Laptops in the Socratic Classroom
The First Signs
I noticed it first about eight years ago. Students began asking me in class to repeat what I had just said. This was happening more and more often, so I began to think about its significance, especially for the kind of discussion, or modified Socratic, method I use to teach constitutional law, First Amendment and various seminars. It was especially disconcerting because I had been teaching enthusiastically and, I hope, rather successfully for over three decades.
Once I thought about it, I realized that many students were actually taking dictation on their laptops, rather than thinking about what was being discussed and then taking notes. I also noticed that it was getting harder and harder to get students to participate in class discussion, or even for me to see their faces hidden behind laptops and focused on their laptop screens. And if these things were happening when I was speaking or trying to engage students in discussion, they were surely happening when other students were speaking, further adversely affecting the classroom experience.
My use of the discussion method to teach analysis and evaluation (“thinking like a lawyer”)–and not simply to convey doctrine–was therefore being undermined by the use of laptops in the classroom!
It made no real difference that I regularly reminded students that good note-taking was not about taking dictation, that it was essential for their education and professional development that they participate in class discussion and that they make eye contact with me and fellow students. It also did not make any real difference that I occasionally instructed students to stop using their laptops and just to listen for a few minutes.
Of course, I spoke with colleagues about this, and most of them–particularly those using the discussion method–reported similar concerns. Some also were worried about their students surfing the Web and emailing during class, but that was, so far as I knew, not a problem for me because I have always walked around the classroom when I teach for the purpose of keeping students (and myself) more engaged. Despite their concerns, none of my colleagues had banned laptops in the classroom, although I had heard that some faculty at other law schools were beginning to do so.
A Decision to Ban Laptops
Finally, I made a decision. Beginning with the 2008-9 academic year, I banned laptops from all my classes, making sure that students registering had sufficient notice. It was not an easy or popular decision to make, and it had a touch of irony because I use a computer for research, writing and communicating with students. And I have always appreciated the typing of exams on computers. But I felt that, as an educator with teaching goals going well beyond the transmission of legal doctrine, I had no real choice in the matter.
A Subsequent Modification
Even though I received excellent feedback from many students about the educational value of my ban, I have since repealed the ban in the required con law course because students complained to the administration that they were being forced to take my class without computers.
Though the administration did not compel me to repeal the ban (I believe academic freedom would prevent that), I nevertheless concluded that there was something to the student complaints.
However, I remain convinced that I am correct pedagogically, and I emphasize this to my students.