Law students are distracted with laptops: So what?

May 11, 2011

Laptop useAs anyone who has graduated from law school within the past few years can tell you, there are a few professors out there that don’t approve of laptop use in class.

Why?  Because students use their laptops for non-class purposes.

St. John’s University law professor Jeff Sovern decided to find out just how many students were goofing off with their laptops in class, sending six observers into 60 different class sessions to find out just how many.

It turns out it’s a lot: more than half the upper-year students seen using laptops employed them for non-class purposes more than half the time.  Only 4% of first-semester students used laptops for non-class purposes more than half the time while 44% were never distracted by laptops.

My response to this is, “so what?”

As long as a student isn’t interfering with someone else’s classroom experience, why does it matter if a student spends half the class on Facebook?

According to Sovern, laptops themselves create the distraction, claiming that “allowing students to have laptops is like placing beer in front of alcoholics.”

Aside from the how insensitive that analogy is to anyone with a family history of alcoholism, it’s also inapt.

Alcoholism is a chemically-based chronic illness.  The same can’t be said about your garden variety (non-ADHD) short-attention span.

People are going to zone out one way or the other. Most people have neither the energy nor the will to sit through a long policy discussion with their attention span intact.

Sure, laptops provide a nice outlet for the distracted.  But even without a laptop, people zone out.

Laptops have become the bad guy recently because they make it easier to see who isn’t paying attention.

There are several methodological issues with Sovern’s study, and he recognizes them in his study.

For example, many of his observers found that even though something unrelated to class was on a student’s computer screen, the student was actually paying attention, and would often raise his hand to speak or ask questions.

I was one such student, often playing Peggle or Hearts while still maintaining a high level of class participation.

Even though I would have been counted as one of the “distracted” students by Sovern’s observers, I would have suffered academically without the use of my laptop in class.

I handwrite notes very slowly, and my handwriting is atrocious.  Moreover, I have difficulty organizing my notes through a first draft, so using a computer during class was a godsend for me since it allowed me to take notes quickly enough, and organize them sufficiently.

I suspect that many students feel the same way.

Despite the problems with the study, Sovern still gives it enough weight to use it as a justification to ban laptop use in his upper-level classes.  And I’m sure he won’t be the last professor to do something like that.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, that won’t solve the problem, or even lessen it significantly.

Getting distracted is an unconscious part of human nature.

If the fact that many students aren’t paying attention to what’s going on in class disturbs some professors so greatly, they could always take a page out of A Clockwork Orange and force students’ eyes open.

But then students would probably just go to their happy place and stop paying attention.