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Monday, January 12, 2009

More thoughts on classroom technology

With the new semester upon us, let me start it off with several thoughts on classroom technology.

First, after much talk, I finally banned laptops from my classroom for the coming semester--favorable tenure votes are almost as good as alcohol for giving one courage. I will audio record every class and post the MP3 file on the class blog (a practice I began last semester) for those who want to re-listen and get more detailed (i.e., transcribed) notes or just to fill-in any holes. I pitched this as roughly equivalent to a trial or deposition--you go through a trial day without a computer in front of you; you participate and engage in the trial, taking brief notes where necessary, but not staring only at the computer or typing non-stop; then you get a full, verbatim transcript a day or so later. I will write more about how this goes throughout the semester, especially whether my experience is as favorable as those of everyone else who has experimented with banning laptops.

Second, one of my colleagues gave another great real-world-litigation explanation for why law students must develop the ability listen and take quick-short-but-accurate handwritten notes without the crutch of the computer and verbatim transcription. Many pretrial proceedings are done informally and off-the-record (status conferences, settlement conferences, discovery conferences), but often issues will be decided or worked out and the judge will tell the attorneys to write up what was decided into an order for the judge to sign. If the attorneys were not paying attention and taking notes--in a situation where they cannot sit there typing every word on a computer and never will get a transcript--they are not going to be able to perform this necessary function. And the judge is going to be none-too-pleased. My (federal) judge used to resolve most discovery disputes by phone (again, off the record) and would have the law clerk draft an order. But other federal judges do not have their clerks involved in this way. And in state court, where trial judges typically do not have elbow clerks, this falls entirely on the attorneys. In other words, there is a genuine educational (my colleague's husband hates the word pedagogical) benefit to their learning to work and take notes without computers.

Third, a colleague in another department banned laptops (which, by the way, seem to be far less pervasive among undergrads than law and grad students, at least at FIU), expecting to find students looking up more. Instead, she found them looking down--at their iPhones, Blackberries, etc. So we have to get specific about exactly what is forbidden in the classroom.

But this raises interesting issues as far as the arguments for a laptop ban. iPhones, etc., have no legitimate use in class; students only use them to surf, text, IM, etc., all non-class-related/not-paying-attention uses. For those who relied on not-paying-attention as the justification for a laptop ban, the response always had been "do a better job of teaching and holding their attention and they won't surf."* The pro-ban reply was that laptops are uniquely distracting, because everyone around the surfing student can see what she is looking at. Well, that reply goes away with iPhones or Blackberries. Like the crossword puzzles, doodling, and Bingo that students did in my day (by the way, my day was only 13 years ago), no one else is going to see or be distracted by what that student is doing.

Finally, a note on PowerPoint (PP), which Dan described a couple years ago as the prawf equivalent of the laptop. My wife taught an undergraduate public policy course at FIU last semester. For the first half of the semester, she used PowerPoint slides (mainly to save time having to write an outline on the board); in the second half, she used only the board f. At the end of the semester, she asked the students (who will be in the second half of the course with her this semester) which they preferred and it was unanimous that she use the board and not PowerPoint. Several students re-emphasized the point in their written evaluations.

I found this surprising (especially since I usually get a few written comments each semester demanding PowerPoint). One explanation was that she was not giving them the slides, meaning they had to take notes on what was on the slide, which they found difficult (especially since you can put more info on a PP slide than onto a dry-erase board) and distracting in itself. And I learned this summer at a civ pro teaching panel that the debate between giving slides and not giving slides is almost as unending as the debate between to PP or not to PP. So perhaps PowerPoint is useful (and popular with students) only if they get the slides at the end. If that is the case, then PP (with slides made available) begins to look a lot like my making the audio available--it enables students to pay attention and genuinely engage during class while taking only relatively minimal notes, knowing they can get complete information after the fact. Which is exactly what we want.

The difference, though, is that with PP, the incentive remains for students to tune out during class, knowing they can get everything they (think they) need off the slides with no additional work or thought. That incentive is absent with my audio-after-the-fact approach. Listening to the audio is functionally the equivalent of reliving class, so why not pay attention the first time and just use the audio to fill-in the gaps, rather than to tell you all you need to know.

  • An argument I do not accept, because students are messing around even with the best, most dynamic, most engaging profs.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 12, 2009 at 12:23 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I agree that PowerPoint is never (or virtually never) used well and is at best no-value-added and at worst a major defect. But that does not mean the students would not demand it as a way to (they believe) make their lives easier by laying out the information for them--this underlies the suggestion I frequently receive on my evals.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 12, 2009 2:46:32 PM

I banned laptops this Fall, and will report back the substance of student comments. My decision was taken for all the usual reasons ably rehearsed here and elsewhere. I reject the various "assumption of risk" or "market method" rationales for professors not concerning themselves with how effectively students are using their time in the classroom.

I am not surprised by the PowerPoint results. I have seen, perhaps, three effective uses of PowerPoint in my life. It is an idiotic way to convey information for most law school classes. And for those classes where it is useful, it takes enormous care, preparation and insight to do well. Almost no one does this. Those happy few who do are to be commended, but - much like wiring schools for internet access - this is often done in the absence of any systematic pedagogical thought.

Of course, the same might be said for law teaching generally, but technology is not going to save us from the necessity of thinking hard about what it is we do, and how we should go about doing it.

Posted by: Adam Scales | Jan 12, 2009 1:17:54 PM

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