Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Laptops in class

I've seen several articles over the past few years about laptop use in classes, usually about law school classes, though I'm sure it is an issue elsewhere. I think the latest place I saw an article was in Newsweek this week. The basic complaint many professors have is that laptops act as a distraction in class because students use them to play solitaire or do other things that prevent them from giving the professor their full attention. As a result of this, many professors in law school are banning the use of laptops in their classes. Before I get to my own thoughts on that, I want to relate my own experience with using a laptop (or going without one) when I was in law school (which was not all that long ago).

I spent my first term and part of my second term without a laptop, taking notes by hand. I found it very difficult to keep up that way - especially when a professor jumped around, forcing me to write in the margins or otherwise squeeze things if I wanted to keep it at least somewhat organized. Then later I'd have to go through and untangle all of my notes and enter it into my desktop computer at home, because it is basically a necessity to put notes into electronic form when forming a course outline for study in a class. This was a very long, slow process and, in the end, I never had time to complete it - I only got through two of my three classes my first term that way, and had to cobble together an outline from the course TA for my third class.

This all changed when I bought a laptop and brought it to class. I can type faster than I can write, so I had more time to listen and spent less time taking down notes. When a professor jumped around, I could just easily insert text where needed. And most importantly, I could basically write and organize and think about my outline in class, and work on it there, saving me hundreds of hours per term, leaving those hours free for doing other things - like having time to more carefully read and go over the material for the next class. Because my outline was pretty much always up to date, as I went to each class, I could see what I understood and what I had holes in understanding, leading me to ask the professor appropriate questions. I don't think I could have finished school if I had been forced to take notes by hand (and my handwriting is terrible).

While in class, I did notice people surfing or doing other inappropriate things with computers in class (from playing games, to texting, to even watching a DVD movie), though never more than 20% of my class even had laptops, and so the surfing was never very much of the class. And I always saw it as them wasting their own money - after all, they are the customers, if they don't want to pay attention, that is their own fault and they will pay the price at exam time. I worked full time, sometimes over 60 hours per week while I was in law school, so I tried to squeeze as much value out of class time as I could (I only took 9 credits a term). I never once did anything in class but take notes and pay attention to what the professor was saying. And for most of the time, I did that using my laptop. And I think my grades reflected that (just like I'm sure the grades of those who played solitaire were also reflective of what those individuals did in class).

Frankly, if I knew in advance a professor would not have allowed me to take notes with a laptop, and it was a note-heavy core course (not like some electives that are more interactive) then I would avoid taking that professor. A laptop computer is nothing more than a tool that can be used to take notes - and I would bet that if notetaking is all that you do with it, it is no more distracting than having to write with a pen and paper. So I suggest to any professor who bans them: rethink your policy. It hurts dedicated students, like myself, and if there is worry that some students will take that as a license to goof off more, not pay attention, or not even attend class, well, that is their loss, and not your concern. In my experience, someone wishing to avoid paying attention can always find a way to do it.

And I have another suggestion for professors - if you want people to pay attention in class, asking questions, and not paying so much attention to notetaking, then give handouts, both printed and in electronic form, that cover everything you would want the students to have in their notes from your lecture. I always hated feeling like I had to be a stenographer in class, but when material is only given orally, material you need to know for the class, you are forced to do it. And since it can be hard to know what material that will be in advance from a given lecture, to be safe, you find yourself taking down as much as possible (though sometimes it is obvious what need not be taken down). So if you want to avoid that, just give all of your notes, well organized, in advance of each class electronically and hand out hard copies in class. I found when professors did that, I could relax, knowing I have the material for my notes, and so I could focus more on getting into the nitty gritty, listening to the professor, and enjoying the lecture and learning experience, taking down additional notes if needed - the digested and shortened version of the material.

Classes where the professors did not give out outlines or electronic copies of material to be covered in class (particularly where that material really was not in the textbook) annoyed the hell out of me because I felt like I was a human xerox machine. It is hard to pay attention and think and ask questions when you are busy worrying about just keeping up with the word-vomit from the professor. As far as I'm concerned, lectures should be where you get to discuss and digest, not where you get things to put down for the first time.

To me, making students go back to pen and paper in the electronic age is idiotic and crazy - might as well say that having students write stuff down is distracting, and ban pencil and paper too. After all, writing might distract them from the bloviating of the professor! Which brings me to my last point - professors - if you really want students to pay more attention in class, in addition to what I've mentioned above about giving out notes in advance (on paper and electronically) - the most important thing you can do is, give more interesting lectures. After all, professors get paid very generous salaries - and students pay thousands of dollars in tuition. The least you could do is be interesting. And any material can be made interesting, as evidenced by the fun and enjoyable lectures I recall from my Civil Procedure II class - a class that otherwise could have been very dry (it being on a somewhat dry subject). If professors would focus on that rather than trying to take away students' tools for learning, we'd all be much better off.

(I also wonder if some professors will get pressure from schools not to ban laptops - after all, a lot of schools make things like easy laptop use or even free laptops as a selling point - that point may fall rather flat if those wonderful free laptops aren't actually allowed to be used in class).


Chickpea said...

Great post and take on the situation, DBB. In my classes, about 80% of students use laptops, and the rest write by hand. Yeah there are some people (sometimes even me) who may surf the web or watch videos or shop online, but as you say, that's their prerogative.

I couldn't imagine taking notes by hand, my Contracts professor is notorious for jumping around and going off on tangents, and with MS OneNote, it's very easy to deal with his jumping around while still taking organized notes.

Don't even get me started on the people who opt to write their exams by hand - I don't understand that. 3+ hours of writing by hand, while the majority of your classmates are typing away at least 50% faster than you can write. Boggles the mind!

Thanks for your congrats, I've been veging for the past two days and its glorious. My contracts exam wasn't that bad, it was closed book but fair and we all knew what to expect. Your parole evidence cookie explanation actually popped in my head at least twice during the exam!

Erin said...

The best was when I had a prof (in Nevada School Law, actually) that would upload handouts of the day's powerpoint slides the day prior to each lecture. You'd just print them up, and they came three slides to a page with lines to the side for more notes. Yes, it was still handwritten, occasionally messy notes--more like a cluster diagram than an outline sometimes--bur reflective note-taking proved much more valuable than frenzied shorthand on a legal tablet. It may not have been the meticulous maintenance of a complete course outline, but over in the College of Ed, we took things probably just a little bit easier. ;)

Tammy said...

"And I always saw it as them wasting their own money - after all, they are the customers, if they don't want to pay attention, that is their own fault and they will pay the price at exam time."

And that about sums it up.

College is, after all, education by choice -- go to class or stay home hungover in your pajamas; take notes or google boob shots of Salma Hayek -- your choice, your money, your grade.

Kudos to you for working your way through school, DBB. 60+ hours per week on top of law school? Impressive.

DBB said...

Chickpea - Have fun on your trip!

And for exams, I actually did them all by hand - pure superstition on my part - and paranoia about a computer crash. I grew up using some very unreliable computers in my youth and I just decided to stick with writing for my exams. It worked out ok...

Erin - I actually had a few profs who did the powerpoint handouts, though I never liked them much because I like more note-text kind of stuff (and I tend to dislike powerpoint slides because the format lends itself to poor organization of information, IMHO). But still, the slides in advance beats not having that info, and I would take the slide information and put it into my notes in advance.

Tammy - thanks for the kudos - sometimes I wonder how I ever did it - I think back on it, the long work hours, the hours in class and doing homework, and wonder how I could ever have done it. I'm so happy it is over!