March 18, 2005

Wireless access in the law school classroom.

Responding to my request for a description of yesterday's "Coffee and Doughnuts" session about the perceived problem of laptops and wireless access in the law school classroom, one of our students emails this:
Say, I went to that Donuts and Coffee discussion. My prediction? We'll default to the current status quo, leaving things as they are. So many speakers offset each other in their opinions, positive and negative, about wireless in the classroom.

One young man seemed truly offended that the professors would even consider taking away his classroom Internet, as he got about an hour's worth of work done on his laptop, before, during and after class, in the down time. When pressed by a prof as to what "work" he was accomplishing, he came up with: responding to emails, reading the newspapers, checking on things, etc. I do this at school too, but on the library and public access computers. If you cut off the classroom access, will the library suddenly become more crowded, meaning you have to provide more desktop computers or open areas for laptops? If the library has wireless access, some spills over into the classrooms, and people can still pick it up there.

Or is the administration considering cutting off access to the whole building? One student said gossip was going around, people were concerned what y'all were up to -- banning laptops? -- on that mysterious faculty listserv of yours. No one really was sure how these things would work out, affect admissions, etc. One woman explained her generation needs to multi-task. She knitted her way through undergrad, and found it helped her concentrate. They feel like time is wasting if they're not doing 3 things at once, giving the example of walking down the street, talking on the phone, or listening to music.

A few people said seeing games and images on other people screens was annoying. One explained she has ADD and these things DO distract. If you don't get there early the day they do the seating chart, there's not a lot extra available seats to switch to. This person, incidentally, reported seeing a semi-porn CSI type video game on the screen, played daily by the guy who sat in front of her. Nobody else said anything when one prof asked, really is porn out there in class?

The discussion, in fact, seemed to get most passionate about this issue. One older student, with a Ph.D who has taught before, was trying to explain how naughty pics might appear on laptop screens in class: if you're checking your email, say from AOL, some people have nude/provocative pics that go with their name IDs. He would just quickly close that window, he said, if it came up. He also was offended the administration would consider shutting off the wireless, said he had undergrads coming to class stoned when he taught, and really, what can you do when the students are adults? His criticism was of teaching methods -- when he can be chatting with the book open, get asked a question, skim to find a line that explains what the prof wants, and then go back to chatting... that's the prof's fault for being boring, and asking simplistic questions.

The first guy I mentioned, spoke up to say he really wasn't sure what was in his laptop either. Things happen. Pop-up ads, innocently typing in whitehouse.something, etc. can take you places you don't want to go. That's when one prof jumped in to give say listen up people, it can be a felony to have some things on your computer, period, and innocent explanations won't help you later down the line. He's seen cases of it in practice.

Another female prof also spoke strongly, I think this was after the student spoke of the CSI-type game, that NEVER should people have to tolerate porn in the classroom, period. This prof asked what students thought of a policy, laptop users sit in back, non-users sit in front. Sounded like a good compromise, but how would it work with the outlets distributed throughout the room? Some people still need to plug in. And does that create artificial distinctions among students?

Overall though, I think that prof may have had it right. She's no dummy, and reported to students that there's an obvious online, hunched- over look that shows you're not just taking notes. Very little typing, more slight scrolling with the mouse. Even if you're listening and doing other things, it's rude to the prof and to fellow students when you don't look up during a discussion, and listen to what others have to say. (It's different from doodling, one prof said, more like opening a newspaper and starting to read it.) Stay open, and give your attention to the speaker. One gives a little speech early on, during the intro/housekeeping portion of class, saying stay engaged, eyes off the screens occasionally, basically please pay attention people, and you might learn something not in the readings.

More than one student suggested, though, it's survival of the fittest, if people want to tune out, maybe they suffer the consequences come test time, and then again, maybe they don't. In the end, the conversation took a turn that teaching styles need to incorporate all the benefits of online resources. But this seemed like a cop-out to me, after we'd spent all that time discussing the low-level reasons people really are online during class. They're not all checking WestLaw or Lexis-Nexis, or sharing extra details about cases, though I'm sure that happens too.

I'll update this post if anyone has other perspectives on the event or the issue.

UPDATE: A recent graduate of another law school offers this:
1) I think that no matter what you do, a student is basically going to get out of it what he or she puts into it.

2) My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science and I really haven't handwritten anything much longer than a grocery list in 20 years. I simply could not take meaningful notes by hand. While my case may be kind of rare, I'm guessing that there are more and more students who would be severely handicapped if they had to take notes by hand. (Thank God VA had a laptop option on the bar!) [Althouse note: At UW, we have not yet decided to let students use laptops for their exams.]

3) It was very helpful for me to have access in the classroom because of my family. My wife had to work full time and caring for the children, ages 8, 11, and 13 now) was a constant problem. A cell phone wasn't really in our budget and would have been really rude in class. But Net access allowed me to be contacted by the kids' schools or my wife, or even the kids directly. ... I could even have set up a camera at the house if I had felt the need. My oldest son has standing instructions to check his email if he gets home and no one is here so I was also able to handle class running over or deciding to meet another student in the library easily.

4) Finally, and I know this is really weird, but I took all my notes using Netscape Composer. It handles outlines much better than Word and produces nice, clean HTML. My basic class method was to make a web page out of the syllabus with each topic linking to a subtopic. Each subtopic web page consisted of my outline of the assigned text material for that subtopic, supplemented by links to my class notes and to cases, statutes, and other sources that were often on the Net or in Lexis. By doing this I was able to maintain some perspective on the material and decrease the time necessary to find something during an open note exam.
Point 3 is especially interesting. I hadn't seen anyone make that point, but I believe it would have a decisive impact on some decisionmakers. And it should!

ANOTHER UPDATE: A UW law student comments on the controversy and thinks the faculty will adopt a lame rule for the sake of adopting a rule. Bet we don't!

YET MORE: Stuart Buck responds to my post:
I can’t imagine a good reason that law school administrators would go out of their way to offer free Internet access in law school classrooms. ... A law school might as well pay for a poker game and a clown act to take place in the back of a classroom, as well as handing out free newspapers for students to read during class.

And Will Baude responds:
Mr. Buck's attitude seems to be that since the benefits of internet use are very small the school should not subsidize distraction. I think the proper analysis is the reverse-- the marginal increase in distraction is uncertain, and in any case the costs of not-paying attention are personal rather than external. Meanwhile, the internet provides great rewards to some who use it well, which I think swamp the horrors of students' reading ... blogs during class.
I need to point out that my law school is considering going out of its way to turn off the wireless access in classrooms. We want wireless in the building generally, especially in the library.

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