Laptop Bans

Interesting discussion over at prompted by law prof Eugene Volokh banning laptops from class. He did it as an experiment and then ran a survey and reported back to his colleagues. In general students reported greater levels of attention and interest in class, but found that their notes were less useful. Volokh arranged for one person per class to bring a computer, take notes, and share them. Some commenters in the discussion thread suggested banning internet rather than laptops. Of course there are always web-enabled cell phones, that don’t even need wi-fi, but they’re much less obtrusive. Volokh points out that it would be nice to have research about the effects of the presence of laptops on academic results, rather than just on student perceptions of learning.

One common response in the discussion thread, predictably enough for a generally libertarian blog, was that individuals ought to be free to bring a laptop or not, and that the prof should not be acting paternalistically. Similar reasoning is often applied to the issue of whether or not the prof should distribute course notes (or how detailed these notes should be). If the availability of notes creates an incentive for some students not to attend class, that’s their problem; why should the responsible students who will attend in any case suffer just because of the irresponsibility of others?

In my required POLS 250 I have been largely persuaded by this reasoning because 250 is a required course. Because it is a required course I am particularly concerned about the success of those students who don’t like / have no background in political theory, but want to succeed, and are committed to working hard to do so. If providing my lecture slides will help these students, that trumps the potential concern about the disincentive to attend for others.


  1. Everyone is subject to incentives. If it is getting late in the term, have limited time, and think that I can attend only one class today, which am I going to attend: the course that gives out (some) notes, or the course that gives out no notes?
  2. What I learn in class depends in part upon what others say and do and learn (or don’t say and do and learn) in class. There are (I think) big externalities, here. That’s why we learn together, rather than just by ourselves. So your absence from class deprives me of your valuable insights. (Assuming you wouldn’t be playing poker on your laptop…) (Of course, in general, it is not right to count your failure to perfect yourself as a harm to me; as Mill pointed out, this would allow any kind of perfectionist legislation on the grounds that it was preventing harm to others. No liberal society could accept that. But we’re not talking here about government in relation to citizens. We’re talking about university in relation to students. No one is forced to become a student. Moreover, no one is proposing that students be forced to come to class. Rather, the idea is that we should design our courses so as to maximize learning, not so as to maximize freedom of students)
  3. The prof / department / university have a legitimate interest in the overall level of learning and achievement in the class. This may seem too obvious to mention, but it’s important, because it means that I don’t have to say “well, this is the outcome that results from the free choices of students, so I shouldn’t interfere with it”. For example, it may be that providing notes to students allows them to attend class less, which makes it easier for them to work at part-time jobs while in school. On the whole, they may prefer learning a bit less but having a bit more money. But I want them to learn. I want people getting an Honours degree from Queen’s Political Studies to know something about the history of Western political thought, and to be able to think critically about issues related to equality, democracy, property, and so on. My preference may not be identical with that of the average student, but too bad.

Returning to the issue of laptop bans, the above considerations make me sympathetic, though I would like to see real research on the issue. (Not sure how that would be done, if we can’t randomly assign students to laptop and no-laptop classrooms. Can anyone think of a likely instrument, here, i.e. a random factor affecting laptop availability in some classrooms but not others? People must be looking into this).

If one bans laptops from lecture, however, it would make it all the more important to provide some notes to students (which I have been doing with the Student Notebook).

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