Closed classroom: more than one meaning

This morning’s Washington Post has an article about college professors banning laptops from their classrooms.  (The first example is from a Georgetown Law lecture on “democracy and coercion.”)

Similar bans, the article claims, exist at William and Mary, the University of Virginia, and other big-name schools.

It’s been years for me since college, so my own notions are just notions.  That rarely stops me from musing.

  • That law lecture occurred in a room with a hundred students.  Ipso facto, it seems to me, the average student didn’t get to say ten words.  Not that you have to say something to rework, reconsider, connect what’s new to what’s known–but talking about new material is at least as helpful as writing notes on paper.
  • It’s not as if a room without laptops is a room without distractions (or a room that suddenly has interesting lecture).  As a U-Va professor says, “If students don’t want to pay attention, the laptop is the least of your problems.”
  • One comment added to the Post story reminds us of all the people who doodled, crossword-puzzled, or just read the sports pages while safely and quietly lodged toward the back of the lecture hall.

I don’t mean to seem one-sided.  No matter how cool your keyboard, even ten people in a room going clickety clickety clickety can be distracting–just as Worlds of Warcraft can be when it’s on the screen of the person in front of you during Conflict in Nineteenth-Century East Asia.

Stepping completely outside things I know about: maybe the tried-and-true formal education approach isn’t always ideal.  A law professor in a lecture hall might not be so impartial about his methods as to concede their shortcomings.  Is a lecture to 100 people an optimal way to achieve whatever the goal is for “democracy and coercion?”

Maybe not–because formal systems like law school have a built-in time and exposure constraint, culminating in not just the law degree but the bar exam.

Mostly I think the question hinges on specifics: what’s the purpose of this (presumably in-person) class?  Why is it in-person?  Am I as the professor dispensing knowledge (the Font of Wisdom approach)?  Am I encouraging people to explore issues, grapple with implications, bring in things from the outside?

Consider the approach of another Georgetown law professor (who does allow laptops).  He told his class that Chief Justice John Roberts was stepping down from the Supreme Court.

That was untrue, as the professor knew–but the news flew out.  It seems the real point of the lesson was: credibility. (Much more on this story at Above the Law, including a follow-up.)

CC-licensed image of lecture notes by Kevin Lawver.