Lap(top) Dancing v Learning

“Could you repeat the question?” 

No, this isn’t about that sort of lap-dancing, as distracting as it might be.

There’s an article, in today’s online Washington Post, from a Georgetown law professor explaining why he has banned computer laptops from his classroom. It’s worth reading. (It would be worth reading even if the author’s first name weren’t one I’m attached to.)

I’ll quote his conclusion.

I am sure that the Internet can be a useful pedagogical tool in some settings and for some subjects. But for most classes, it is little more than an attractive nuisance. Technology has outstripped us on this one, and we need to reassess its appropriate and inappropriate role in teaching. The personal computer has revolutionized our lives, in many ways for the better. But it also threatens to take over our lives. At least for some purposes, unplugging may still be the best response.

David Cheifetz


  1. We took a look at this in March of last year (before your time) when another prof did something similar. As I recall, she confronted some resistance.

    Seems to me that the problem has a lot to do with “the lecture method.” It’d be better all round, perhaps, if the preciious time together in the classroom were used for some active learning, rather than passive listening, even enlivened by discussion.

    Way back when, I recall, when there were no laptops or even ccomputers, perhaps, the problem was students reading the newspaper in class, or doodling or passing notes or… As I say, it’s when they’ve got time on their hands that there are problems.

  2. Hmm… what goes around etc. I wonder if the Georgetown professor knew about that attempt.

    Active involvement instead of passive listening is a solution, but it’s awkward (isn’t it?) – with existing technology – to involve everybody adequately when one is lecturing to any number beyond the number (whatever that is) that makes active learning practicable.

    I wonder whether much of what one needs to learn the core subjects of whatever makes up our legal system is practicably taught in any other mode than what you’ve called passive learning; however, that’s a separate issue. I’ll add, only, that there’s some good reason for the UK’s historical description of the learning process as going to Oxford or Cambridge to “read law”.

    My practice, for whatever it is worth, on the rare occasions when I lecture to an audience, is to provide a paper that’s more detailed than what I’ll talk about, or an outline that contains a skeleton of what I’ll discuss. (If there’s another option, somebody let me know.)

    In the first situation, I suggest that the audience listen with their ears, not their fingers. I’ll tell them if there’s something they should note.

    In the second? I don’t know what the best answer answer is. If I’ve given them a skeleton, only, it’s because I intend to expand. If I think it’s important enough for me to mention, I’d hope they’ll think it’s important enough to remember. More often than not, I’m working with additional notes beyond the outline. Why shouldn’t the audience have a convenient way to record what I’ve said?

    We’ve created a generation of people where many seem to need to write something down to easily recall much of what they’ve heard on any long term basis. Recording the lecture and making it freely available is an easy solution with new technology.

    Beyond that? There’s the Luddite solution of finding somebody to give classes in the medieval techniques – generally, non-literate culture techniques – of helping one’s memory.

  3. Well, at the risk of repeating myself, instructors have to remember there are different learning styles.

    I’m one of those people who listens and learns best when writing down what I hear. If I don’t write it down, I haven’t processed it in my brain, it is gone into the ether and I have forgotten it. If I write it down, I probably never look at my notes again, but I am much more likely to remember it.

    I happen to type faster than I can write, so I actually get more out of a session if I am typing it down than just sitting and listening. I wish I had a laptop when I was in school!

  4. You’re right about that but don’t you think that’s a habit you’ve acquired over the years because of the way you were permitted – and probably first required – to learn?

    It’s probably too late to break that habit, but – given that writing isn’t instinctive ih H. sapiens sapiens yet – it didn’t have to be that way.

    And I’m completely in favour of allowing people to bring in small recording devices of whatever sort to copy the lecture – even better if its broadcast directly into their devices.

  5. Reading law was about the least I did at Oxford – but that was in another century.

  6. Also another millenium.

  7. I too type faster than I write by hand – in part at least because I get much more practice with the former. So I can take near-transcripts of lectures. BUT that means my notes are longer and ultimately less useful than the ones I used to take by hand, where the physical effort meant that I edited as I went – summarized, commented to myself, etc – and would get three or four handwritten pages an hour rather than 18 pages of typed text (12-point).

    If one has to study from one’s notes, it’s a lot easier to do it from the digests, assuming that one trusts the accuracy of one’s digests.

    The problem that keeps me typing is my security system. When I hand-write the text, no one can read my notes but me – and after a couple of months, not even me…. If the function of writing (according to the UN Model Law and derivative texts – such as most Canadian provincial statutes) is to make information accessible so as to be usable for subsequent reference, then my handwritten texts do not satisfy the legal requirement for writing!

  8. John,

    If you are IBM’s Deep Blue, or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Deep Thought, or a saurian-type “Lensman” – fans of the 1940s/1950s EE “Doc” Smith seires will get the reference – with compartmentalized mind, or a Gary Kasporov-type, you can take transcript-quality notes and pay full attention.

    The rest of us entities aren’t yet that accomplished, unless one working in shorthand, and even then one is dividing one’s attention.

    To me, if it’s acceptable to a lecturer that somebody be permitted to make near transcript-quality notes, than that lecture should be available, before or after, in actual transcript/video mode. We have the technology. It is now as easy (and as inexpensive) as – mixing metaphors – falling off the proverbial (b)log.

  9. As my first year constitutional law professor, Prof. Brian Slattery, used to say: “There sure are going to be a lot of well-educated laptops by the end of the term.

    In my experience, if at the end of the class you have a transcript of the lecture, you probably haven’t spent your two hours actually thinking about what is being said.