April 29, 2004

If only law students had a remote control ... not that they could click off their boring lawprof, but they could conceivably be kept constantly engaged by needing to click in answers to multiple choice questions.
PAUL CARON, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, uses [high tech clickers] to break through what he calls the "cone of silence" in his classroom.

Well, I've struggled with this "cone" Prof. Caron talks about. And I'd love a high tech solution.
The devices look and work much as a television remote does, sending infrared signals to a receiver at the front of the classroom. The receiver is connected to a computer, which tabulates and analyzes the responses. The data can be displayed by an overhead projector, incorporated into a spreadsheet or posted on a class Web site. Responses are anonymous among the students, but not to the teachers, who can identify students by the serial numbers of their clickers.

In a Constitutional Law class you could accumulate a nice political profile on everyone in the class. You collect a lot of statistics this way, and it is awfully coercive. It doesn't matter in a Tax Law class perhaps, but I think it would be too intrusive to systematically collect this sort of information in some classes, such as Conlaw. Would we not have to comply with University regulations about human subjects experiments? Consider this:
[Indiana University sociology prof Melissa Wilde] uses the devices to turn the 400-student class into a sociological laboratory.

At the beginning of this semester, she had the class use the clickers to answer several basic questions about themselves, including their race, household income and political affiliation. Thanks to the clicker technology, she could collate the data immediately. At the next class, she posted the results, which showed that, compared with the average for the nation, the class had three times as many wealthy students and one-fifth as many poor students.

"They were really surprised and tried to figure out why," Professor Wilde said. "For 20 or 30 minutes, they got really fired up."

"Basically I get them doing sociology of themselves," she added.

Well, that's a nice friendly demonstration of a point about the economics of higher education, but where do we go from there?

I started writing this post with a childlike I-want-one-for-Christmas-too attitude, but I'm getting an oh-no-Big-Brother twinge.
Professor Wilde acknowledged that because she can attach names to each answer, "there's a real potential for abuse." She says she promises the students that for the sensitive survey questions she asks, "I will not connect that serial number to their name." So far, she said, there have been no complaints.

To the contrary, students appear to love the clickers.

Inevitable Orwellian observation: "He loved Big Brother."

Here's where I end up. Students deserve their autonomy in the classroom. By law school, they are adults and they should be taking responsibility for their education. They will soon enough have clients relying on them, and there will be no lawprof wired in to supervise whatever they decide to do. With classroom autonomy, students can play video games or blog or IM or sleep or think about their personal affairs or even engage and learn something. The consequences are there and they will need to live with them come exam time. If they aren't up to keeping track of their responsibilities autonomously, why should they be unleashed with law licenses on an unsuspecting public? So I end up, once again as Cranky Old Retro Lawprof.

UPDATE: Prof. Maule responded to this, and my response to that is up here.

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