June 30, 2006

The phony laptops-in-the-classroom problem, continued.

Law.com has a piece. (I'm quoted at the end.) Why all the articles on this subject? I keep getting phoned up for quotes.

Well, something seemed to be happening at Harvard -- rumors of a ban -- and you know how reporters act when something happens at Harvard.

Is there anything new to say on this old issue?

A student is quoted complaining about the problem of the "angry typist" -- which is a slightly amusing way to refer to someone who bangs the keyboard too much. I used to hear more talk of the horrible sound of typing a few years back. Deal with it, folks. You're living in the world. Why not complain that you can sometimes hear people breathe? Angry breathers. Personally, I find the snapping of ring binders pretty annoying -- are they expressing hostility? -- but it's never occurred to me to ban them.

The fact is people are used to writing on laptops, and laptops are quite ordinary tools now. All the age-old complaints about how students don't pay perfect attention or don't behave perfectly well are being restated in terms of a bogus laptop problem.

IM-ing is just the new note passing or whispering. Playing a computer game is the new doodling. Surfing the internet is the new... Oh, who even says "surfing the internet" anymore? It's just reading and looking at pictures. You think everyone's looking down at the screen? In law school classes, everyone was always looking down. It was an effort not to get called on. They looked at their books and their note pads. These problems are as old as school....

A law professor stands in front of a group of students. Maybe he's lecturing about the grand values of individual liberty embodied in the Constitution and maybe he's waxing eloquent -- he thinks -- about how repressive, arrogant government authorites subordinate those values in blind pursuit of their own goals. But the students are not fully engaged. They're off in their own lives, reading messages from friends, planning what they'll do when class is over, reading things that interest them, blogging. What can the professor do? If his idea for a solution is to ban the laptops in the hope of making the students pay attention, I hope he at least perceives the irony. Let me force you to listen to me talk about liberty.


Ron said...

sigh...this won't be the last time people tried to kill for safe streets...

MadisonMan said...

When I teach at MATC, there are some students who have laptops open, and it generally doesn't bother me. Usually they're looking at the lecture on-line -- at least they do when I look over their shoulders as I wander the room while lecturing. As long as what they do doesn't distract others from learning, I don't see a problem. You're absolutely right that this it just high-tech doodling and note-passing.

The one time the laptops are closed is during tests.

Todd said...

Some of my professors seemed to adopt a sensible policy: if you were looking up at them you were engaged and could contribute. Therefore you might get called on. If you were staring down at your book or your lap or the finger you just had up your nose, you weren't involved or prepared enough to contribute. In either case you might still be learning, and it was up to you to figure out how to manage it so you understood the material and could pass the final.

Ann Althouse said...

Todd: The professor who calls on people who make eye contact and not others is the source of his own problem.

Unknown said...

A hundred years ago when I was in college, HP's super high tech calculator had just become affordable for poor students. I think mine cost $70, really quite a bit of money in those days. But the tool was marvelous.

I recall a calculus final. I paused in between a problem and noticed a distinct hum in the exam room. The hum consisted of hundreds of clicks made by about two hundred students frantically punching their HPs.

It wasn't bothersome, but I thought at the time that we were entering a brave new world. Little did I know that ten years later I would buy a better calculator at K-Mart for $5.

J. Cricket said...

"Personally, I find the snapping of ring binders pretty annoying -- are they expressing hostility? -- but it's never occurred to me to ban them."

Perfect analogy, professor!

Typing occurs constantly throughout a class. There can be multiple clicks practically for every word. That noise can be ceaseless. Snapping a binder occurs once, maybe even twice, in an entire class.

VW: lame

Ann Althouse said...

The problem with ring binders is that they all start up about a minute before the end of class. There hasn't been any snapping, then suddenly there are about 10 loud snaps -- just at the point when you're trying to wrap up and squeeze the last few things, they are all "saying" we're packing it in.

Verification word: adgab. A good name for an ad agency.

Fatmouse said...

AJD hit on exactly what I was going to say. Binder snapping/key banging is different in the way that someone whose cell phone goes off in class and someone who picks it up and begins a long conversation are different. Momentary distraction vs. constant annoyance.

SWBarns said...


I had exactly the opposite experience in law school. If you were making eye contact and engaged you didn't get called on. When you looked like you were not trying is when you would be called upon. Ultimately this led to the students being trained to at least look like they had done the reading, and if I hadn't done the reading I would try to get a small comment in early in the class so I wouldn't be called on later.

Maxine Weiss said...

The problem with making eye contact.....is you are then accused of staring.

I'm not sure where the boundary between garden-variety "eye contact" , and creepy "Staring" leaves off.

But, then I guess, if you are lecturing and standing in front of an audience, you need to be comfortable with people staring at you?????

Oh, and how come there's not the same amount of outrage for cell phones? Cell phones would seem to be far more of annoyance than laptops.

Beth said...

The only problem I face with laptops in the classroom is during in-class writing exams. The students have a topic beforehand and can bring in an outline to work from. With IM or email, a student can create an essay and send it to herself in class, or get one from someone else. In-class essays are one hedge against plagiarism, as we observe the students writing, right there in front of us. We weigh those grades more heavily than essays they can revise on their own schedule.

We have networked writing classrooms with software that lets me observe each student's computer, so that cuts out the plagiarism problem in those rooms. But I also allow laptops in conventional classrooms, and I've had to come up with other strategies to proctor those writing exams. Nonetheless, these are the tools we write with now. There aren't many situations outside of the classroom where people compose, edit, research, and prepare documents primarily on paper, other than to draft and doodle. I don't support holding students to a fading medium anymore than I'd want them writing on little slate boards as students did in the early 1900s.

jim said...

I don’t teach law so my classes run differently. I welcome laptops as then I’m sure-kinda--sorta—that they have the day’s material before them. However I do wish more students had tablet PC’s. Then at least they could doodle quietly when bored.

Unknown said...

Well, I'm with the professor on this one. I think he's entitled to define what he considers appropriate decorum in the classroom; certainly, his choice is not so far afield as to be unreasonable. If the class is elective, the students are free not to take it (and we all know how easily word spreads about this-or-that professor that we ought to avoid).

If the class is compulsory, well, then there is already a certain willingness to accept restrictions on their education by choosing to be a part of the program in the first place, so a bit of forced classroom etiquette seems a rather trivial addition.

Now that's not to say that this professor's no-laptop policy is somehow optimal in any way. But if I'm the proprietor of a store and I choose to shoo away loiterers, I might be reducing my potential income, but it's still my prerogative.