Laptops let law students play hooky without leaving their classrooms

Amy Horst

As laptop use in University classrooms has increased, so have the distractions and temptations they pose, University law students said.

In classes where many students take notes with laptops, students often surf the Internet, check e-mail or play games on the computers that are meant to enhance their learning.

First-year law student Kareen Martin said she often notices people using laptops for purposes other than note-taking during class.

“I’ll see some guy surfing for rock climbing, another person checking their e-mail and another one playing solitaire,” she said.

Betty Dilks, a first-year law student, said she did not install a wireless card on her laptop because she does not want to be tempted to surf the Internet during class.

A 2002 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project predicted that as students are increasingly able to access the Internet during class, professors might have more problems with students being distracted. The Pew Research Center initiative studies the Internet’s impact on various groups in society.

Mary Madden, a research specialist who worked on the study, said laptops are different from other distractions such as cell phones because cell phones do not have any obvious use in the classroom, and teachers place limits on cell phone use in class.

“With a laptop, a student can act as though he or she is taking notes and actually be surfing the Internet or doing something totally unrelated to class,” Madden said.

Anne Johnson, a first-year law student, said the Internet and solitaire distract many law students during class.

However, she said the noise of keys on the keyboard is a drawback to classroom laptop use.

When the professor says something important, Johnson said, the noise of the keys sometimes sounds like a rainstorm.

But Martin, Johnson and Dilks all said they think the advantages of laptops are greater than the drawbacks.

“When we were talking about the California recall (during class), I was able to go online and look for the most recent articles on the recall elections,” Martin said.

Barry Feld, a criminal law and juvenile law professor, said he does not see such distractions as rampant problems.

“If a student makes the choice to surf the Internet instead of paying attention, there’s probably something wrong with what’s going on in class,” Feld said.

Real estate law professor Ann Burkhart said while she has not had problems with students in her classes being distracted by laptops, she knows the problem exists.

“I’ve sat in on other classes, and I can see that a few students are playing solitaire,” Burkhart said.

Burkhart said she calls on students often in class, which prevents them from trying to surf the Internet or play games.

Adam Samaha, a visiting law professor, acknowledged that students might sometimes be distracted by the Internet or games, but he said it is no different from other problems instructors have faced in the past.

“There are countless ways of not paying attention in class, whether it’s solitaire or a handwritten note,” said Samaha, who specializes in First Amendment issues. “I doubt that the technology makes it much worse.”