Friday, June 22, 2007

Multitasking in the Classroom

There's an interesting article by law professor Catherine Ross Dunham in the Spring 2007 issue of The Law Teacher regarding the use of computers in law school classrooms. (Sadly, the article is not yet available on TLT's website, but check back later at the above link; it will be posted at some point.) I have blogged several times about the use (or banning) of computers in the classroom. Those previous posts can be linked to here, here, and here. I encourage you to glance at those posts for a little background on the subject if you are interested--and be sure to read the comments. It's a topic of no small discussion and debate within the legal academy.

In any event, Professor Dunham's article can be summarized as follows:

ONE: She confesses to having surfed the web in law school classes.

TWO: She went back to law school for an LLM last year (she received her JD a few years prior to that), and in her LLM classes she observed most students multitasking with computers in class--instant messaging, surfing the web, paying bills, gambling online--while also paying attention in class. In her opinion, it did not hurt their concentration, grades, or learning. She also claims it did not hurt the quality of class discussion.

THREE: She concludes that there is a generation gap between most professors, including relatively young ones, and their students.

FOUR: She thinks that "much of a law faculty's apprehension about laptops in the classroom relates to us, not [the students]."

Let me respond to these points in reverse order. As to point #4, I fully agree--much of it is about faculty perceptions, and in some cases it is also about faculty insecurities. And yet, that does not mean it is all about faculty perceptions or insecurities. A previous commenter suggested that I run an experiment in class, in which on some days I ban computer use and see what happens. That's something I am likely to do at some point--especially if a class seems filled with zombies, not law students.

Regarding point #3, ouch. She is right. I graduated from law school in 1994, and only one student in my 1L section (100 students) used a computer in class. I didn't have a computer with Windows until after I graduated from law school. And I neither own an iPod nor have plans to get one, which officially qualifies me as a neo-fogey. But again, her point goes to striving to understand our students. That may mean allowing computers in class. But then again, it may not. Which is a good segue into . . .

Point #2: I am sure modern students are better multitaskers than many professors, including those of a certain age like me (30s and 40s). Having said that, I multitasked quite well in law practice--you have to--but on the weekends I could get a "full day" of work done (what would take me a full weekday, including interruptions) in about 5 hours (that is, without interruptions). Not much multitasking efficiency in that.

And while I am at it, I do have to observe that just because students can do something does not mean they should be encouraged or permitted to do so. Little kids want to eat dessert for each meal, yet should we let them? They are better off, we generally think, being made to eat broccoli sometimes, even though they may want chicken nuggets and fries for any and all meals. In like fashion, would law students be better off in the long run (that is, be better lawyers) if we were to force them sometimes to "uni-task" in class on just a single matter--just as they are supposed to in client interviews, in court, and in depositions? They already know how to multitask, but I wonder if some of them know how not to.

And finally, as for point #1, I know the temptation is strong to surf or do other stuff in class. I sometimes take my computer to faculty meetings, so that I have have access to relevant files on my laptop during the meeting--and believe me, the temptation to work on other matters and check the news online is quite strong sometimes during those meetings. But I don't. It's disrespectful to my colleagues, and ultimately does not further the purpose of the meetings. The same can be said for non-class use of computers in the classroom.

My intuition tells me that my classes would run better--better interaction, better student concentration, fewer distractions to other students--if I were to ban computers. And yet Dunham has very good points. And at the end of the day, is such paternalism worth the effort? I don't have my mind made up on this one. The tension between anti-paternalism and concern over classroom dynamics is quite strong in my mind. But if I do make up my mind, I'll certainly post about it on this blog.


Anonymous said...

I think one really has to be open-minded about the possibility that the mandatory butts-in-seats requirement is the root of the problem.

The thing about laptops (and newspapers or magazines before that) is that it forces into the open the fact that we've settled on an inferior method (large classes led by a sage on the stage) as the prime mode of instruction. Law profs, who experienced it, presume that it is the way it's done; after all, it's always been done this way.

The interim solution that works for all is to eliminate the butts-in-seats requirement. Then you need feel no qualm about requiring students not to divert themselves in the classroom; if what you do isn't working for them, they are free to skip the class elsewhere (rather than bringing their butt into the seat and then skipping the class), and if they distract you or the class, you disinvite them from attending and they have to get the material some other way.

The issue isn't the students or the laptops; the issue is that we don't like what students using laptops to divert themselves are telling us.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Interesting comment; thanks for posting it. I would point out, in response, that the use of computers for non-class use is not confined to big, mandatory 1L classes. Dunham (and I, for that matter) have seen it occur in smaller, seminar-sized courses. Also, I would point out that law school itself is not mandatory--although of course it is the gateway to the profession, which itself is a source of tension and pressure for change. But putting aside that (very large) issue, I see nothing inherently wrong with requiring students to (a) attend class and (b) not engage in behavior that reduces the classroom experience (again, see my previous posts). The question is whether computers in the classroom fall under point (b).

Luke Gilman said...

Not all students are fans of internet in the classroom either. I type much much faster than I write so not having a laptop is a distinct disadvantage sometimes, but I've had professors who have banned laptops and not only did I survive, I preferred it.

Too often the laptop becomes a crutch for the student. My favorite class style so far has been old school socratic, standing up, thinking on your feet, without a laptop to hide behind.

DR said...

I love how there has become a stigma attached to the laptop in class. If a professor wants a student to pay attention, a laptop cannot save a student from, "Mr. Just Called On, what's the difference between new 2-207 and old 2-207?" I feel the laptop has become an easy target for a professor not wanting to explore the source of the student's attention (or lack thereof), the professor's teaching.

From my experience, it is easier to pay attention to and interact with professors who approach teaching with an agenda of things to accomplish.

The first opportunity to surf comes with the professor decides to give paternalistic lectures. There comes a point in life where a student has to sink or swim, law school seems like a great time. If a student cannot be responsible enough to be prepared for class, the professor needs to quit holding that student's hand and let said student sink when grades are released. It comes down to the professor's teaching philosophy, should a professor take the not-so-good students and make them okay lawyers or should the professor make the best students the greatest lawyers. I think any middle of the road philosophy doesn't cut it. Why focus so much attention on middle-of-the-road or worse students when the majority of the news from the career services office is that "it is a tight and competitive market" or "there just aren't as many jobs these days." We go to law school for a monopoly license. It comes down to this, it is a sink or swim market. Let the student sink before s/he is 120k in debt.

The second opportunity the surf comes when the first hand goes up and the dreaded words, "What if..." are uttered. In most cases, a battle of "what ifs" ensue from students who need attention or class participation points. Genuine discussion is very beneficial, when it occurs. Too often, however, it is students looking for attention or points and you become happy for the new post on Prof. Bowman's Blog.

The third time for distraction is when the professor excludes students from the discussion. Straight lecture classes become ebay time because there is the sentiment that it can be taught to oneself. The socratic method is such a good way of teaching because it involves the student, and in a positive way removes the professor as the authority and makes that professor an adversary.

I remember when my middle school switched from grading papers in red ink to purple ink, because it made the students who did not do as well feel bad when they saw red ink. Law school is no place to build self-esteem. Professors should prepare students for the harsh reality of only 24 hours in a day, 2000 billable hours a year, and a judge who is in a hurry to go play golf. Neither Senior partners, client, nor judges care about an attorney's self-esteem, they hire an attorney for their product; winning. Poor students are the true distraction in a classroom.

I do not think there is a correlation between students who are distracted in class and doing well on exams. It wasn't so for me. Most of what one learns in lawschool is learned outside of the classroom. Class time is for discussion and reinforcement of the outside learning.

I strongly object to your buts in seats policy. Students must learn to make the right decission through choice on not compulsion. This works as well with the computer policy. In my Circuit Court the attorneys, judge, and court assistants all have computers in front of them to access real time court transcripts, pull up court documents, access online research systems, or to look at Prof. Bowman's Blog if they choose. The opportunity extends well beyond the classroom. If a student/practicioner makes a poor choice, they should suffer the consequences. Rather than teach paternalism, law school should teach risk and reward and to nurture impassioned students.

Anonymous said...

I have to commend "dr" for his well-reasoned comment. I'd like to respond.

I recognize that the market is tight and that many mediocre law school graduates are struggling with debt and fruitless job searches. A law school is a business, however. Law schools have realized that letting students "sink" means letting go of precious tuition dollars and slipping in the rankings game. Thus, law schools take whatever measures, however paternalistic, to ensure students pass. This means holding their hands and requiring them to go to class.

And so, since we're stuck with a system that refuses to weed out the uninterested, unwilling, or unable, I believe that professors have an obligation to the profession to prepare these students. And if that means banning computers, then so be it. And if it means professors seriously evaluating their teaching methods (and hopefully following the suggestions dr made), then hallelujah.

Dr. said...

Yes, you pulled out the "business" card. It definitely seems that law school is a business (Of course, since I have no experience with the administration I cannot give an informed opinion on the matter). Around December of my first year I remember thinking, "It's okay, you will not fail out, they need my money as much as I need them." I think the solution to this is branding your law school. Too many law schools like to hide in the corner of their town, rather than promote themselves as a sanctuary of intellectual discussion and defenders of individual thought. I think successful law schools are the ones who pride themselves with such ideas and market themselves to their community as available to serve. With this branding comes a sense of endearment from students and alums, this sentiment promotes alumni contributions. You're completely correct, it takes a big endowment to weed out bad students.

I disagree, however, with your ends-means approach. I think disadvantaging promising students by removing laptops, in a profession that is depending more and more upon technology, is not worth the result of semi-adequately preparing mediocre or worse practitioners.

It comes down to this. Enjoying the practice in medium size town, I was having lunch at the cafe next to the courthouse that is the hangout for attorneys waiting for their case to be called, I was given some advice. "You don't learn how to practice law in law school," one of these legendary seersuckered semi-retired practicing to get out of the house attorneys told me, "you learn to practice law your first time in court from the other attorney who kicks your ***."

Sadly, you can look around the classroom and can count those doing the kicking on one hand.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Great comments, everyone. What a wonderful discussion!

Luke, your story is very interesting. I wonder how many other people in law school classes would reach the same conclusion you did. It sounds like you yourself may have been surprised. Your story suggests a “no computer zone” experiment might be worth running in class.

DR, your comments are excellent. With a wide variety of students in class, it is a challenge to decide how to teach. Should we let some people sink? Or should we teach to the whole class (or most of it, anyway), at the risk of boring those students at the top of the curve? What about those students who would make excellent lawyers, but are a bit slower out of the gate in law school? Are we abandoning them if we don’t teach to the whole class? Also, one has to bear in mind that the “sink or swim” approach in the classroom likely will either (a) flunk many more students out, or (b) graduate people who are less likely to pass the bar. St. Thomas University School of Law was sued by a former student in 2006 for failing out 25% of its first year class (including the plaintiff)—and no school wants to be sued like that. It makes it look like your school will admit anyone. Similarly, schools are ranked in part based on bar passage rates—so it is in the schools’ interest to make sure people pass. And if we assume that bar passage really is an indicator of competence to practice (which is debatable), then isn’t teaching to the whole class tantamount to a public duty?

As the anonymous commenter noted, there is a money aspect—a significant one—to the law school equation. Certainly money is a driving force in any institution. But in my experience, profs don’t look at 1L or 2L or 3L students as revenue streams. They’re people. If any student on the margin between an F and a D is passed, the reason is far more likely to be concern over ruining a person’s life than concern over a single student’s tuition. Whether such students should have been admitted to law school, however, is a separate issue, and perhaps that latter issue is the gist of the anonymous commenter’s remarks. In that sense, I cannot and do not disagree.

DR’s comment about branding law schools is absolutely dead-on. Law school is a business, for better or worse. Not for profit (not most of them, anyway)—but they certainly have objectives and goals, and they seek to achieve them. Moreover, their revenue is in the form not only of capital, but also reputation and loyalty of alumni—goodwill, if you will. Of course, limits need to be set to avoid unwanted behaviors, but that is the nature of market regulation, isn’t it? To ignore such “market” forces is to ensure non-success. To recognize them and respond to them in an ethical and moral way is the way to build a better law school.

One final note: I grade in red ink.