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Friday, October 14, 2005

The inevitable wireless classroom

An article in today's Wall Street Journal titled "The Laptop Backlash" (by Gary McWilliams)  is subtitled, "Wireless Classrooms Promote Messaging and Web surfing, Not Learning, Professors Say."  In the article, various professors complain about students' use of wireless  laptops in the classroom -- professors state that students are using their wireless computers to do all sorts of activities in class  such as play chess and buy  "a pair of sneakers on eBay."    One professor sniffs, "you can be in front of the classroom and your hair could catch on fire and they'll never notice it because their  eyes are glued to the 14-inch screen at the end of their nose."    This  "backlash against wireless use" (as the WSJ calls it) disturbs  me.   First of all, we have to acknowledge that the wireless classroom is coming -- whether professors like it or not.  We simply must keep  up with the technological times.   If not, we would all be standing in front of the classroom with a chisel and hammer.  Second, we have to take personal responsibility as teachers.   I have not had any problems with students in my classes using laptops.  Although my law school's classrooms are not wireless yet, students still have the option of, for example,  playing solitaire or playing any installed game on their laptop.   Last year one of my faculty colleagues sat in at the back of my Contracts class.   After class, he made a point of noting that every one of my students spent the entire class taking  notes, paying attention to the lecture, and engaging in discussion.   Not one student was otherwise engaged with her laptop.   My point is that professors have a responsibility to keep the attention of our  students.   Obviously,  that doesn't mean that we have to perform a tap dance routine before the class (or set our hair on fire), but it does mean that the class  should be engaging enough to make students want to actually listen to the lecture and participate in discussion.    If it's not, we ought to go back to basics and actually learn how to become effective teachers.

Posted by Marcy Peek on October 14, 2005 at 01:26 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 14, 2005 3:05:36 PM


Easy solution: Even if you don't want to go Socratic all the time, make a practice of randomly cold-calling on a student with a laptop without allowing any passing. After all, they're going to be super-well-prepared, with LEXIS and the NYT at their fingertips, right?

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Oct 17, 2005 9:55:12 AM

"The idea that you "just have to be a good professor" proves to much. While we're at it, why not play televisions in class while the professor teaches -- surely a great contracts professor can keep up with desperate housewives."

This is a ridiculous argument.

Posted by: bob | Oct 15, 2005 12:34:38 PM

It's also very handy for cutting and pasting from the charter of rights,
SCC judgements, etc, directly in to your notes

Posted by: UofT3L | Oct 15, 2005 12:32:28 PM

I use it for email, MSN, looking up cases, nyt.com, taking notes, all sorts of stuff. As does everyone. Teachers who are paranoid about "illicit" laptop use need to get a grip.

Posted by: anon | Oct 15, 2005 12:29:43 PM

I'm a teacher at a school with wireless web in the classrooms, and while I'm on the other side of the podium from JeffV, his perspective sounds exactly right to me.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 15, 2005 11:40:47 AM

You will pry my in-class access to LEXIS, http://www.law.cornell.edu, and the class website (where almost all of our readings are posted these days) away from my cold, dead fingers.

Posted by: Will Baude | Oct 15, 2005 3:10:37 AM

I think whether wireless is a good idea is a lot like the question of whether class attendance should be optional. The key question is whether we want class presence and attention to be mandatory, or whether we want to let students take it if they want or leave it if they like. If class attendance is entirely optional, it makes sense to let students play with the Net during class (so long as they are not distracting other students).

Posted by: Prof. Karl | Oct 15, 2005 1:50:52 AM

In response to Tim Wu: obviously more technology is clearly not always a good thing. I think few people would argue that point. But you have to be behind the pedagogical times if you don't see the benefits of technology in the classroom. I didn't even mention the benefits, but many of the comments did. They are fairly obvious, e.g., classroom polls, instant access to Westlaw, access to newsworthy sites such as WSJ and the NYTimes when discussing a relevant issue, instant student input and feedback to the lecture, etc.

Plainly, I am not arguing that any technology is relevant and useful in the classroom. Letting everyone bring iPods in and listen to their music is not the type of technology at issue here, Tim (this goes to your "Desparate Housewives" point).

Finally, you prove my point when you say that when you attend wireless conferences you cannot resist distracting yourself. Do you routinely do this when a fascinating speaker comes to the podium?

Posted by: Marcy Peek | Oct 15, 2005 12:28:18 AM

You must be kidding. Those professors are right -- Wireless access is a disaster for education.

Wireless is most of all a disservice to students, not teachers. I know that whenever I go to conference that has wireless, I inevitably pay much less attention to what's going on. Its hard to resist.

The idea that you "just have to be a good professor" proves to much. While we're at it, why not play televisions in class while the professor teaches -- surely a great contracts professor can keep up with desperate housewives. The point is that wireless is a distraction and that's basically all there is to it.

Making classrooms have internet access is a great example of a kind of stupid faith that more technology is always better. It's not.

Posted by: Tim Wu | Oct 15, 2005 12:16:22 AM

We have wireless in all of our classrooms. Many students do spend some time surfing, emailing, or doing other things ... but usually this time is spent during periods when some gunner has asked an irrelevant question. Also, the people that spend all of their time emailing or surfing do so at their own peril, as they probably stand at a disadvantage to their peers who pay attention.

One other thing to keep in mind: some students (including me) use the internet to look up material that's relevant to the class discussion (like the FRCP, Constitution, cases on LN or WestLaw). Often, it saves you from having to lug extra heavy books to class.

I have one professor who bans the use of laptops in classes, and I absolutely hate it. Not only does it have no effect on improving classrom discussions (the people who would be playing on their laptops are the ones who don't participate anyway), but it just gives me an extra chunk of work every day (having to type up my class notes and then print them out again every morning before class) that I don't need.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Oct 14, 2005 7:56:12 PM

You have windows in your classroom?

Posted by: Derek Conrad | Oct 14, 2005 6:13:25 PM

My own sense continues to be that this is wrong. Some students indeed distract themselves, but others use the internet for beneficial educational purposes.

I would think that at an intellectual institution for adults the straight-up benefits for the latter would trump the virtues of helping the former help themselves.

Posted by: Will Baude | Oct 14, 2005 4:13:05 PM

At UIUC we don't have wireless in the classroms, but we do have 10baseT ports. Few people actually plug in, and several profs tell their class not to plug in. However, a lot of my classmates play minesweeper or solitaire or whatever during lectures. Some sections have one designated plugin guy who uses his (or her) laptop as a wireless router.

My annoyance is that we take exams without proctors, and are trusted to not violate the honor code. Why doesn't this apply to using wireless as well? If a prof asks us not to use the network, trust us not to use the network. I realize it's less likely to be followed than the stricture not to cheat on tests, but the thought is the same.

Regardless of honor code issues, I understand how annoying it is to be in front of a class where a significant portion of students aren't paying attention, but then again, I always just figured it was their dime, and seeing the difference in results at the end of the class was always a nice bonus.

Posted by: Derek Conrad | Oct 14, 2005 3:43:32 PM

My own sense is that people need to be encouraged not to be distracted (further than they are already) by the internet. So, notwithstanding the fact that we have wireless classrooms at FSU, I've said use of the web/email, etc. is prohibited; I police it by using a remote clicker and powerpoint slides that remind me of what my next questions are regardless of where I am in the room. So I'm almost never at the podium.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Oct 14, 2005 2:26:17 PM

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