Tuesday, May 02, 2006

We Beat Out HLS. But I'm Not Happy.

So, my wonderful fantabulous law school beat Harvard Law School to the punch on something. But, I have to say that on I am not on my law school's side:

A proposed ban on wireless at Harvard Law is generating controversy. Apparently students prefer to instant message than pay attention to classroom discussion. The school is considering a ban on wireless in the classroom. Socrates is probably rolling over in his grave. Other law schools may be tempted to follow HLS' lead.

Okay, for the record it seems HLS is following our lead. This year was the first year my law school decided to do this very thing. Unbeknownst to me, being a transfer and all, I arrived starry-eyed on campus only to be greated with this email upon my arrival:

TO: All students

The law school has expanded its wireless management capability to be able to turn on or off a student’s wireless access based on whether that student is in a class or in an exam. This management tool (a combination of hardware and software manipulation) will allow us to manage the wireless network to a finer degree, for instance, allowing some network functions to continue, such as file transfers, without allowing other functions, such as web browsing. One of the benefits of this change is students will be able to save their exams to the network independent of whether the exam is blocked or unblocked. Students can choose to leave wireless on at all times and the access control will be determined by their activity.

Another benefit of this new technology is that web access can be limited during class times for students enrolled during a given class without limiting such access to others. Over the past several years, instant messaging, email correspondence, and web surfing have become an increasing problem during class periods, one noticed and objected to by faculty and students alike. Some web-based activities can be useful during class sessions, and indeed some professors have made use of web technologies for class sessions. Other activities, however, create competition for student attention, distract fellow students and, most faculty believe, lower the overall quality of class discussions considerably. Accordingly, the decision as to how much web access a student will have during each class session or exam will be made by the professor teaching that class.

Director of Information Technology.

Fabulous. And let me be clear that it is pretty rare that a professor will turn on the wireless during class. Honestly, at my old law school I did spend time using the internet in class. Admittedly, some of that time was spend clandestinely, emailing and other tabboo activities. But there were pluses too, in that I could look up cases on Lexis, read statutes we were discussing like the Federal Rules of Civ Pro, and paste them directly into my notes (which saved time doing it later).

I understand that the faculty is seeing wireless as entirely subject to abuse, but they should let the grading curve be stabilizer. People who do nothing but surf the web may be less likely to get a good grade in the course. When grades in this degree program are so important, why not let that be determinitive of the outcome over the duration of the course?

I'll tell you why -- because despite my past abuses, I somehow found my way to the tippy top of my law school class. I think this should say something about the malfunctions of traditional legal education rather than placing the blame on outside influences. If the socratic method were really that great of a learning tool, would surfing the web in class lend so little effect on grades? If my professors were so absolutely riveting, or the class discussion so fascinating, would I succumb to the temptation of getting on the internet for non-class related purposes?

I realize these questions are easily answered in the fact that fundamentally students should respect their instructors, which necessarily implies that one should pay attention in class. It is for this reason that I have not publicly spoken on this topic before.

But I cannot escape the nagging feeling that this decision is decidedly paternal. If we are going to be lawyers, i.e. professionals in three short years working on cases with millions of dollars at stake, shouldn't we be allowed to choose for ourselves which path to pursue? I am not arguing that using the internet in class is the right choice; I am simply asking that the school not take that choice away from us. The school should have enough faith in itself as an institution that we will not waste the $35,000 we pay in tuition each year to learn how to be professionals. Perhaps we can start our education by being treated like professionals, rather than being treated like high school students, or worse (remember the good old days when you couldn't have a cell phone or pager at school? And if you were caught with it they took it from you?). Let's not regress (even if some of our fellow collegue's behavior often feels as though it has).

And for those faculty who feel strongly enough about this, then they should ban laptops in class altogether, as some professors at this school already chose to do. Education obviously existed successfully for hundreds of years without laptops in the classroom. If the greatest legal minds in the country are sticking to an antiquated legal education paradigm, then leave it to the next generation to man the shift to the new paradigm.

And the debate rages on: More professors ban laptops in class
And on: The Good Law Student, the Bad Professor, and the Ugly Computer

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