Laptops in class: How distracting are they?

They say education is the only thing people pay for that they want less of. Unfortunately, technology is helping students get the lesser education they want.

After observing law students during lecture periods, Sovern finds that the cure for technology distractions is sometimes more technology: Putting up a slide revived students’ attention at least long enough to take down what is on the screen, though that seems not to be true for students whose professors post slides on the class website. Does this mean professors should ban laptops? When the incentive to pay attention is low – as may be true, for example, for students whose grades are unlikely to affect job prospects – a ban might be prudent, for much the same reasons that dieters should not keep candy around: Sometimes people yield to temptation. To be sure, barring laptops is paternalistic. Still, law professors also have a responsibility to their students’ future clients. Would you want a doctor who had played solitaire while your illness was covered in class? Law schools must certify that their graduates seeking admission to the bar attended classes. Perhaps we should also certify that the students did not spend those classes on Facebook. But professors should realize that banning laptops eliminates only one temptation and does not change the incentives students face. More study is needed to see if what my observers saw holds up elsewhere, so we can understand better what causes students to vote with their fingers to ignore us, and perhaps to guide us in changing the incentives students face or even how we spend class time. In the meantime, Sovern has told his two children in college not to use their laptops in class.


Laptops in class: How distracting are they?