The Laptop and Internet Debate in Law Classrooms

by Kenneth Anderson

There is nothing international law specific about this pedagogically-oriented post.  But as the new fall semester begins for many readers of this blog, I am curious about where OJ readers stand on the question of limiting or prohibiting laptop use or internet access in classrooms.  I have written on my regular blog about this topic, as have many other professors.  I am curious to know how others view this issue.

My own view, FWIW, is that I have no problem with laptop use as such; I am no longer capable of handwriting even an entire class worth of notes.  I have always taken verbatim notes if I have taken notes at all, and then reworked them later.  My problem is with the internet and the endless distractions.  In my experience, internet access has done more to lower attention and thought in the classroom than anything I am aware of – having a TV, blackberry, IM machine, email device, and websurfer is simply an impossible distraction.  I was at a meeting a year ago with a group of Very High Powered People, including a Senior Federal Judge who shall remain nameless; everyone was fiddling with their blackberries until the chair finally asked everyone to stop and put them away; everyone did and the level of intellectual engagement went up 200%, as everyone acknowledged, and Said Senior Federal Judge said to me in passing that it was remarkable to him that he, at his age, would have developed a genuine crackberry addiction and craving.  I can’t resist it if available and I bet you can’t, either, and I know my students can’t and don’t.  It is the addictive, irresistible nature of the medium that makes it not an answer to say, hey, just tell everyone not to go online – the temptation is overwhelming, and having to “police” it is very bad to the classroom environment I am trying to create, successfully or not.

But my students don’t especially see any reason why they should be off the internet in class, either, and that’s true even if they think it is a distraction and time-wasting.  Many students, when I ask about this subject, take the view that the classroom is simply a place in which there is a bunch of ‘parallel bilateral’ relationships between teacher and student, not a multilateral (see, I knew I would work something international in here!) set of relationships in the class.  

There is actually a point about international law students, if not international law.  Many of my students are foreign LLM students – my school has a very large international LLM program, and my IBT class, for example, will typically run half to two thirds foreign students.  One of the things they tell me, year after year, that they value about American higher education, as compared to that which they received elsewhere, in part because the classroom is not simply a place where a professor lectures in completely disconnected fashion to a bunch of disconnected students, but that there is an effort – successful or not – to try and create a “community” of learners together.  Many of them find this both exciting and scary, especially if their language skills are also at issue.  Many of them find the willingness of students to put questions and views to the professor to be a remarkable thing all by itself.  (There are many complicated reasons for why this is – much of it related to the costs of higher education; in places where university budgets are more constrained because they are non-tuition or low tuition state universities that can’t afford the level of teaching resources American universities provide, for example, because students pay for it; whether American law schools provide as much value added as one might have thought the (high) tuition paid suggests is another question, too.  I also think this is changing many places in the world.)  

My American students, by contrast, on the whole seem to take the idea of a ‘community of learners’ in a classroom to be more of the eye-rolling, culture of therapy, ‘edu’-ology they were raised with (I quote one former student) and think, particularly, that what other students have to say is almost always a waste of time for the rest of the students listening.  

I find myself thinking both things at once, actually.  On the one hand, I take seriously the idea of the classroom as a form of community – at least a form of multilateralism rather than “parallel bilateralism.”  I think my American students so thoroughly take for granted the efforts that American higher education takes in that regard, imperfect as it is, they would be in shock to see what it is that students elsewhere in the world take as the norm.  On the other hand, I suspect my American students are also right in doubting that teacher student interactions in the classroom, especially above the seminar level, are all that worthwhile for the class as a whole.  I have my own doubts that any student has ever learned anything from what any other student said in a large law school classroom (in general, I share entirely Professor Bainbridge’s views on law school teaching).  I receive a remarkably large number of written student evaluation comments that say simply, “Please do not let students raise their hands and say anything..”

But I do know that I do not accept the quite common remark of my American students that they should have no obligation even to show up to class, ABA aside – they are simply consumers of an expensive consumer product called legal education, and I am sort of the highly paid barista who provides it – and if they want to spend their tuition paid time surfing the internet, that’s their problem, not mine, and definitely none of my business, if not an affirmative violation of their human rights.  I myself think not.  I also do not accept what a surprising number of professors have said to me when I have raised the internet distraction issue – cutting past the politeness to the chase, if you were a good enough teacher, you would be able to overcome all distractions, including the internet.  To which I have usually responded by providing the Bikini Calculus Video (I’ll dig out a link), in which two young women in bikinis teach a calculus lesson while dancing.  The math is all there – they go through it, complete with powerpoint, and I’m sure that with sufficient willpower, one could learn it despite the distraction and I’m equally sure that no one ever has.  

(Actually, I think that university administrators are so committed to the coolness of having provided – and paid for – wireless laptop connections everywhere in the school, they can’t imagine that anyone would want to roll it back.  Instead of presenting no-laptops as a luddite step backwards, I think the only way to present it to deans is that the really, really, really up to the minute technology will be the ability to turn off internet access in individual classrooms.  In the law school world, it will depend on some top five school first adopters to give it cachet with the rest.)

But now a question.  When someone at my school sent around one to the faculty of the circulating articles on laptop bans, one of the school’s senior administrators responded with a note saying that banning laptops in classes might violate the disability laws and please consult first.  When someone said, well, if the student has a disability, then sure, the laptop is okay, the answer was, not necessarily, because the disability laws – at least at my school – are read to prohibit the instructor from knowing who has a disability, and the instructor would know if only disabled students were able to use them.  I know zero or less about disability law and simply do whatever the dean of students office tells me, but I was curious.  Does anyone know anything about this subject?

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