Does classroom laptop use inhibit law school learning?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about whether it was a good idea for judges to read appellate briefs on iPads or other screens, pointing out studies regarding decreased comprehension and retention reading from a screen compared to reading from paper. Thus, it does not surprise me at all that use of laptops in classrooms (especially law school classrooms) has some serious implications for learning. Take a look at this abstract of The Dynamics of the Contemporary Law School Classroom: Looking at Laptops Through a Learning Style Lens, by Regent University law professor Eric A. DeGroff:

The Millennial Generation is at ease with modern technology and with juggling multiple tasks. Many of them, however, come to law school less prepared in other ways for the rigor of legal education. Their learning styles, visual orientation, short attention spans, and previous learning experiences make them less suited for the focused and reflective thinking that are critical to learning legal analysis and linear reasoning. Research strongly suggests that some learning styles are more compatible than others with the discipline of analytical thinking and the demands of legal education. Students with learning styles less compatible with law school expectations face significant challenges even under the best of circumstances. This article suggests that the use of laptops in the classroom may exacerbate the challenges these students already face.

The article addresses the laptop issue in the context of learning styles and the dynamics of the learning process. It briefly discusses the history of the laptop issue, traces a significant body of research over the last several decades documenting the distracting effect of laptops even when used in connection with classroom activities, and presents the results of the author’s experimentation with a no-laptop policy in his first-year Property course. The author does not suggest removing laptops from the law school experience entirely, but recommends that professors of first-year doctrinal courses consider the adoption of a no-laptop policy for their classes.

When I saw that abstract in my Social Science Research Network email update, I was reminded of a Washington Post article I read more than five years ago: “Wide Web of diversions gets laptops evicted from lecture halls.” The article noted that some professors (including law school professors) had banned laptops from their classrooms, mostly because of the diversions that WiFi access created:

Wireless Internet connections tempt students away from note-typing to e-mail, blogs, YouTube videos, sports scores, even online gaming — all the diversions of a home computer beamed into the classroom to compete with the professor for the student’s attention.

“This is like putting on every student’s desk, when you walk into class, five different magazines, several television shows, some shopping opportunities and a phone, and saying, ‘Look, if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it,’ ” [Georgetown law professor David] Cole said.

As readers of my “iPad judges” post may suspect, though, I think the problem goes far beyond the diversions presented by a WiFi-enabled laptop. As the abstract to Professor DeGroff’s article points out, the technology generation may be arriving at law school with shorter attention spans, suggesting that the technology created problems long before the students ever arrived on campus. But where I think the WaPo article really hits the nail on the head is with this observation (my emphasis):

Cole has banned laptops from his classes, compelling students to take notes the way their parents did: on paper.

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Cole surveyed one of his Georgetown classes anonymously after six weeks of laptop-free lectures. Four-fifths said they were more engaged in class discussion. Ninety-five percent admitted that they had used their laptops for “purposes other than taking notes.”

Even when used as glorified typewriters, laptops can turn students into witless stenographers, typing a lecture verbatim without listening or understanding.

I did quite well in law school, and I remember going minutes at a time in classes without writing anything down, because I realized the value of the class was in the give-and-take of the “Socratic Method” dialog that I so relished (yet so many of my classmates loathed and feared).* After some meaningful dialog, I was able to distill key points and limit my notes accordingly.

In other words, I actually thought during class. I hope students are still doing that.

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*Not everyone is enamored of the Socratic Method.