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It’s not the laptop, it’s the web.

A new A.P. story about differing views on laptops in the classroom (and some professors’ efforts to bar them) prompt Gordon Smith at Conglomerate to offer more reflections on the matter (as well as great links to a thread at Althouse). My views are strongly similar to Gordon’s. Blawgs have hit the topic quite a bit this academic year; you can dip in to earlier exchanges at OrinKerr or CoOp.

At the end of fall semester 2005, a few of us here at Lewis & Clark surveyed about 350 students in a variety of classes to gather some data about (a) how students use laptops in class and (b) the degree to which they find others’ use of laptops distracting or annoying. I’ll summarize some of what we found later. For now, let me pass along a short piece I wrote a few weeks ago, at the request of the student semesterly humor paper here at L&C known as Letter of the Law. The piece is after the jump.

Surf’s Up? Sadly, Yes.

First things first: If I could flick a switch to turn off internet access in the classroom during class time, I would. But I can’t flick such a switch today, and I have no reason to believe I will be able to do so any time soon. (We simply haven’t configured our campus computer network in this way, though some schools have.)

Don’t get me wrong. I think a laptop is a great tool. If laptops had been a bit cheaper when I was a law student back in the early 1990s, I’m quite sure I would have used one in class. Indeed, when I attend an academic conference, I usually bring a laptop with me and sometimes take notes with it during a panel discussion. More often, however, I use it around the conference hotel to connect to the internet … to use Lewis & Clark’s webmail client, to read the New York Times on line, or to check out a new blog someone has mentioned. As those who’ve taken one my classses know, each class has a supporting web page, and I distribute virtually all class materials through that web page. In short, I’m no technophobe.

So, if I like and depend on the internet so much, why would I turn off internet access during class time if I could? For much the same reason that, as Justice Holmes is often quoted as saying, the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

When you use a laptop in class to surf the internet – reading newspapers and blogs, checking out sports scores and playing video clips (even silently) – you go beyond getting yourself a bit of relief from classroom boredom. You impose distractions on others. Taking notes on a white screen, or putting up your own version of a PowerPoint slide that’s up at the front of the room, is not all that distracting … especially where the standard for “distracting” is set by flashing screens showing eBay auctions or intense play at the latest bit of downloadable fun from Yahoo! Games.

I’m responsible for providing a classroom environment where people can learn without gratuitous hindrances. Naturally, when I worry about such hindrances, my mind turns to web surfing. Wouldn’t turning off internet access be overkill? It’s an important question, and I think the answer is “no.” Here’s why: The costs of turning of internet access would be very small, and the benefits would comfortably outweigh them. On the cost side, students would occasionally be unable to engage in helpful class-related activities that the internet would enable (e.g., looking up a statutory section, or the definition of a word, mentioned in class discussion). Students would also feel displeasure at being forced back upon less flashy, and less distracting-to-others, forms of amusement (like pen-and-paper doodling, or crossword puzzles … both of which are, admittedly, so 1993). On the benefit side, the students sitting behind laptop users would be spared the now-ample doses of flashing screens and other distracting visual clutter. They would learn more, and perhaps contribute more to others’ learning too. In a classroom setting, that learning benefit is paramount.

Can’t the students who are distracted simply take care of themselves? It’s an attractive notion, and I think it likely solves some of the major problems that exist today. Students who find others’ web surfing truly distracting can balance that against their seating preferences and, perhaps, sit closer to the front of the room (where they will see fewer screens). This spring, I encouraged students in my patent law class to keep distraction avoidance in mind when they decided where to sit, and to move to a different seat if need be. All the same, web surfers are inflicting more gratuitous costs on others … this time, seating management costs. It’s not as good a fix as an off switch for classroom internet use, but I’ll take what I can get.

The off switch doesn’t exist here. So, the surf’s up, and will stay up. I ask one thing: Please try not to splash you classmates.