Monday, April 25, 2011

Laptop Bans Revisited

Professor Jeff Sovern declares in his article, "Law Student Laptop Use During Class for Non-Class Purposes: Temptation v. Incentives," that when students witness their classmates using laptops for amusement during class, "it may be comparable to placing beer in front of alcoholics as they watch other alcoholics imbibing." To counter the temptations that laptops present in the classroom situation, he favors banning laptops. Note that the article is still a draft, and some sections still need to be fleshed out. Professor Sovern's article grew out of sixty class visits at St. John's University School of Law made by observers in fall 2010. The purpose of the visits was to observe the behavior of laptop users during class. Over half (58%) of upper-class students used their laptops for other than class-related purposes, but for less than half of the class period. In contrast, only 4% of first-semester Civil Procedure students used their laptops for non-class-related purposes for more than half of the class. How does Professor Sovern account for the stark contrast between the laptop use of 1Ls and upper-level law students? "First-year grades have far more significance for most students than upper-year grades." That is probably the biggest incentive for 1Ls to stay focused on classroom discussion. Other factors that he points to include increased temptation to use laptops as time goes on and boredom as law school ceases to be "exciting." Not exactly the word I would have used to describe my first year in law school! Based on the results of his study, Professor Sovern advocates banning laptops in upper-level classes, but not in first-year classes.

On the other side of the laptop debate is Professor Kristen E. Murray, whose article, "Let Them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate Over Laptops in the Classroom," argues that laptops can enhance students' self-directed learning, and that "to ban them completely from a lecture hall is to deny students a powerful learning tool--one that many students already use to enhance their learning."

The debate between proponents and opponents of laptops in the classroom has been raging since schools began wiring their campuses. Many educators at both the undergraduate and graduate level are concerned that students who access the Internet during class will tune out and cease to pay attention to lectures and classroom discussions, compromising their educations. Laptops offer tremendous possibilities as educational tools, but many instructors are not taking advantage of their potential; as a result, students distract themselves during class by checking their Facebook pages, playing games online, checking email, etc. In the article, "Tangled in an Endless Web of Distractions," the Boston Globe describes the situation at MIT, "home to the father of the World Wide Web," where "some ... professors are urging college leaders across the country to free students from their tether to technology." They want to pull the "virtual plug to encourage students to pay more attention in class and become more adept at real-life social networking." Despite professors' concerns about distractibility in the classroom, MIT has not yet cut off access to the Internet in its classrooms.

However, law schools such as the University of Chicago have "blocked wireless access in classrooms to keep students engaged in Socratic discussions ... " At Harvard Law School, Professor Jonathan Zittrain, a specialist in Internet law, "has banned laptops and all mobile devices from his first year torts class since 2004." Despite this decision, he would still be against a "blanket university policy that blocks Web access from classroom," favoring instead a strong policy against student use of wireless devices in the classroom that students would violate at their own peril.

Stanford University's Professor Clifford Nass conducted a study in 2009 that "showed that students who were chronic media multitaskers were more easily distracted." Moreover, they have problems "switching tasks" and "ignoring irrelevant information. They also don't write as well and use simpler sentences." Professor Nass discussed his study in a Frontline interview in February 2010. He advocates "limiting multitasking in the classroom"; more important, however, is to "limit it when [people] are alone, too." This generation of college students is "becoming socially autistic because they lack the practicing skills to navigate social and emotional life."

The Globe article suggests one approach to control the distractions created by ubiquitous mobile devices--software that blocks certain websites for up to twenty-four hours at a time. The three apps listed are SelfControl and Freedom, which work on Mac computers, and LeechBlock, which is designed for the Firefox Web browser.

1 comment:

rwdome said...

This is a no brainer. I have taught at a very good law school for over ten years. If a student read a newspaper in my class or played cards quietly with another student, I would put a stop to the behavior because it is distracting and unproductive. We don't have policies to prevent these behaviors because everyone knows that they are inappropriate. Surfing the Internet, texting and watching tube is the exact same thing. The psychobabble offered to justify this behavior overlooks the fact that law students must learn to respect the rules of whatever forum they land in and that strict adherence is required or they and their clients will suffer the consequences. We placate the law students enough. I say we teach them how to practice law.