An OWLS’ View: Laptops in the Classroom - What are the Issues?

When the ABA published an article about a 57-year-old Economics Professor going to law school and being appalled at students’ use of computers in the classroom, I decided to look into the issue.[FN1]   Several professors have broached the topic in my classes- often to inform students of the ongoing debate among educators regarding laptop use in the classroom. In my two years at a first- tier law school, only one professor banned laptop use.   Our dean has considered the feasibility of banning Internet use in the classrooms.

Like other students who completed their undergraduate degrees without a laptop, when I returned to law school, I was amazed to find nearly all students using laptops in the classroom. I wasn’t accustomed to having so many options during class. Previously, "unengaged" students daydreamed, doodled, or gazed out the window. I appreciate being able to use my laptop to take notes. I type much faster than I write and my electronic notes are much easier to copy, edit, outline, share, and study with than hand-written notes. Some students feel differently. One older, wiser, law school (OWLS) friend told me she was too easily distracted and didn’t want the temptation of Internet options. Other colleagues choose to sit in front so they are not distracted by what students’ are doing on their computers. In the one class I took that banned laptops, students may have been more engaged, but I found it more difficult to take notes and organize them.

When I researched the issue, I found strong opinions on the matter. [FN2]   A few students indicated that their feelings about laptop use would depend on the class, but that was a minority. Overall, the major issues regarding laptop use and Internet, laptop only, no laptop boil down to these: 

Laptop with Wi-Fi Internet

It is undisputed that students frequently check email, surf the web, and participate in instant messaging.


1.      Students can use the Internet and still pay attention in class.  

2.      They will “wander” when they are bored and don’t think the information is important or worth noting, regardless.

3.      Using the Internet is no more disrespectful than getting up to go to the bathroom, doodling, or looking out the window.

4.      It is not a reflection on or prediction of success in law school or graduation.

5.      It shouldn’t bother other students if there is no noise- and if it does, that student can sit in front.

6.      It’s a losing battle banning Wi-Fi because it is not required for Internet access due to other wireless options such as 3G/4G networks.   


7.      Students who use Internet during class are “stupid and Rude”- and Disrespectful.

8.      Professors notice that students are not engaged- and frequently ask, “Can you repeat that question?”

9.      Students who surf during class are wasting their time and (other people’s) money.

10.  Students on the Internet distract other students who can see their monitor.

11.  Students who surf during class lack maturity.

Laptop Without Wi-Fi Internet


12.  Most people type faster than they write and prefer to type their notes.

13.  Electronic notes are better for outlining, sharing, and studying later.

14.  Older students seem to like this “compromise” solution.


16.  Banning the Internet won’t make students pay attention.

No Laptops

17.  Typing notes turns students into transcriptionists / stenographers, rather than engaging in discussion and thinking about the issues. 

18.  One student complained about the typing noise from a student with long fingernails.

19.  One professor’s survey showed students prefer classes without a computer after the experience. 

[1] Debra Cassens Weiss, A Marketing Prof Tries Law School, Encounters Stress Level that Is ‘Scarily High’, ABA Law Journal, Apr 14, 2010.

[2] Elie Mystal, Boring Professors Ban More Interesting Things in the Classroom,  Above the Law, Jan 11, 2010.

 Martha Neil, More Law Profs Ban Laptop Use in Class, ABA Law Journal, Jan 11, 2010. 

 David Cole, Laptops vs. Learning, The Washington Post, Apr 7, 2007.  



I took notes on my computer for the first 2 years or so and then abandoned it.  I found that while my typed notes were more robust, they weren’t all that coherent and were a lot harder to study from.  I also learned that I retain an incredible amount of information if I handwrite, making the effort of studying for finals a lot less than if I had typed my notes all semester.  In fact, I took this lesson into my bar exam studying and think it paid off hugely.  I handwrote all my flash cards and outlines during BarBri. I hand wrote practice essays and handwrote notes in class and during self-study time from the books.  Of course I typed the bar exam itself (as well as my law school exams) but that is because (i) I type a lot faster than I write, (ii) my handwriting is really, really bad and (iii) I cannot spell to save my life.
I attended a symposium on managing Generation Y and the “Millenials” about a year ago (I am/was what you would call an OWL) and learned, that younger generations are really good at multitasking, so much so that they may actually learn more if they are playing solitaire in class than if they were asked to just sit and do nothing but listen to the instructor for the duration of the class.  A little hard to believe at first, but upon some reflection, I think it may very very well be true.  Some people need a lot of stimulation in order to perform optimally.


I would love to see the data from the symposium that supports the proposition that “younger generations are really good at multitasking ...”   It seems to be true, but I have yet to see any study that supports it.


Here is a link to one such report.  Deloitte also has a series called “Connecting Across the Generations in the Workplace” which you can find online—each of the volumes in the series are good.  In fact, Ms. JD should consider adding them to the library.


We will add these. Thanks!

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