When I first began teaching at New York Law School about six years ago, I was taken aback by the use of laptops in the classroom. I taught a first year writing program and I was astonished that nearly all of my 21 students used a laptop in class. I asked the head of the school’s Writing Program if the school had a particular policy about it and was told that it was left up to the individual professor to decide. So I thought I would ride it out a little bit and see how it affected my class. After a few weeks, I came to a conclusion that I still hold to this day after countless more hours in the classroom: No Big Deal.
Now comes Professor Kristen Murray of the Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law who published a study that concludes that law professors ought to think twice about banning laptops in class (as most do). Professor Murray surveyed 177 first-year law students at Temple and George Washington University Law School about how they use laptops in class. Nearly 88 percent reported that they always or usually bring their laptops to class. Only 4 percent said they never log onto their school’s wireless network during class. 95 percent of the surveyed students said they checked e-mail during class; 75 percent said they have surfed the Web; 57 percent acknowledged sending instant messages; 36 percent said they have prepared for a different class; and 18 percent said they have played games.
So you often hear professors saying things like “It’s disrespectful” or “Its distracting” or “They just take transcription, not real notes because they are relying on the laptop” or “It discourages class participation.” These comments say more about the professor than they do about the students. These profs are forgetting two basic facts about their class: (1) It is the professor’s job to make the class interesting; encourage participation; make the students want to hear you instead of a repeat of “The Office.” If what you can’t make the law more compelling than a round of Angry Birds, that’s on you, not on the students. (2) It’s their money (or their parent’s money or their loan’s money). If they choose to spend $40,000 a year surfing the web it ‘s their prerogative. If they can get good grades while surfing the web, they are to be commended for being able to multi-task. Get over yourself. All law professors start out generally held in high esteem by the students, full of the class’ respect and attention; it dwindles down from this lofty perch unless you continuously earn it by being well=prepared and engaging in class.
I can tell when a student is zoning out and watching the web or answering emails. If I want to nail them I just call on them. They and their classmates know when they are caught not paying attention and it usually gets them back into focus. If not, well, like I said it’s their dime. I think professors ought to focus more on making their classes interesting and informative. I find that when you do , the surfing is kept at a minimum and you have a responsive and pleasant class that appreciates that you are treating them as adults capable of making their own decision about the use of their time.