laptops in his Japanese Law class, and he says that he will have a better idea about the effectiveness of the new policy after he sees how students do on the exam. But he likes the way it’s going: “. . . so far, I think students are a bit more engaged; they don’t have that screen to hide behind.”

Ellen Katz, voting rights aficionado and keeper of many fishes, also cites students hiding behind screens as part of the impetus for her ban on laptops in her 30-member Local Government Law class. “If I call on a student using a laptop, the student is far more likely to look down and to scroll through an outline than simply to think about the question and respond directly to it,” says Prof. Katz. “Some of my colleagues have told me about students who announce they are unable to answer questions because their laptops are ‘off.’”

Prof. Katz does designate two students as each day’s laptop note-takers, and those students are asked to post their electronic notes on the CTools internet site. Prof. Katz has not heard from students whether they find the communal notes useful, but she has enjoyed the mostly-computer-free environment. Online crossworders should be aware that Prof. Katz is “pleased with the no laptop policy so far and plan[s] on using it in future classes.”

One professor who will not be restricting laptop use is Contracts expert and part-time soccer coach Omri Ben-Shahar. Prof. Ben-Shahar finds “faculty intervention in this matter to be inconsistent with the sensitivity that the faculty otherwise has to
individual autonomous choices and academic freedom in other areas.”

Prof. Ben-Shahar does not share Prof. West’s concern about students who use laptops to create a verbatim transcription of the day’s lecture. Instead, Prof. Ben-Shahar feels that laptop distraction is caused by “access to internet and games,” and is not related to “the use of word processors over pen-and-paper” for note-taking. He says that he works to “discourage such distractions by calling on people that seem to be busy with their screens.” Students should be warned that Prof. Ben-Shahar can “see the green shade of solitaire reflected in their eyes” and can, with scientific accuracy, identify “the IM-induced smirk.” Prof. Ben-Shahar also tries to discourage computer distractions, awarding students who contribute to in-class discussions by raising their grades.

Even as Profs. West and Katz are feeling more love from their laptop-free class members, Prof. Pritchard is probably going to give you an online pop-quiz tomorrow, and Prof. Ben-Shahar is “pretty sure that 10 years from now the question of banning laptops will be forgotten.” Is laptop note-taking here to stay, or are professors starting to fight back? Does anyone care? Join the discussion by sending your thoughts on this pending issue to rg@umich.edu.