Review: Let Them Use Laptops

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By Sandra Simpson from Gonzaga University School of Law

Kristen E. Murray, Let Them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate Over Laptops in the Classroom, 36 Oklahoma City University Law Review 185 (2011) [Read fulltext at SSRN (210 KB PDF)]

In this article Professor Murray examines an important and current issue facing professors in law schools: whether to ban laptop use in the classroom. She concludes, “law professors should allow students to use laptops in the law school lecture courses . . . and move past old notions of what is best for students.” In the end, Professor Murray points out, it is more important for professors to discuss learning styles with the students and provide ways to enhance students’ learning by the use of laptops and other technology.

Professor Murray begins by analyzing the five assumptions cited in the laptop debate; she then discusses the modern student’s relationship with technology. Also, she discusses the survey on laptop use which she conducted, and Professor Murray uses that survey data to challenge some of the assumptions regarding laptop use in the classroom. Finally, she offers some thoughts and examples of alternatives to “all-out laptop bans.”

What is most informative about this article is the author’s look at both sides of the laptop debate, which shows that both sides are basing conclusions on untested assumptions about the modern law student. I will only discuss two of the assumptions, but the article’s coverage of all the assumptions is excellent. The first assumption, laptops have a negative effect on student note taking and learning in the classroom, was found to be simply not true. The concern here is that students take transcript notes, which, in most professors’ minds, is not the best style. The literature cited, however, shows that many students need to take notes this way so that they can go back and review the notes at a later time. Many students are not able to process information in the classroom as intended by the professors. Second, the assumption that laptops lead to lower class participation and engagement, was also debunked. The studies cited in the article establish that the modern law student is much less inclined to participate regardless of the presence of a laptop. The article showed the modern law student is “team-oriented . . . moderate, and deferential to authority.” All of these traits are counter-productive in a traditional Socratic Method class. Further, our modern students are “disconcertingly comfortable with authority.” Thus, these students are less likely to confront a professor’s opinion or that of a court. The result is a classroom with less engagement and less participation, but it has very little to do with laptop use in the classroom.

This article’s hard look at the assumptions all of us are making about laptop use provides a smorgasbord of food for thought. The author urges law schools to do more to educate students about students’ learning styles and preferences so as to better use technology for the students’ advantage. Further, law schools could do a better job of teaching students how to take better notes in class. Lastly, professors should be forthright in the classroom, and professors should tell students the expectations regarding internet use in the classroom. Overall, this article is well supported and takes a very informed look at a critical issue in legal education.

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