Laptops in the classroom tempt students to surf the Web and e-mail friends instead of focusing on the lecture at hand, right?

Not necessarily.

A paper written by Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law professor Kristen Murray concluded that laptops actually can enhance the educational experience — and suggests educators think twice about banning them.

“Laptops should be a welcome addition to law school classrooms because they can provide substantial educational benefits to today’s law students,” Murray wrote in “ Let Them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate Over Laptops in the Classroom.”

“They might not benefit all learners, or be appropriate at all times, but to ban them completely from a lecture hall is to deny students a powerful learning tool — one that many students already use to enhance their learning,” Murray wrote.

Murray became interested in testing the validity of the assumptions professors make about how students use laptops in the classroom and about what is best for learning, she said. Although she did not look at how prevalent laptops bans are in law schools, she said, anecdotal evidence suggests that many professors are experimenting with outright laptop bans or limits on their use.

Murray surveyed 177 1Ls at Temple and George Washington University Law School about how they use laptops in class. Nearly 88% reported that they always or usually bring their laptops to class. Only 4% said they never log onto their school’s wireless network during class.

One common reason offered for banning laptops is that they encourage students to take transcription-like notes rather than listen intently to the lecture. That assumption holds little water, Murray concluded. Some students benefit from taking down as much of a lecture as possible, rather than note only the most important information covered. Moreover, only 13% of the students surveyed try to make a record of everything. Another 12% attempt transcription-like notes only in certain classes. Some students reported that taking notes on their laptops helped them stay more organized than using handwritten notes.

Some law professors ban laptops from the classroom because they believe computers depress class participation, Murray reported. Based on her research, Murray concluded that law students may be participating in a different way–for example, by using laptops to verify answers before speaking up in class. Nearly 18% of the students said that laptops made them more likely to participate in class. Another 59% said their laptop use had no effect on their class participation.

“Laptops may be unfairly bearing the brunt of responsibility for evolving classroom dynamics in law schools,” Murray wrote.

Another common refrain among law professors is that laptops are a major distraction. Murray found some support for that conclusion — a full 95% of the surveyed students said they checked e-mail during class; 75% said they have surfed the Web; 57% acknowledged sending instant messages; 36% said they have prepared for a different class; and 18% said they’ve played games.

Still, just over half of the students reported that they engaged in these activities only occasionally. “I don’t read this as student doing these things continuously,” Murray said. “For them, checking their e-mail as soon as it arrives is just a reflex. It doesn’t mean they are sending out e-mails to their friends during class. They’re better at having many things at their fingertips.”

Murray anticipates that student resistance to classroom laptop bans in law schools will grow stronger as computers become more common in the undergraduate classroom environment.

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.