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.
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.