Laptops & classes – the slippery slope

Let me preface this a bit – I work at a law school.  Unlike most other groups at a university, where the laptop ownership rate might be very high but the “actually carry laptop to class” rate might be quite a bit lower, just about every law student owns a laptop, and uses it in class.  

Also, first year classes (1L) are almost always large, lecture-style sessions.  Even the faculty that are most steeped in the socratic method, calling out students randomly, can ask any one student a question only so often when there might be 80 students in a room (that’s about what our 1L classes are like).  So a student has to know his or her stuff, but the opportunity to drift off now and then over a 1.5 hour class is non-trivial.

Therefore, the question of laptops in classrooms is rather magnified for law classes, and is a touchy subject at times with law faculty.  Basically, the concern is that students are surfing the web and, depending on how broad one wishes to draw the lines, simply tempted to distraction via the web.  The temptation alone is too much.  There has been much subjective opinion that generally argues that laptops and web access is bad.  There has been a bit of anecdotal commentary about how laptops might be better than they are worse.  And there have been two recent articles about how, at the least, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  You’ll find my blog entries with links to the articles here and here.  

Many faculty at several law schools have asked their respective technology groups about blocking internet access during class.  The gist is that it’s controversial.

Yesterday, a 1L came to me with a rather interesting idea.  Basically, some way of either blocking internet access during class via a “blacklist”-style system based on who is enrolled in what class and when that class meets or allowing access but monitoring what students are doing.  

Please read on – this post is getting a bit long for the front page, but please read on…

The intriguing part of this idea is that it’s actually very feasible.  Blocking a wireless signal from getting into a room is extremely difficult if not impossible.  The signal will leak in, someone will get on, and even just setting up a system for turning the closest access points on and off would be tough.  In theory, this blacklist method would work by utilizing a user’s hardware address – each network device has a unique one.  Machines are already put into a little “fake” web space where a user has to authenticate onto the network.  At that point, the system could compare the hardware address with a student ID.  Then look up that student ID against our class roster database, and either grant or deny access.  

An alternative format would be to go through all of that verification and identification scheme, but allow access and then monitor activity.  Did the student go to Facebook?  Do much IM traffic?  Etc.

Both would be opt-in by the faculty.  We would not do this across the board (that’s the proposal by the student with whom I was speaking).

The first model is actually relatively palatable to me (note that palatable is different than appealing.  I’m not sure any scenario in which we could turn off internet access is a good one to offer).  One perspective is that students should not have distractions during class.  However, I don’t think it’s the real benefit.  As law students graduate and move into their professional lives, they will be in situations where they are expected to provide undivided attention in a formal environment.  Admittedly, a classroom is not “formal” when compared to meeting a client at a firm.  But it’s a place where a student could be reasonably expected to pay full attention.  Also, while there would be an outcry, turning off access is very different than monitoring activity.

The second option is a bit scary.  The argument is that faculty could see which students, specifically (so the students are identified in some kind of report) are doing what.  They could then let the student know that they are aware of it and feel that it might be detrimental to his or her grade.  Or perhaps make a general announcement to the entire class that there has been a lot more traffic to Facebook or whatever than there should be (defining “should” would be a nightmare for my department, by the way).  

The benefit of this second scenario, in the eyes of the 1L with whom I was speaking, is that this forces students to self-monitor.  Even before getting a warning, just knowing that there is some tracking will make them think about why they do this or whether to look up some reference online.  This is even more relevant to their professional careers, as that is exactly what they would have to do.  They would be in a meeting, perhaps as a new associate that is one of several in that meeting, and have to discipline themselves to not go online and mess around and give full attention to the client.  Also, in theory, the firm might track their internet use anyway.  

My theory is that this would be abused by the faculty (and that students would come with flaming torches to my office).  Every faculty member would start using it and at even a single use of Facebook in class would start deducting participation points without even warning the students first.  Maybe this wouldn’t happen right away.  Maybe faculty could be convinced to use it more judiciously and interactively.  But I feel that there is too much room for abuse.  

And, of course, while the 1L might be right and it could be great…what if my admittedly pessimistic view turns out to be true?  Isn’t the possibility of my being right far scarier?  Perhaps enough to not even consider that option?  But what if that option springs forth from the proposal to do a “simple” blacklist control system?

Note that neither scenario prevents students from going out and getting broadband cards or anything like that.  But if they want to go that route, then more power to them.  Also note that I’m not advocating for this in general – I’d much rather work on students self-monitoring even in a completely open environment and faculty learning to work with a laptop-heavy class environment.  But it was an interesting conversation.

Comments (2)

  1. Debbie

    No discussion of the profs USING technology to engage their students, eh? Or teaching in such a way that students stay engaged in the class? I think the profs are missing the point – and lots of opportunities…

  2. kaiyen (Post author)

    Actually, law faculty don’t use much technology at all. Even if you take out the…say, 15-20% that are honestly just a bit older and don’t use technology no matter what, we still have an amazingly low technology usage rate. Engaging students via tech would be a whole diferent level.

    I have my own opinions on how class environments should or at least could be managed to improve engagement. But that is not a great tactic when working with faculty, truth be told. And I agree that educating the professors might be the most important aspect that needs to be addressed.

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