Classroom Distractions

Some time ago I wrote about the use of laptops in the classroom, a post prompted by law school professors banning laptops because of their deleterious effect on class discussion. I said then I would not ban them. In my pre-computer college and law school days I never lacked for classroom distractions. I could miss an entire lecture armed with nothing but a pen and paper. A laptop is more engrossing than a surreptitious game of hangman, I know, but boring classes are the biggest culprit.

A reader who recalled that discussion sent me a link to Surfing the Class from the May 13 New York Times, which notes that the the U Chicago Law School dean “has recently announced an end to classroom surfing.” Henceforth laptops are only to be used to take notes during class. That oughta stop it. Maybe he can also announce an end to people speaking too loudly on cellphones in restaurants or on public transit.

I think classroom laptop use is more prevalent in law school than in the BU School of Management. Rarely do more than ten percent of students use a laptop in class, and usually the number is less. My attitude has not changed. As long as it does not distract either their classmates or me, it is the laptop user’s choice to spend their class time and tuition reading email or booking flights for spring break. My job is to make the classroom experience so interesting that they don’t want to miss it–which, I’ll hasten to add, is a statement of aspiration, not a description of reality. Law students are adults and, in my view, are responsible for their own choices. Undergraduate students are, initially, not as adult as they would like to believe but have earned the title by their senior year, for chronological reasons if no other.

If students complained that someone’s in-class web browsing detracted from their ability to pay attention then I would banish the laptop users to the back row. In ten years of teaching I’ve received only one complaint about laptop use in the classroom, from a student distracted by keyboard noise. I required all students using laptops to sit together one side of the classroom, and checked periodically with nearby students whether the laptop ghetto distracted them. It didn’t, and everyone was happy.

Maybe this fall I’ll be preemptive and designate the back row for laptop users, unless they promise not to distract others by browsing.

2 thoughts on “Classroom Distractions”

  1. That is great. I can’t stand classes that do no allow computers. We pay for the education so I think we should have the right to make decisions about how to use our time in the classroom. There is definitely a proportion of students who use laptops for entertainment in the classroom and they are the ones who will suffer if they don’t listen to the lecture.

    There are certain classes (larger lectures) that I could not have survived without a laptop!

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