Laptops in the Classroom

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The latest issue of the ABA Journal has an article regarding an issue that has been much-debated at Louisville Law (Jill Chanen, Profs Kibosh Students' Laptops, A.B.A.J., Nov. 2007, at 16). The article cites Chicago-Kent and Duke as examples of law schools that once required students to own and use laptop computers, but which have recently dropped the requirement. Reasons for dropping the requirement include distracting other students because of watching pornography or gambling online during class, and students becoming less engaged in class because of slavish dependence on notes. Laptops have almost become a de facto requirement at Louisville, mostly because of the wireless network and because of administration of exams by computer. In reviewing classes, I have observed students emailing, looking at Facebook or MySpace, and shopping online. Some faculty would like to turn off wireless feeds in order to eliminate distraction. Others argue that students have always been distracted by crossword puzzles, Sports Illustrated, and notes to friends. I confess that I don't know the solution to this dilemma. I think that it's true that online access represents a particularly attractive distraction to students, one that is much more compelling than pre-laptop distractions. On the other hand, most students appear to use their laptops responsibly, and I'm sure they are a valuable tool for note taking and examinations. As an instructor, I prefer reading printed exams to handwritten exams, although I haven't noticed much difference in grade distributions. I will probably continue to permit my students to use laptops in class, until I see a deterioration in classroom performance.