BY BRENDAN HICKEY
Laptops with wireless are found in classrooms around the country at varying levels, not just law school. High schools all over the country have engaged in programs whereby every student is given a laptop, the teachers are given laptops and training for two/three years before, and a wireless network is set up on campus to facilitate the use of the internet in the classroom. The entire state of Maine has instituted this program for its high schools, and is trying it out for middle schools as well. These, and similar programs across the nation in places ranging from Marietta, Georgia to Tiburon, CA have been smashing success in terms of improving student education – and it is important to understand the reason why.A laptop can fundamentally change the nature and orientation of a classroom and the teacher’s role therein. Laptops and the internet, through their combined power as an informational and communicative tool, necessarily change the role of the teacher in the classroom from their traditional role of disseminator of information and transforms them into facilitators of discussion. This is a critical, and by all accounts positive, step forward in the development of any educational process. It is a generally established principle of cognitive psychology that students learn better and retain much more information when they are more involved in the educational process, and tend to perform much more “deep processing” (thinking about underlying ideas and concepts rather than just surface facts) in such settings. This should come as no surprise in law school, where the Socratic method (which has just such an aim) has long been the established norm. Furthermore, Harvard Law School is a place which separates itself from other law schools by focusing not just on rote memorization or knowledge of what the law is, but why it is and what it means. These are deep questions, and interaction between students is critical for generating the kind of understanding it takes to address them.On the other hand, laptops can be distracting. I understand furthermore that as a teacher it is distressing and upsetting when students do not appear to be paying attention to you when you’re talking. Banning laptops and/or wireless is not the answer: I was in a class which banned laptops midway through the semester, and it didn’t so much improve student focus as reduce attendance. Rather than take a huge step backwards in the face of this paradigm shift in education, HLS should be at the forefront of harnessing the potential value of the internet and education. It strikes me as grossly inappropriate that teachers in public high schools and middle schools around the country receive advanced training on how to effectively manage and use laptops, while teachers at the nations preeminent educational institution, much less its law school, do not. The Law School can easily afford such training, and if it wants to put substance behind its stated goal of putting student education first then training teachers to be better educators in a 21st century classroom should be a top priority.Finally, I refuse to believe that what are by all accounts the brightest minds and best students in the world (this is Harvard Law, after all) cannot handle the potential distractions while a public middle/high school student can. Every single student here has demonstrated an interest and extremely high ability to learn and perform in the classroom – the fact that we are here shows that we can make good academic choices on our own. Every student has the power to turn their computer’s wireless off if they deem it appropriate, and we do not need the administration to make that decision for us. The ability to discuss, argue, and explain ideas and issues with other students during class is enormously valuable to us as students, and the administration should facilitate this process rather than impede it. This follows closely with what I feel has been a persistent message from the school administration, that our fellow students the most valuable of an impressive array of resources available to us – a message I have absolutely found to ring true in my time here.
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