Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Computers in Class

I have been intrigued by some articles I've read recently about law profs who have decided to ban computers in their classrooms. In my class there would be an irony in such a ban, since I sometimes use A/V equipment (PowerPoint slides, videos, websites, and the like). But I have to say that, as unpopular as the move might be with students, it has intuitive merit. Discussion of this subject has appeared on the WSJ Blog, Boston.com, TaxProf Blog, and Conglomerate.

So should computers be banned from law school classes? (Exceptions would have to be made, of course, for students with special needs.) Here are some considerations for and against such a general ban.

Some Reasons to Ban Computers in Law School Classes

Some law profs believe computers get in the way of class discussion. Harvard Law School's Professor Elizabeth Warren takes this view. (See an article discussing her position here.) She teaches commercial law courses such as Secured Transactions, which I have also taught, and in my experience commercial courses can be dry. So maybe in such classes, law profs need all the help they can get, in order to make the class (and class discussion) more interesting. But Harvard Law School's Professor Bruce Hay teaches subjects with a far higher cool factor (Law & Drama, anyone?), so maybe it's not just a dryness issue.

Two anecdotal points from my own experience are worth mentioning. Recently, I had a student tell me that she would take notes furiously in class, and then go home and try to figure out what the professor had been saying. Hmm. Maybe it works, but I think the better approach might be to listen to what happens in class, and then go home and expand your notes or work on your class outline. Just because you took down every word does not mean you understood what was said, or will be able to understand it better later. One student does not a trend make, but her observations ring true. Plus, when I tell my classes to stop taking notes and just listen, I usually see improved class discussion.

Second, during my days in practice I learned not to take too many notes during a client meeting, either on computer or on paper. Scribbling or typing furiously did not help nearly as much as really listening and taking sparser notes. Lawyers often complain that law schools do not prepare students for the practice of law. OK, then, perhaps classes should be structured so that they not only teach substantive knowledge, but also practical skills. If computers get in the way of developing effective listening and note-taking skills, perhaps they should be kept out of the classroom. Taking notes is a lawyerly skill. Being a stenographer is not.

Some Reasons to Allow Computers in Law School Classes (and Some Counter-Arguments)

What are some reasons not to ban computer use in law school classes? First, are we being old-fashioned fuddyduds if we require digital age students to take handwritten notes? Haven't many of them gone to colleges (and even high schools) that have actually required computer use in class? I find that a compelling argument.

Second, shouldn't we treat students like adults and let them make their own choices? If they want to type versus write--or even play Spider Solitaire versus pay attention--isn't that their choice? How dare we be paternalistic! In fact, isn't the ability to play FreeCell and conduct a teleconference call practically a necessary skill for the modern lawyer? If you can't do it in class, will you be able to hack it in the real world?

I think the answer to these questions is "Yes, but . . . ." The "but" part is this: with respect to paternalism, others have observed (see links above) that law schools often make class attendance mandatory (i.e., not a matter of free choice), and we have no problem with that sort of paternalism. Yet maybe it's that law school itself is voluntary, and if you sign up for it, you have agreed to attend your classes--but you haven't agreed to take notes in a certain way (that is, by hand). What I am saying is that a computer ban is paternalistic to a degree, and how paternalistic depends on how you characterize it.

With respect to multitasking on a conference call, I am not sure that is a skill law schools need to be teaching. Even though it happens in practice. A lot. There are other, more socially valuable skills than computer games that lawyers need but we don't teach them--like how to eat spaghetti without getting it on your shirt. (Try and make partner looking like a slob. You may do it, but it's harder.) So maybe we let them learn Minesweeper skills on their own.

Ultimate Indecision

In the end, I am up in the air on whether computers should be banned by profs in law school classes. I find the idea interesting, but I wonder whether it is more trouble than it's worth. Perhaps one day I will try it as an experiment, and see how it goes. But for now, I'll just let things ride.

In fact, maybe letting it ride is indeed the right answer. The modern world has so many distractions, so many tech gadgets, that perhaps the student who can succeed in the classroom despite computer use is the student who will end up being able to best deal with it in practice. So by trying to control in-class computer use, maybe we would do as much harm as good.

I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on this--especially if you are a student who has been in a class in which computers were banned.


shell said...

It is not the laptop that causes distraction, but the internet access that opens a floodgate of distractions (chiefly the messenging programs, ebay, gaming sites). There are less people playing solitaire and blackjack.

One of the 1L professor detested the internet so much that he banned us from using it during his class. Of course, he couldn't force the school to shut down wireless internet, so he used a little scare tactic. He told us he would implant student monitors (spies) to check who is surfing the internet. Whoever gets caught will be sent to the dean for disciplinary action (and possibly have his/her grade lowered). Since the class size is so big, we couldn't tell who is the spy and our class behaved ourselves.

Maybe this would work for your class if the main problem is caused by the internet.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Good points, Shell. I suppose I am showing my age a bit by using Solitaire games as my examples of computer misuse, instead of IM and other online distractions.

As for spies--wow. I'm not quite sure I'm ready to do that. I wonder, in fact, whether planted spies might hurt the mood/spirit of the class. That is, I try to create an atmosphere of trust in class. Are spies consistent with that? I don't know, but it makes me wonder.

So computer users in my classes can rest easy for now. But I do hope they forego non-class use of their computers while in my class.

Thanks for making this blog better through your comments!

Lindsey said...

I agree with Shell that there is probably more of a problem with internet use than with other possibilities. I have been in classes where students do have laptops and are using them for instant messaging, and it has gotten distracting to other students. The teacher banned having computers in the classroom. Personally, I don't bring a computer to class, so I wasn't upset by this, but it definitely cut down the distractions in that class.

To the other end, I have a class this semester, where students search for websites to help supplement class discussion -- looking for specific facts and figures to back up their points. I think that this has been quite useful to our class discussions.

Ultimately, I am undecided about which way is better, but I thought that I would share my experiences.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Lindsey, thanks very much for your comment. My biggest concern is disruption of the class/harm to discussion, not trying to make an unmotivated student pay attention. Your last point is very interesting. It presumably works better for some subjects than others. Perhaps I should try it in an upper level class.

Anonymous said...

I was assisting with an ADR workshop at a nearby law school, so I had an opportunity to show up late, after all the preliminaries. Thus, I got to sneak into the back of the class and watch the 60 students for a while, while the co-leader spoke at the front of the room. After noting that maybe 75+% of the students were using their laptops to do e-mail or other (solitaire), I became convinced that laptops are a drag on the class.

Of course, the real issue is disengagement. The mandatory law school model lets us harvest extremely high tuition from students and then corral them in large herds, with only one prof at the front--making student disengagement and the inevitable search for distraction a certainty. If we allowed people to sit the bar without law school and made class attendance optional (as it should be), then we wouldn't have the problem.

This term, I am teaching a small upper-term seminar--I even moved it (and the seven students) out of a classroom and into a conference room with a round table. Suddenly there is no problem with disengagement and no problem with use of laptops.

Gregory W. Bowman said...


The set-up, size, and dynamic of a classroom is absolutely critical, I agree. I am currently teaching a 1L section of 105 students, and keeping them engaged is a far different exercise than it is in a 20-person seminar.

Part of what you are suggesting, I think, is that computer (mis)use in class is more appropriately considered a symptom of a problem (disengagement) than the problem itself. That's a profound and interesting point. The $64,000 question, of course, is how best to solve that. You list some of your thoughts on that, and I would be interested in hearing what others think of these suggestions.

Anonymous said...

To the idea of taking down every word that comes out of a professors mouth. The Business School from which I graduated from at my undergrad was topnotch tech savvy. Every classroom and lecture hall was outfitted with the finest projectors and ya ya(and this was over 6 years ago) Yet all four years there only a handful of students used laptops, even though practically every teacher used the technology to its fullest. They were able to carryout detailed discussions(with 100+) and students gained a lot from the class time. It is amazing that a school in rural Georgia figured this out before the rest of the world (or least before everyone else who is complaining about it.) How did they do this? PowerPoint Handouts which allow space for handwritten notes. Professors would post the handouts the morning or evening before class and the students would print them out and carry them to class. If you are a Professor you probably just rolled your eyes and thought the generic defense of 'well...if the students get the PowerPoint before class, they won’t come.' This is far from the truth. Even the laziest students know 25 bullet points can't take the place of a 1 hour+ lecture. Think about when you put a new slide in front of a group of students with computers, the next 3 minutes of class is wasted because the room could be on fire but everyone will have the slide typed before they leave. And how many times does a Professor give his own definition and it takes several minutes to say it over and over. To keep things interesting, my undergrad prof’s would through in a stray slide every couple of days. And think about pictures, pics mean nothing if a student is not in class. How is a 1L law student supposed to get a Property lecture out of 3 Batman slides? I’ll be honest hauling a $1,000 dollar computer around all day sucks. You have keep it charged, they can be heavy, not to mention THERE A THOUSAND DOLLARS. Just something to think about from 1 of your 105.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Anonymous #2—One of the great things about blogs is that they level the playing field and allow discussion of things not ordinarily discussed, at least in frank terms, between profs and students. Yet here you are, apparently in my 1L class this year (glad you liked the Batman slides), and you’re on a bit of a rant. Which is great—I appreciate your honest input and insights.

I personally have not been a big fan of providing students with PowerPoint slides in advance of class, although I know some other profs do this. My concern with making slides available before class is not that students won’t come—your comments on that point are dead on. Rather, my concern is that I don’t think slides change things much in terms of class prep or class participation. They are so general (at least the way I use them in my current classes) that I’m not sure they do much more than serve as visual aids. But having said that, you’ve given me food for thought; perhaps I should reconsider this a bit.

I suppose you are saying, as a previous commenter did, that the problem in law school classes is not so much the technology, but rather engagement of the class. Ultimately, the first semester of law school is unlike any other educational experience most people have had: a different kind of reading, studying, and thinking. Can banning computers in the classroom assist in that transition and improve the classroom dynamic? Or would it hurt (or make no difference)? Is the problem that classes are too big? That profs move too slowly? Too quickly? Are too theoretical? These are the underlying questions, I suppose—and in fact they just may be the subject of my next blog post.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Bowman,

Again, one of your 1L students. The Cafetorium-esque room that we are in is probably the best culprit for disengagement in class. As compared to the stadium type seating that we have in other classes, the distance causes an immediate disconnect. The biggest disappointment, as a student who had MCSOL as my #1 from the begining,was that we were shown these amazing stadium classrooms then we are stuck in a room that could double as a high school lunchroom.

Laptops and internet have been the greatest advantage to learning. There are some section Y profs who love to see how fast they can go through powerpoint slides. Having wireless internet allow students to instant message incomplete passages in notes, or laptops allow us to look over and copy notes from a neighbor because we were engaged in discussion. Granted, one could do the same with written notes, but being able to see it on a laptop allows us to do it without distracting others.

I'm sure you can remember your days in law school back when computers were green and yellow (before black and white). Was disengagment a problem then? It is natural to tune out when bored or simply confused. Granted a computer can facilitate that, but it does not instigate it.

Anonymous said...

Possibly keeping with the tone of the comment above. I did once; along time ago in a classroom far far away have to result to the outdated system of pen and paper to take notes. Now if I were lucky, I could read my notes, but no one else could if they missed something and needed to see my notes from class. In addition, I would loath to think that cut and paste would not be an option when it comes time to organize my outlines. In fact I can cut and past from my notes, previous outlines, and commercial passages scanned in PDF format and slides. Something this varied in sources would have taken forever to retype. So yes, I like typing notes and occasionally using IM to steal notes from others on sections that I might have missed.
Back to those arcane days of scribbling, if I was bored I'd balance my checkbook, write poetry, write letters to friends, make grocery lists, make lists of movies to buy, doodle, or just sit and stare blankly at the teacher and nod while any amount of other concerns were running through my mind. So is it any surprise that students will check their email or myspace or read an online news article? Students will zone out in class, this is a universal timeless problem. Maybe they already read and understand the material, maybe it's one of those days where other things are on their minds and they think they'll catch up later; maybe they have Christy at 8am and haven't had their coffee yet. The point is, it happens and ours is a generation that is used to watching TV, listening to music, checking email, then myspace, talking on the phone, checking our eBay auctions while searching for the latest music to download all at the same time. Walk buy the coffee area and you will see study groups popping from outlines to facebook, carrying on three conversations at once all while somehow learning the material. The truth is, just because we have three applications open, doesn't necessarily mean that we aren't listening. For many of us the added stimuli is what keeps us from tuning out all together. If you do in fact choose to have your ludite experiment of banning computers, you will more than likely find the glaze of the eyes of the students forming much earlier in the lecture. Not only will you be depriving the students of the useful tools that come with internet use, you will be pushing past my generation's shortened attention spans to a less productive learning experience, it's sad but with out those commercial breaks, we miss a good part of the program.