Thursday, February 12, 2009

Technology and Your Legal Education

How times have changed since our law professors were themselves law students. For starters, the wheel was invented. And, seemingly against all odds, the Earth was discovered to be round.

Ok…in all seriousness, legal education, fueled by rapidly developing technology, has drastically changed since even the youngest of our professors received their JD’s. While they undoubtedly spent long nights in the depths of a library flipping through pages of statutes and case law, our generation has the luxury of having such material easily available with the click of a mouse. One of the most controversial changes, however, has been the introduction of laptops in the classroom. Although there are obvious advantages (e.g., the ability to take well organized and detailed notes), many law professors are insisting that laptops, coupled with the availability of wireless internet connections, are adversely affecting our education. Some have gone so far as to ban the use of laptops in the classroom.

To be fair, their arguments are not without merit. We do surf the internet. Chatting on Gmail is a regular occurrence. Facebook? It happens. And, perhaps worst of all, some are too busy transcribing every word the professor says to actually understand the concepts being taught.

These are undoubtedly serious problems, but banning laptops in the classroom is not the right answer. In my opinion, there are two reasons professors should refrain from enforcing such a strict rule. First, the benefits of laptop use are great. If I don’t understand a concept or phrase, a simple Google search can often provide instantaneous enlightenment. If I remain confused, a short message to a classmate asking for clarification does the trick.

Second is the fact that education is a service industry. Law students pay enormous amounts of money and take on much debt. In today’s struggling economy, discussed earlier, those who do not excel in the classroom are having increasing difficulty locating a job. If students believe that using a laptop furthers their education, they should be allowed to do so without undue burden from the school.

Unfortunately, this is not an issue that will go away anytime soon. Professors are increasingly placing restrictions on laptop use. Those that have done so are proclaiming the ban a success and emphatically announcing that intellectual discussion in the classroom is more prevalent than in recent years—back like it was when they were in law school.



  1. Good post. I have to second this observation. I don't understand why some professors refuse to allow laptops in their room..I have heard all the excuses though: it takes away from the learning environment; professors want you to understand the material, and so on. I really think one of the biggest reasons is because professors simply want (in a weird self-indulgent manner) people to listen to them and care what they are saying, even if the subject matter has nothing to do with the law.

  2. what?? using computers really screws me up. I take notes on paper, and i can't stand watching someone in front of me playing solitare -- its distracting

  3. This is an interesting issue. For whatever it is worth, I've been in a "no laptops" class this semester and have found it fantastic; the professor keeps my attention throughout the class, and I do think the discussion is at a slightly higher level. Of course, I don't think my experience in this particular class would be any different if we were allowed to use computers. I don't really surf the internet, or get distracted anyway--and to the extent I do, I'm pretty good at multitasking.

    I think the best argument against the "no laptop" rule is that it is pure paternalism: why force students to do law school the way it used to be done just because it is presumably "better"?

  4. PLEASE send this post to my 1L torts professor... PLEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAASE!!!

    -mad 1L

  5. One professor of mine once noted that it was his job to keep our attention.

    When laptops are not allowed, I've observed doodling, note passing, and other methods of not paying attention/distracting others.

    I do have to say that while watching people in front of me surf, chat, and play solitaire on their laptops doesn't really distract me, one time someone streamed a full-screen soccer match and that was very distracting.

  6. LOL --- 8:51...last year during March Madness, I sat in the back of my property class and nearly 50 people were streaming the games

  7. Sounds familiar to my experience, 8:54.

  8. I don't think you're being remotely honest with this post. Not 10% of the people using laptops in class use them to take notes. They spent 80% of their time on google chat, then occasionally switch to Word to jot something down. Why bother typing your own notes when you can just use someone else's outline at the end of the semester?

    You're right that if someone (or more accurately, someone's mom and dad) wants to spent $60K a year to send their kid to school to surf the internet, should anyone really care? They will be the ones getting laid off in bad times.

    At the same time, the school has a big interest in actually turning out students that are qualified and impressive--it directly affects their US News ranking.

    It disgusts me how little attention the students in class pay. (How many times does a student have to say, "could you repeat that?" when they are called on?) But it's hard to say why--there have always been morons around me, why should law school be different?

    But why come to class?! That's the amazing thing, the school insists that a legal education is "interactive," then allow students to sit in class and read facebook.

    I think the only justification for having internet access in class rooms is that if one school banned it, it would put them at a huge disadvantage compared to competing schools. In order to fix the problem, all the schools will have to agree en masse to ban internet in the classroom (the problem is really internet, not laptops).

    Actually, I do know why I'm disgusted by the laptop use. It's because I came to law school expecting an exciting intellectual experience surrounded by people fascinated and in love with the law. Instead I find myself surrounded by people who couldn't care less. I KNOW I had to expect a lot of the students would only be concerned about that big paycheck, but that doesn't lessen my disappointment.

  9. @ 5:18--

    Good job articulating the opposing view. We're going to see if we could find a law professor to respond to Josh's message to further expand upon your very valid, and well-taken points.

  10. As for looking up a word or concept you don't understand on google, or messaging your friend if you're still confused, here's a novel idea: raise your hand!

    I think you inadvertently pointed out exactly the problem with laptops, in two ways. First, it clearly reduces the conversation in class, for the very reason you mentioned. There's a HUGE reason not to look something up on google. If you have the question, so do 50 other people, and you asking the teacher to clarify will help the 50 others who are too shy to ask. (And your asking "dumb" questions will encourage others to ask dumb questions as well.)

    Second, the laptops create the opposite of a collegial atmosphere, again for the reason you mentioned. First it creates an obvious, visible distinction between those with laptops and those without, second even among those with laptops it creates an easily seen distinction between those taking notes and those on facebook.

    And third, most importantly, it is no longer 80 people learning the subject together. It is 10 little groups of 8 people.

    I think your one "advantage" of laptops in class is really exactly the biggest reason to disallow them.

    It's debatable whether notes are better on a laptop, but I think that is a relatively minor issue compared to the massive ability of laptops to hinder the collegial atmosphere of the classroom.

  11. @ 4:38—
    You make some valid points. If the alternative to laptop use was a collegial atmosphere with 80 people learning the information together, then I’d say you were right. Unfortunately, I think your view is rather idealistic.
    Your problem seems to be more with society at large than the law school classroom. Technology has changed the way people interact- and it hasn’t all been for the good. Whether it is surfing the internet or constantly having an iPod on around campus, technology has caused people to separate themselves from greater society. It’s not realistic to expect people to alter the way they interact when they enter the classroom. It’s an unfortunate reality of our times.
    I also don’t think all law school classes are conducive to the give and take discussion you suggest. Many professors who strictly adhere to the Socratic method do not want to hear from anyone other than the student the professor has called on.
    Lastly, you failed to acknowledge the fact that law students pay enormous amounts of money to get their JD. Another unfortunate reality in this harsh economic climate is that our grades are going to significantly affect whether our JD is worth anything after graduation. I, personally, feel as though I learn better with a laptop. It fits my learning style. With so much emphasis on grades, why shouldn’t I be allowed to learn the way I want to learn?


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