Monday, January 22, 2007

More on Computer Bans

In one of my recent posts, Computer Bans, I discussed whether computers should be banned from law school classes. It's a topic that has interested me partly because of the strong feelings it brings out in people, partly because computers are in some sense a distraction in class (like it or not), and partly because computers have revolutionized learning and the classroom in phenomenally positive ways. So it's not an easy topic--lots of pluses and negatives cutting against one another. And it's an important topic, too, since it pertains to learning.

I received a very good anonymous comment in response to that post. The first part of the comment was as follows:

I find that using a computer is beneficial only because it is what I am more comfortable with. Banning laptops in a classroom, to me, would be like telling a right-handed student they could only write with their left hand. Though there may not be a significant difference between those who type and those who write by hand, I foresee a significant difference between those who originally wrote by hand and those who used to type, but due to a ban, now write by hand.

That's an excellent point. Is banning laptops like making righties write with their left hand? Are some people so dependent on taking notes by computer that banning computers truly impairs their ability to take notes? In many cases, I suspect not--which means that in many cases, I suspect the analogy does not hold all that well. On the other hand (ha!), I suspect the analogy may be a very good one for some students.

Perhaps the point is that while I might suspect this or that, it's hard to actually know. So let's assume for a moment that the left hand-write hand analogy does hold in some cases. Is the question then one of cost-benefit analysis? For example, if the diffuse benefit of improving classroom dynamics (which benefits the whole class) is great, does it outweigh the specific disadvantage imposed on a few in the class? Or do we want to take the position that even if you could measure this diffuse benefit versus concentrated harm, such concentrated harm is not justified?

I sound like an economist, I know. My point is that these things are hard to measure, and even if we could measure them, harming a few people a lot through a computer ban might just be unacceptable from a policy perspective. So maybe things should be left as they are.

In other words, the left hand-right hand argument is a compelling one, so thanks to this commentator for sharing it. It's a good example of powerful advocacy. And if the commentator had stopped right there, I might have simply conceded the point. But then comes the really fun part of the comment:

I do not understand why a professor would want to handicap students. Does a game of solitaire bruise your ego that badly? It seems that a student who engages in laptop activities that are not class related would perform poorly and the problem should correct itself. If not, then what is the problem? It may be the devilish sense of schadenfreude that law school has instilled, but please support the laptop revolution.

Hmm. Here, the comment misses the point. The point is not my (not so tender) ego. At least in my classes, a computer ban would not be about ME. It would be about the students, believe it or not. (And if you don't believe it, that won't bruise my ego.) Here's what I mean.

ONE: As a lawyer, you have to learn to pay attention, and sometimes even take notes on a legal pad (gasp!). Lawyers are professionals, and paying attention is a professional skill. So is asking students to do it in class such a bad idea? Yes, we all multitask, but are you really going to answer your phone, send an e-mail, shop online AND interview a client at the same time? No, you are going to just interview the client, and not always using a computer. So a computer ban might help model that behavior in law school--since the students are there to become lawyers. And with all the current criticism of how law schools are not practical (including comments on this blog), this would be a very practical approach to training people to focus, which is essential in law practice.

I concede that a ban for this reason would be paternalistic. But that alone does not mean it could not be beneficial.

TWO: Shopping during class, or watching movies during class, or IM'ing during class--doing anything non-class related during class--can be very distracting TO OTHER STUDENTS. I have had students (this academic year, mind you) tell me how distracting it is when people with computers do this in class. A computer ban would help those people.

THREE: I am not sure how well I am going to articulate this point, but here goes. If a teacher asks people in a class to not do something, and then people do it anyway, and the teacher then takes action to prohibit that behavor, why is the teacher the problem? Let me requote the comment: "I do not understand why a professor would want to handicap students. Does a game of solitaire bruise your ego that badly?" I would answer with a question of my own: If I tell students not to use computers in class for non-classroom activities, and then they do it, why is that somehow my shortcoming?" How would I be engaged in "taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune" (the definition of Schadenfreude) if I were to prohibit computers in class in that situation? All rhetorical questions, of course.

This third point of course ignores other possible benefits of computer bans, such as improved classroom discussion and closer attention to the lecture (as opposed to transcription of the lecture).

* * * *
The more I think about computer bans, the less sure I am that a computer ban is what I would want to do--even though it might have some benefits. It's a complicated issue, and the comments I have received on this blog have been very, very helpful for me, so please keep them coming.
Let me close by pointing out the irony in this case: if students didn't use computers in class for non-class activities, didn't distract others in class through this behavior, and didn't focus on transcription of lectures versus participating in class discussion, we wouldn't be having this discussion. In other words, I wonder whether the focus of criticisms and discussion should be less on professorial egos or shortcomings and more on the reasons why such bans have been implemented by some, and considered by others. That's why I find the "analogy of the hands" compelling, and discussions of ego off the mark.


JohnnyD said...

Very interesting topic. I did a swift EBSCO search and found that the research on this subject is sparse if existent. I think a ban does lump the good with the bad, but allowing free use also hurts some students who think they do better with a word processor when they should be taking notes longhand and vice versa of course. This reminds me of a debate over mandatory study skills classes for entering undergraduate freshmen to determine their learning styles, appropriate methods, etc. Maybe the same approach should be applied with emphasis on determining whether computer use is beneficial or not. Imagine the rewards one could reap by taking notes appropriately for 4-10 years of college. Oh and this is my first blog comment. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Are you going to do a post on exam-taking tips(now that you've read hundreds of exams)?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

johnnyd--Thanks for your comment. A study skills class is a good idea to consider. Might expressly addressing the pros and cons of computer use be a useful part of of that sort of orientation? I think so.

Anonymous 9:18: Yes, I promise to post soon on exam-taking tips very soon. Please stay tuned. Thanks, Greg

shell said...

I remember on the first day of Class Z, the professor requested a laptop free day. We weren't allowed to type anything (although we were allowed to write). That was the day with the highest participation rate. I wonder if it was coincidental?

Perhaps you could try this little experiment and see if students pay better attention?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Shell, that's a very interesting suggestion--definitely something to think about.

Anonymous said...

What did students who take notes on a laptop do in undergrad, or even in high school?

I am a little older than my fellow law students, though only by a few years, and I don't remember anyone bringing a laptop to college classes, and certainly no one brought one to high school.

To claim that to do away with computers in the classroom would be a disadvantage to typers ignores the fact that these students managed to succeed in previous academic endeavors without the use of a computer. If they hadn't, they wouldn't be in law school.

Now, in the coming years, students may have a truly valid argument...if lower schools allow note-taking and such on laptops in the classroom, students may become so dependent that they don't know how to take notes by hand. As of right now, however, I think that this argument is without much merit.

Anonymous said...

I think anonymous in your posting was talking about his own schadenfreude and not yours as a teacher. The idea that one student not paying attention is to his benefit in a competitive system.

As to the comment about how typers succeeded in hs and undergrad: First of all, law school and all previous institutions are completely different in nature. One could cram the night before an exam and have a 4.0 graduating. Whereas, in law school one must study all semester. Therefore, the note taking process can be entirely different. As well, in undergrad one is placed with students on a variety of levels of intellectual ability. In law school, one is placed with the students from the highest end of the undergraduate curve who have all passed a rigorous admissons process. Therefore, the standard is raised. Although one may have been successful with handwritten notes in undgraduate the standard is now typing, one must rise to the standard. Even if the standard is not typing in a classroom, typing, in some cases, gives a student a competitive advantage. As long as that advantage is not unfair or against the honor code, one should not bar the student from the advantage. That is the real world, one does what is necessary to get ahead and makes use of every advantage.

Anonymous said...

I see the point about using every advantage one has. Speaking of which, has anyone read the post on Overlawyered about the guy from Michigan law school that's SUING his law school for not telling him that his exams stunk because he couldn't type fast enough? (Or at least he claims that this is why his exams stunk and his grades were horrid.) Read the actual complaint--it's really something.

That brings up an interesting point--what about students who can't type? I know that seems unfathomable, but my poor husband is still a hunt-and-peck-er. Is it an unfair disadvantage to the typing-challenged to allow typed exams, as the Michigan student claims?

Anonymous said...

I found a solution for all of the students who get distracted because they can't keep their nosey eyes off their neighbor's laptop screen:

cheap computers said...

That's an excellent point.I suspect the analogy may be a very good one for some students.