Logging in: Professors, Students Debate over Wireless Technology

BY ANGELA YINGLING

For over two years, HLS students have had wireless internet access in the classroom, allowing them to surf the web, Instant Message (IM) each other, and check email during class. It also potentially provides both professors and students with new and innovative ways of engaging with the material under discussion. This wireless technology has drawn a myriad of reactions from both students and faculty, and has left many people asking: should wireless access be banned in the law school classroom?

This question was the subject of a panel discussion and debate, sponsored by the Law School Council and the Journal of Law and Technology (JOLT), held Monday night, April 10 in Austin West. The panel was composed of four professors – Jonathan Zittrain, Elizabeth Warren, Roger Fisher, and Richard Parker – and two students, 2Ls Elizabeth Stark and James Weingarten. They offered their views of the proper role of wireless technology in the classroom before taking comments from the large crowd of students who attended the event. Moderating the panel was Professor Robert Clark, who professed that he “didn’t care” if students used the web during his class, as long as it was not distracting to other students.

However, the problem of distraction was one topic brought up over and over again throughout the discussion. Some students testified that they are often distracted by their classmates’ computer screens in front of them. This concern was echoed by panel member Professor Richard Parker, who only realized the extent to which students surfed the internet during class when he visited other law schools with his nephew. Professor Elizabeth Warren questioned the value of allowing laptops into the classroom at all, arguing that students with computers often “transcribe [what is being said], and become far too interested in the notes and not in the conversation.”

But some students and other panelists, including Professor Jonathan Zittrain, cited the ways in which computers, and specifically wireless technology, can aid class discussion. New technology, he said, “can be quite useful” in helping students learn. A prime example of this was on display at the event: students who logged onto a certain website during the event could pose questions anonymously to the panelists, which then appeared on a large screen in the front of the room. Other students could respond to the questions, or “vote” for them, indicating they would also like to see the issue addressed. If used during class, such technology could allow students who shy away from asking questions to participate in the discussion, and would also alert the professor when a high percentage of the class is confused about an issue.

Many different views were expressed by the panelists, but all seemed to agree that it should be up to the individual professor whether to allow laptops at all in their classroom. But once the laptops are allowed in, it becomes very difficult for professors to impose norms regarding their usage because they have no way of monitoring students.

Professor Roger Fisher explained various proposals the IT Committee has explored, including disabling students’ individual accounts while they are scheduled for class, but noted that the committee had yet to come up with a way for professors to individually disable the wireless network while they teach.

The students expressed a variety of opinions as well – from self-proclaimed “internet addicts” who wished they could log off during class, to students who want to be able to multi-task when they find class becoming dull. Many students reiterated the idea that they tend to turn to the internet when they feel disengaged from the class discussion. In response, Professor Zittrain pointed out that the internet itself may actually lead a class towards disengagement, because as students “tune out” to surf online, the discussion suffers and then even more students become disengaged.

The debate Monday night was not meant to answer the question of whether wireless access should be banned in the classroom, but it provided a nuanced and thoughtful discussion on the issue. For all its virtues and shortcomings, wireless technology is here to stay in our society. But does it belong in the law school classroom? That question has yet to be answered.

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