Banning Laptops in the Law School Classroom – Core Issues in Legal Education

There was yet another discussion on the Teknoids mailing lists (the list is mostly law school IT folks) on the subject of banning laptops in the classroom (or at least shutting off access to the Internet while in the classroom).

For a long time, I dismissed this topic as so much culture clash, but its persistence and vehemence convinces me now that there is something much, much deeper at play here.

To investigate this, I made a list of reasons why laptops should not be banned and include some discussion around the reasons.

Later, I will list the reasons why laptops should be banned and explore the issues from that direction.

1. If faculty lectures were more interesting, the students wouldn’t be looking at their laptops.

This is one of the more perjorative reasons given for not banning laptops and it doubtless has some truth, but it raises so many other questions.

Should faculty be "interesting"? Their goal is to teach, not to entertain and academia should be focused on academics.

However, it does seem obvious that if you can keep your audience’s attention, you can teach them something. Seymour Sarason’s book "Teaching as a Performing Art" makes the case for the teacher as performer who should use tools of stagecraft to make connections with the students/audience. Notice I did not say "entertainer". Sarason has taught for 20 years and brings much insight to this idea.

Students don’t want to be entertained, but they do want to be engaged and if they find little engagement in the classroom, they seek it elsewhere.

2. Because of advanced networking technologies like cell phones, you can’t actually block all network access.

This is a non-issue in this discussion. The instructor controls the classroom and if she bans laptops, she can enforce that. It is, however, quite true that it would be difficult to impossible to turn off the network as it is becoming ubiquitous. The real solution, I believe, lies between teh teacher and student and not between the student and the network.

3. Your students will hate you.

This might follow from an instructor who imposes her will on her students as in (2). You cannot teach someone who is unwilling to learn except in the most Pavlovian ways. If (1) were handled well, then this argument becomes moot anyway.

Surely, however, instructors must strike a careful balance between the hard knocks of learning a difficult topic and nurturing proto-scholars. Learning is hard work!

4. Some students use the network access to take notes to a wiki or other net-accessible service.

This is a pretty strong argument as increasing number of students type their notes instead of writing them. This is a mass-culture phenomenon and would be difficult to withstand.

However, there is something to said for kinesthetic learning through writing, editing (and analysis) that is required to summarize complex issues into an outline in real time.

Students that stenographically type everything uttered by the instructor miss the big picture or refrain from in-class analysis.

5. Some students do actual legal research or lookup relevant material that contributes to the quality of the class discussion.

This argumente is often advanced, but I believe it is weak. If only our students were so thoroughly engaged. This is an occasional occurrence – somewhat serendipitous – and useful, but not critical to the dynamic of the classroom.

6. If the instructor would record or podcast the class students would not feel compelled to stenographically type everything.

I am a big fan of podcasting the classroom else, CALI would not have invested so heavily in Classcaster and the Legal Education Podcasting Project(s). I cannot see a downside to recording the classroom for later reference by the student.

This does not resolve the banning of laptops issue, but it does address the "stenographor" arguments mentioned above.

7. Should we confiscate all crossword puzzles too?

This argument is really a variation of (1). It is still true that you cannot make someone pay attention if they are determined to ignore you.

You cannot ban doodling or lack of sleep or in-attention, though you can measure it and fight it with in-class tools like Clickers or small-group discussion.

8. We should put it to a vote with the students or faculty or let the Dean decide.

I don’t believe that a blanket policy should be enacted for all students in all classes. There is too much variability in teaching models, subject matter and student-interaction that argue against a one-size-fits-all solution.

Every classroom has to decide what is best for it – both the students and the faculty. What I am not sure about is whether the majority of students should be able to prevent a minority of students – who are genuinely using their computers for good – should be allowed to impose their will. Faculty, of course, can impose their will – but at the risks mentioned previously and they carry the responsbility of creating the effective learning environment.

This issue is really at the core of legal education. If students can effectively tune-out the instructor, then why does the ABA have an attendance requirement and why do schools enforce it?

    Who is ultimately responsible for learning to happen? The school and instructors are responsible for teaching to happen, but learning? Sure they have a stake in the success of their students, but to what degree can they impose their imprimatur on the students to make sure that learning takes place?

    If law students were adolescents, this would be an easier discussion, but they are adults and so must be engaged in the enterprise of learning as co-equals. Not equals in knowledge or experience, but as equals in the commitment to learning.

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