First, I wish to note that we have not attended to the blog in some time. I took time away from the blog (and blogging generally) to focus on writing and conferences during the first couple of months of this year. Now that my conference season is over, I am back with a post—and a response to my co-blogger, Jena Martin Amerson, concerning laptops in the classroom.
Professor Amerson wrote a blog about her choice to ban laptops from her classroom this academic year. She voiced a concern about how the instant feedback laptops allow may “thwart thoughtful ruminations” and lead students to “rush to judgment.” She also expressed that technology can lead to an “inability to learn basic skills of communication.” Jena’s objections are similar to those raised by other scholars: that laptops distract from learning and thus interfere with the pedagogical process. Kevin Yamamoto and Nancy Maxwell have written essays about the detrimental effects of laptops and they have discussed their own experiences with banning laptops to help the effectiveness of their classroom, arguing that banning laptops has improved participation in their lectures.
Though I am well aware of the problems of distraction, I think that the arguments about distraction and rush to judgment assume that the appropriate model for law school learning is the lecture-and-discussion format where participation is at a premium and thus distraction from the discussion (including distraction for learning purposes) is a detriment. I believe this premise unnecessarily dominates the conversation about technology in the classroom. The Socratic classroom is one where the attention is placed on the text and the professor and the conversation between student, text, and professor. Thus, answering questions and taking effective notes are highly valued activities and ways of learning—to the exclusion of other learning styles and preferences.
To apply the analysis by Kolb and McCarthy (as cited in Montgomery and Groat, Student Learning Styles and their Implications for Teaching, http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/CRLT_no10.pdf) the Socratic teaching approach treats the faculty member as the “expert” and relies on professor-focused lecture and reading. What this approach does is to advantage students (and teachers) who prefer (or are used to) aural learning styles while disadvantaging others with different learning styles. Within this context laptops then prove to be a distraction to the discussion and thus are problematic. This problematizing seems to be based on its detriment to the Socratic or lecture method (with which we law professors are comfortable) rather than an open exploration of what learning styles best benefit students. Rather than a per se rejection of laptops, the real question ought to be how are students learning today, and how can technology help—or hinder—learning.
I would suggest, as Paul Caron and Rafael Gely have, that the use of technology—including laptops in the classroom—can actually foster student learning if guided the right way. More important, supporting laptops in the classroom would support student’s own choices in learning styles and approaches. Jana McCreary has argued that students come to law school having developed their own learning preferences—with many of them including laptops—and thus to ban laptops would actually be a detriment to their learning. (Rather than banning laptops, McCreay suggests that students who use laptops and students who do not use laptops ought to be given their own separate space in the classroom to facilitate these separate learning methods.) Finally, it is appropriate to include laptops in the learning environment because students will need to learn how to use laptops and other technology to augment their own practice and within the context of working with others. As David Thomson noted in his book, Law School 2.0: Legal Education for a Digital Age at 81, banning laptops in the classroom “would damage the digital literacy our students will need for practice.” Thus, rather than ban laptops, it makes more sense to teach students about using laptops professionally.
Most recently, Kristen Murray has a forthcoming 2011 article where she advocates for the conscious and effective use of laptops in the learning environment. Murray uses research data—specifically, her method is to ask students how they learn and how they use laptops in class—coupled with learning theory to explore the real effect of laptops in the classroom. She uses her conclusions from the data to debunk what she calls the five “laptop myths,” that drive professors’ decisions to exclude laptops. These myths include the idea at question here in this blog: that “laptops in the classroom decrease class participation.”
Murray notes that lack of participation in class may not be the fault of laptops, but the fault of professors who use teaching methods that don’t fit the learning preferences of Millennials. Moreover, though she acknowledges that distraction does happen, Murray observes that students more frequently use laptops to ends related to the class—including taking notes, reviewing notes, and accessing relevant online research—than they do as a non-class related distraction. Her quite thoughtful conclusion is that law schools should allow for the option of using laptops for student learning, but at the same time educate students about their learning preferences and how to accommodate those learning preferences in classrooms.
I think Murray is correct. We the professorate should provide leadership and informed opinion to our students about effective learning strategies—and the importance of avoiding distraction—rather than making choices for students that may conflict with how our students really learn. Rather than shy away from laptops in the classroom in the name of our own teaching styles, we should teach our students about professionalism and technology use (and abuse). Then we should let our students exercise their own judgment as to how best they learn.