That is what is happening at a number of schools, which are giving out iPhones and Internet-capable iPods to new students, according to an article in yesterday's New York Times. These schools point to the potential usefulness of the devices in emergency situations and also as a way of keeping the campus community informed about more quotidian events. The article speculates that the "lone losers...could be professors," who are already confronting distracting laptops and cellphones in their classrooms. Some say that the presence of the electronic devices will force professors to enliven their classes, while others say that the role of technology in higher education is unclear. Ellen G. Millender of Reed College is "always worried that technology becomes an end in and of itself, and it replaces teaching or it replaces analysis." I was interested to read that Professor Robert S. Summers of Cornell Law School has banned laptops from his contracts class because he feels they work against the goal of an "'active intellectual experience, in which [students] develop the wide range of complex reasoning abilities required of the good lawyers.'" Several of my colleagues have issued a similar ban for similar reasons. They fear that laptops turn students into scribes, faithfully taking down every word uttered in the classroom, rather than true participants in the dialogue that should go on in the law school classroom. The ban is not popular with stuents, who feel that it smacks of paternalism. As Professor Millender said, there is always the danger that technology can turn into a gimmick and a distraction rather than an enhancement to the educational process. However, at some point the educational establishment needs to understand that technology is not going away, and bans are short-term responses to the fact that we haven't figured out how to use technology to enhance the educational experience of our students.
I am thinking about this issue right now as I prepare to use clickers in my Advanced Legal Research course this semester. Initially, I am going to use the clickers for a diagnostic quiz given very early in the semester that will test students' general knowledge about legal research. Each question will provide an opportunity for me to comment about the subject of the question; in the final analysis, the point of the quiz is not for the students to get the right answer, although that is always nice, but rather for us to discuss the themes that will emerge and be discussed in more detail during the semester. It might be interesting for the students to retake the quiz at the end of the semester and see what they learned. I also plan to use the clickers at the beginning of each class to assess how well the students retained what we covered in the last class; if their retention was poor, I can go back and review the content. When we had our clicker training earlier this week, I was a little surprised to learn that students today have an attention span of about seven minutes (I had guessed twelve in the multiple-choice question that was posed to the participants), which means that the clickers have the potential to refocus our students. Cell phones can also be used as student response devices, but tend to be more distracting than clickers. I'll let OOTJ readers know how the clicker experiment goes.