May 14, 2008

I return to the old question of laptops in the classroom. Or: Why do law professors hate freedom?

In the comments here, XWL wondered why I hadn't blogged about this Ian Ayres' Freakonomics post about laptops, then quickly added, "Oops, see you've already posted about the 'phony laptops-in-the-classroom' issue a few years ago."

Yes, I was already sick of this issue in 2006. But what the hell? If Ian Ayres is talking about it on Freakonomics, I'll have another go at it.

Ayres's piece is called "Surfing the Class," and you may have noticed that my post from 2 years ago has a little aside saying nobody says "surfing" about the internet anymore. Oh, the things that you think have gone away that keep coming back!

Anyway. Ayres:
I wanted schools to announce that laptops, by default, should be used during class only for class-related activities unless the professor says otherwise.
What kind of attitude is that? Why do you need a rule that a prof has to override? Just have no rule and let the prof impose a rule if he wants! Are you such a candyass that you can't impose the rule on your own, that you need your preference to be the default because you don't want to take responsibility for it? Ha!

Let the default be freedom. Let the students take responsibility for their own behavior, and let the prof take responsibility for withdrawing freedom if that's what he wants to do.
I’m happy to report that Saul Levmore, the dean at the University of Chicago Law School has recently announced an end to classroom surfing...

In praising Levmore, I should be clear that there is no good a priori argument against multitasking....
Let's check to see if there is any reason not to limit what other people are allowed to do. What an attitude! Talk about default rules!
Law students are adults who generally can decide for themselves what is in their best interest — but...
But... let's control them anyway.

Ayres does at least notice at this point that he's being illiberal, so he shifts into blather about "negative externalities."
The laptop screen is a billboard that is very visible to other students sitting behind the gamer. Surfing and game playing in particular can be very distracting — both visually and in the signal they send to others that you don’t care about class.
You know, when I was a law student, birds tweeting outside the window would distract me. Students leaning their heads from one side to the other distracted me. The spittle in the corner of the teacher's lips distracted me. The prospect of lunch distracted me. But the world failed to adopt rules to clear away all these distractions. I figured out solutions on my own, like sitting in the first or second row and drawing elaborate doodles to stare at so I could listen better. I suppose my doodles were imposing negative externalities, very visible billboards that they were.

Back to Ayres:
Multitasking also makes students less present as participants in class discussion. Surfing doesn’t stop students from taking notes, but it degrades the quality of their attention.
Is that supposed to be a negative externality too? Good lord. Just ask some good questions, teacher. Be interesting. Say: "And that's exactly the sort of question I intend to put on the exam. In fact, I might put that very question on the exam."
In recent years, I’ve tried to balance student liberty with my negative externality concern by allowing surfing, but only in the back row of class. In the back row, at least, it isn’t a visual distraction.
In other words, there is a complete solution to the only real negative externality you've identified, the very visible billboard problem.

Ayres nevertheless continues:
I am tempted to ask students to collect data on how much surfing is actually going on (even when it is banned). I bet some readers will be upset with the idea of such monitoring. There is a growing sense of entitlement not just to surf but to keep your professor in the dark about whether you are surfing or not.
Yeah. And these readers are right. Mind your own business, lawprof. You don't come by at night to see if they are doing their homework. Do your own job, professors, and make it so that paying attention in class matters by making it affect the exam and the grades.
If the admission application simply asked students to check a box if they were willing to forgo classroom surfing, I imagine virtually all applicants would forgo their God-given right to play solitaire.
Ayres is a lawprof at Yale. If the application simply asked students to check a box if they were willing to allow their professor stop by their house and flog them for no good reason, I imagine virtually all Yale applicants would forgo their God-given right to be free of floggings.


SteveR said...

I have three teenaged kids and "multi-tasking" is a way of life. Better to adapt to the times by using teaching styles (techniques) that reward the behaviour you want (paying attention?). I mean if you can play solitaire during class in law school and not have it affect your performance, whatthehell kind of class is that?

rhhardin said...

I suppose they outlaw laptops in consciousness-raising seminars too.

Balfegor said...

Ayres is a lawprof at Yale. If the application simply asked students to check a box if they were willing to allow their professor stop by their house and flog them for no good reason, I imagine virtually all Yale applicants would forgo their God-given right to be free of floggings.

Pish posh! I nixed Yale as soon as I saw they required two application essays.

MadisonMan said...

What stever said. I can only conclude that Ayers likes the sound of his own voice. The content of his words don't seem to be important to passing the class.

MadisonMan said...

And let me offer apologies for general misspellings and bad subject/verb agreement.

P. Rich said...

Let the default be freedom.

Perhaps you should define your version of "class"; and while you are at it, explain the utility of a class where students enjoy your notion of freedom. It sounds much like a kindergarten where "students" are allowed to simultaneously talk, do fingerpainting and stare out the window while dribbling cookie crumbs on the floor.

Multi-tasking adults? Right. Funny Althouse.

George said...

Wonder how we would feel if it were med students doing this in class.....

Pastafarian said...

I usually appreciate a good libertarian argument, but in this context, I think that a professor (or another student) should have the right to break the laptop over the kid's head for playing games during class.

These spoiled little bastards get to go to Yale, and they can't be bothered to pay attention during class? Don't they feel any obligation to the person paying their tuition, or to countless applicants who didn't get into their Ivy League school? Or to the poor schmuck that they'll be defending after graduation?

And yes, I would be distracted if some spoiled little bastard was sitting there playing WoW during Advanced Applied Math (although I don't think too many would or could -- I think that this sort of thing only happens in law or business school, where my cat could probably pass without even attending class). Comparing this distraction to birds twittering outside the window is absurd.

You suggested that these spoiled little bastards should be punished when they earn bad grades -- but with grade inflation, a bad grade is a C-. And there will be enough gravy courses in their curriculum that they'll still graduate with a 3.0 and get that 6-figure job right out of school, because Yale is so "prestigious".

So I guess in this case, I'm a fascist.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

And yes, I would be distracted if some spoiled little bastard was sitting there playing WoW during Advanced Applied Math (although I don't think too many would or could --

Well, maybe not play WoW, but certainly a good time to put inventory on the AH and shuffle items between alts. Class time could be a really good opportunity to level fishing. :-)

Actually, I'm with you on this topic. I think it should be up to the teacher to ban or allow laptops in the classroom. If he/she finds it too distracting to try to lecture or engage the students in participation in the class discussions when they all have their eyes glued on an inanimate object, then I think the professor should be able to make the rules.

Synova said...

I agree that if it's a problem that professors should be able to make no-surf (well, I still use that word) or no-laptop or no-pda or no ipod rules if they like.

I also think that the professors who don't make those rules and who let the students do any thing they want to do so long as there is not sound beyond page turns or key clicks and they don't obstruct the view of other students (No billboard... have you ever tried to look at what is on someone else's screen? They are designed not to be easily read by others.) will find that students can and will make ways to discuss the class during class as well as google or search words or ideas as they are mentioned and be passing links back and forth, too. Yes, that distracts a bit from what the prof is saying but it would far less of a distraction than just listening because it's interactive. Active rather than passive.

I don't see how passive participation is a virtue in a class. Imagine if the teacher could ask a question and students could, particularly if they were paying attention and anticipating issues, bring up data relevant that they found just then.

And those who play WoW, tradeskill in EQ2, or manage inventory... so what?

I also don't understand the social-class resentment. So someone gets to go to Yale and doesn't deserve it... at what point does "deserve" come into it? At what point are we supposed to think that students at Ivy League schools are better or different than us and have something to live up to?

Oligonicella said...

It has been shown that people who believe they are "multi-tasking" are accomplishing less, not more. It's a delusion, and one that reaches out and interferes with coworkers and students.

Pastafarian said...

DBQ -- Sorry, all I know about WoW is this abbreviation; you lost me at "inventory on the AH".

So maybe it wouldn't be WoW, but whatever they're doing, it shows such contempt for the teacher, the school, fellow classmates, people who wanted to get into this school but couldn't, and society as a whole, that it makes me want to beat these overgrown children about the head and torso with a blunt object.

I really don't understand anyone who would defend this on the basis of "if it feels good, do it, maaaannn..." (goddamned hippies) or who would decry condemnation of this open contempt, irresponsibility, and infantilism as "hating freedom".

Pastafarian said...

Synova -- I contend that anyone who gets into Yale has an obligation to work their ass off.

Most people who get into Yale qualify because they're "legacies" -- family members went there -- or because their family members were so influential politically or socially that they could swing it. I was amazed by how large the percentage of such students was -- I'm not sure how high it was, but I'm pretty sure that it was actually over 50%. They had a 20-20 or some such thing about this last year, I think.

For every such student at Yale, there are a half-dozen of the best students in the country that didn't make it. For these (I'll say it again) spoiled little bastards to then sit there and play games during class is a disgrace.

This isn't about social-class resentment. This is about a finite number of spots in a write-your-ticket for-the-rest-of-your-fucking-life school, and some jagoff wasting his spot, that could have been taken by someone more appreciative.

They have an obligation to society to work their asses off -- these little assholes will be bigshot lawyers some day, unfortunately; and someone's life will depend upon their knowledge of law.

You said that you don't know why "passive participation is a virtue"; well, hell, why even require them to go to class at all, then?

Again, it would be nice if people that didn't attend class inevitably failed the exam; but this doesn't happen, because too many influential tuition-payers want their not-too-bright progeny to graduate with their 3.0 gpa, and so we have grade inflation.

And the fact that it's difficult to see their screen is not a big mitigation. If someone was sitting there reading a comic book, I'd take it, roll it up, and smack him in the forehead with it. (But anyone within a 90 degree included angle behind the laptop user would have a pretty good view of the screen).

Synova said...

I think it's about the prof (or whomever) feeling entitled to gratitude or near worship... as if the students are there for the professor and not the other way around.

Put some mid-west farmer's kid in the class at Yale and don't expect *gratitude*. It won't be forthcoming. That student may work very hard, but be *grateful*? Who to? Himself? For working hard?

And I'm pretty sure that *simply* graduating from Yale does not write your ticket for the rest of your life unless you are also minimally competent. And the rich kids there on legacy don't *need* to write their ticket, they were born with it. They should ALL go to a state school, eh?

Oh, and if I were a student in your class and you bopped me on the head with my comic book you had DARN well NEVER go off topic in the class... not sports scores... nothing... because I WILL ask if it will be on the test and I WILL take you to task for wasting my tuition money.

Brian said...

Great post. It made me go back and play free-cell for the first time since law school.

I went to law school just as the laptop was first becoming widespread (1997ish) but before classrooms were wired for internet.

Fifty percent of the class played free-cell everyday. Students will find a way to amuse themselves and to alleviate their boredom.

Me, personally, I eventually figure d out that the best way to alleviate boredom was just to not go to class.

M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M said...

In my experience, the greatest distraction in law school classrooms is food. There's nothing more distracting -- and disgusting -- than listening to the person next to you chomp away at a tuna sandwhich or salad. The food odors that emanate throughout the room are also nauseating. If law schools do nothing else, they should ban the eating of food in class. Students can easily go without food for an hour or so -- and if they can't, they can step outside for a nibble.

reader_iam said...

Well, one could take the Darwinian-like approach:

If you can surf all semester and get the grades, fine. Full stop.

If you surf during class and then later come in and say, "I didn't get that: can you spend time giving me extra help?" The prof might say--put your surfing skills to the relevant use in this situation. Come back and demonstrate that you have, that you've put some sweat into remediating on your own what you chose to forgo initially, and THEN let's talk about one-on-one extra effort on the prof's part.

If you surf during class, and then later whine about your bad grade ... well, one ought to be able to say: TOO BAD, with the full support of the institution. But it's questionable, even doubtful, that this stance would get enough, at least consistent, support, more's the pity;--and the sin is that the most likely offenders (a growing pool? Really, a question) knows it.

As for surfers who sue over a grade (I'd assume a small to insignificant number, and so I acknowledge the functionally hypothetical)? Counter-sue, if they've taken even one dollar of public, or public-backed, money. And encourage private-scholarship givers, if and when applicable, to do the same.

It's called logical, natural consequences, folks. Apply those in the wake of setting logical, natural expectations, and the rest sort of flows.

Not that this will every fly.

Ken Stalter said...

Ayres is a lawprof at Yale. If the application simply asked students to check a box if they were willing to allow their professor stop by their house and flog them for no good reason, I imagine virtually all Yale applicants would forgo their God-given right to be free of floggings.

Pish posh! I nixed Yale as soon as I saw they required two application essays.

I'm with balfegor. I nixed Yale for the same reason and just finished my last exam at Harvard.

Most classes allowed laptops but a few profs banned them. I usually sought out the classes where laptops were banned. As far as freedom goes, I enjoyed the freedom to choose classes I knew would be laptop free and I think other students enjoyed being able to avoid such classes. So from a consumer-choice perspective, letting profs choose their own policies is a good way to go.

Beth said...

Half of my teaching load is freshman composition. With first-semester freshmen, part of what I do is teach them to be college students, to adapt to a less controlled atmosphere than the high schools they've recently graduated from and take responsibility for themselves. Much of my comp teaching is done in rooms where every student has a computer. I have software that networks our computers; mostly I use it for sharing documents, teaching online research, and proctoring in-class writing, but with it I can lock students out of the internet, take control of their computers, or just send them an IM telling them to knock off the online game or chat room. I haven't had to do any of those things more than three or four times in seven years. With the exception of a very, very few immature students, most pay attention or know how to fake it.

In the past few years, I've seen more and more students want to use their own laptops in conventional classrooms. I'm all for it. Generally, they're hard at work on class notes, revising and writing papers, and doing research. They like being able to find answers to questions that come up in the middle of class discussion. I've never encountered any kind of disruption with a laptop in the classroom.

My experiences are with undergraduates, mainly freshmen and sophomores, and I find they're all quite able to deal with computers in their classrooms. I can't imagine why law students, adults who've already finished one degree, would require paternalistic control in the classroom.

vnjagvet said...

45 years ago there were no laptops.

But newspapers, crossword puzzles, magazines and other assorted reading material provided ample multitasking challenges when it was simply too boring to pay attention to some of the blather.

Believe it or not, some law profs are simply not good teachers.

Even at great Ivy League schools, there are boring classes. Students cope with that in different ways, but they will cope.

YaleGrad said...

I went to Yale and took corporations from Ayres. He was the WORST lecturer I have ever suffered through. He had dozens of power-point slides he droned through--he was merely phoning it in. I have never seen a prof with such low enthusiasm for a subject.

I will concede that Ayres is a brilliant scholar and a good man--he gives a lot to charity and he writes on important topics. But it is troubling to me that someone so soporific and lackadaisical about teaching would dare to spearhead the war on laptops.

Caitlin said...

Pasta- Seriously, your arguments may have some relevance to undergrad, but this debate is wholly about law school. You do not get into Yale Law School because of your legacy status, you get in because you have the best possible GPA and LSAT, as well as some crazy soft factors. Also, in law school the vast majority of students pay their own way. As for the distraction/disrespect factor, as Ann noted there will always be distractions in the classroom (if I can't be online, doodling will claim my attention if the professor is not interesting enough).

Vermando said...

Funny remark about Med School students above, because, at Yale at least, all med school classes are recorded and attendance is not even expected, such that attendance rates themselves are often less than 50% (source: my friends in school there).

Would that that were the case at my law school. The number of professors who love to hear themselves drone and think that their mental games are clever - indeed, it's not surprising that a terrible lecturer such as Ayres spearheads this issue, since they're the ones who are the most ignored.

At my place, the only professor who addressed the topic directly was the finest criminal law professor in the school. He said, directly, 'if I can't make it interesting for you, you don't have to pay attention.' That was, of course, the class with the least web-surfing, because the man lived up to his word.

This is not to say that there is not a good case for paternalism in these situations - a lot of students surely would accomplish a lot more were the Internet not around, as my presence here the night before a final exam testifies. Some professors, though, are not worth listening to a lot of the time, and they should not use laptops as an excuse for their inability to engage.

Beldar said...

Small world!

I, too, deliberately sat in the first row or two of all of my 2L and 3L classes (seats were assigned for 1Ls at Texas in the late 1970s), and I was noted, or notorious, even among faculty for my elaborate multi-colored doodles. I brought to every class about 20-30 felt tipped pens arrayed chromatically (rainbow-fashion) around a loop of doubled-over duct tape.

When my doodles were many and my notes obviously few, some professors treated that as provocation sufficient to grill me. Knowing that might happen, and being prepared to respond effectively when it did, was indeed part of my academic discipline.

Will said...

I spoke to one of my professors about this. He said that surfing doesn't really bother him. When he was in law school, they didn't have laptops so they filled out crosswords.

And, by the way, not all Internet usage is unproductive. We use chat rooms to share notes when the professor is talking too fast or offer our opinions if we're too shy to speak in front of the entire class.

I look up concepts on Wikipedia when a professor off-handedly mentions some concept I don't know.

In contracts, I used Lexis instead of lugging around my copies of the Restatement and the UCC.

My point is that the choice isn't between Internet games and perfectly attentive, model students. Some aspects of the laptops make us less attentive, some aspects make us much better students.

If you're interested, I attend a top 10 law school.

Owen said...

I attend a peer law school and our classrooms do not have internet access. This doesn't preclude playing Solitaire and the like, but it does cut off access to e-mail and the internet. I'm actually grateful that my school has this policy; there's nothing so important online that we must have access every moment of the day, and I am sure I have been more successful in school because I could not navigate over to my favorite blogs or news sites every four minutes, as I seem to do whenever I do have access. All this talk about "student freedom" is a little silly: we're not talking about the rights of expression, we're talking about paying attention to a person who has gone to the trouble of preparing to teach a fairly complicated topic, and for an hour at that. Not to mention: you learn more this way.

Bench said...

All this talk about "student freedom" is a little silly: we're not talking about the rights of expression, we're talking about paying attention to a person who has gone to the trouble of preparing to teach a fairly complicated topic, and for an hour at that.

This comment makes no sense. The only freedom a student is allowed to have is rights of expression? What about the right to ignore a person who has gone to the trouble of preparing to teach a fairly complicated topic? Hell, if I'm paying tuition and that guy's salary, why do I owe him?

Let's face it, this is pure Luddism. I think it's stupid and vain and totally misses the point. Of course, I also think the school has a right to do it, but don't give me the "it's for your own good, you adults who cannot control themselves enough to spearhead your own learning and career."

I mean, I still haven't heard a decent answer to the theory that the teacher could, you know, somehow tie "paying attention in class" to a "good grade" or "mastery of the material", so they wouldn't have to impose external controls.

yirmi said...

I just finished my 1L year, and I am wholeheartedly in favor of banning in-class surfing. It would be even better if, as at Owen's school, there would simply not be internet access at all in classrooms. It's not a matter of freedom. It's about respect and learning, and establishing simple rules that make a lot of practical sense.

Surfing the internet during lecture is just as rude and disrespectful as reading a newspaper. Instant messengering each other is just as rude as whispering to each other. Emailing someone is just as rude as picking up your cell phone and calling someone. Schools and professors should be expected to proscribe such behavior.

Even if multitasking is widespread nowadays, people overestimate their ability to do so effectively. I know from experience that it is impossible to read one's email and coherently comprehend a law school lecture. It's necessary to ban it because otherwise the temptation to check one's email, or the news, or one's facebook profile, or whatever, is too great and people give in. They learn less, and the professor can tell they're not paying attention. This happens with bad lecturers, but it also has happened with the best classes I have taken, with famously good lecturers.