Across the country, law professors and students are engaged in a tug-of-war over use of the laptops in class. Many faculty feel that they're disruptive - both for individual users surfing the web and for other students whose eyes are drawn to ESPN in class. They also believe that laptop use has the potential to undermine the law school pedagogy, turning active listeners into stenographers.
Students, on the other hand, feel both a desire and entitlement to use laptops. Many feel that it enhances their educational experience - serving as both a more comfortable and effective method of note-taking. They also argue that it makes outlining easier. They answer the surfing complaints by noting the long history of crossword puzzling in the law school classroom.
It seems to me that this is a manageable problem with a market solution. Limit laptop use to the back rows of class - so that surfing students won't be visible to the students who dislike distractions. And since the number of laptop seats are limited, auction these positions to students who value laptops the most. But here's the twist. Since laptops have real potential to be a social "bad", the currency of the auction ought to counter-act that bad. What could surfing students do to counteract the effects of the laptop? More work, of course!
Imagine if a professor structured the auction as follows: students seeking these seats must offer to prepare short papers in addition to the final. The minimum bid might be two extra papers, for example. Thus, in a highly competitive environment, the winning student would write five short papers over the term - presumably on topics directly related to the course material. Only highly motivated laptop users would submit these bids and any loss of education related to the laptop would be ameliorated by the papers.
What are the critiques - other than what some might see as the improper introduction of a market into the classroom? One is that some students may in fact learn more, not less, with a laptop. Three possible answers. First, these students will learn even more with their additional papers. Second, in any case, their laptop use has a cost to other students (in the form of distraction) which must be reduced. Students who learn better with pen and paper do no exact a similar cost on laptop users. More importantly, this plan is better than a flat-out laptop ban - it gives students a choice.
Another critique is that students with disabilities may need laptops and should not have to do extra work. The beauty of my plan is that these students can receive rear row seats for free (no additional papers) and their disability will be invisible to others - unlike classrooms with a laptop ban and one or two visibly accommodated students.
Of course, if the primary complaint is related to distracting surfing (rather than undermining the Socratic method), it might suffice to turn off the wireless. However as we have discovered, once you uncork the wireless genie, she is hard to re-bottle - both culturally and, remarkably, technologically.