Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Lap tops: some other food for thought

I agree with today's posting that there are some definite negative aspects that can occur with lap tops in the classroom.  Having just been assigned to a sub-committee at our law school to look at this problem because of some of the negatives listed, I have been involved in several conversations on the pros and cons, possible remedies, etc.  We are just beginning our work, but it has caused me to give more thought to the issues.  (Most law schools are concerned with these issues; hence, the topic is on the agenda at the teaching methods AALS workshop this summer.)

Personally, I hope that law schools will consider some of the positive aspects of lap top use before banning lap tops completely.  I think some restrictions are needed, but I am less certain that total bans are necessary.  Although as professors we have academic freedom, we need to make our decisions with consideration of all the aspects of our student learners rather than as a reaction to some "bad" learners. 

I know that many other pros and cons will be presented to me through thoughtful discussions with colleagues and students in the coming weeks, but I wanted to list some of my current observations.  I may change my mind about some aspects of the issue, but I am definitely in search of compromises that improve learning for all students and not just some learners.  (My thanks to colleagues and students for their comments, suggestions, and examples as I have mulled over the issues to come to my current thoughts.  There are too many viewpoints and sources to name.  And, I would not want to describe wrongly someone else's position through my own processing "lens.")

Forgive the length of my submission, but putting the thoughts on paper helps me to see what gaps still need to be considered and may help others process the issues.  I know that my ASP colleagues and others will provide thoughtful comments to assist me (and all of us) in this journey for a solution. 

The reasons that I hope that law schools can find "rules of the road" that will allow for compromise and not mean a complete ban are as follows:

  • Students who transcribe every word and disengage their brains to become stenographers are not new.  (Not all lap-top users do transcription, by the way.)  Plenty of students (whether past or present) have hand-written notes with the exact same transcription style because they have developed abbreviations and other "shorthand" methods.  Because undergraduate courses may have required regurgitation of the lectures for an "A" grade, some new law students have come from educational backgrounds where transcribing and not thinking in class equaled the road to success.  Even upper-division students may use this method of note-taking if they have not been shown more effective ways.  One of the transitions in which law students need guidance is that note-taking in law school needs to be adjusted because law school in-class experiences are building toward application and not regurgitation.  Our focus should be on helping all students learn ways to be more discriminating note-takers.  If we focus on making lap tops the culprit for bad note-taking, then we miss the opportunity to correct the real problem. 
  • Learning styles differ among students and to say that no students should be allowed lap tops creates problems for some learners. 
  1. Strong-preference verbal (read/write) learners usually gain more from some hand-written materials (though not necessarily class notes).  There are far fewer of these strong-preference verbal learners in our classes than we might expect.  Many professors probably have a very strong-preference verbal style.  However, many of our students have grown up in a very different educational landscape where teaching methods varied, and students were encouraged to use their different learning preferences.  (Obviously, all of our students read and write, but the point is that it is often not a strong-preference style for our students.) 
  2. Strong-preference kinesthetic-tactile learners actually use typing to focus in class because it is movement and touch which complements their learning. (And, no, it is not the same with hand-writing for most of them.)  There are significant numbers of these strong-preference KT learners in our classrooms.  Some KT's do multi-task.  However, I have found that once these students are cautioned about why they need to avoid any multi-tasking during class to take advantage of lap tops for learning, these students use the technology to advantage and appropriately. 
  3. Strong-preference visual learners at times learn better with typed notes because they are able literally to "see" the material with the "clean" look of the typed page.  Also, the technology helps them to add visual elements during class that increase learning from their notes and briefs.  For many of these learners, a note pad is only useful to capture graphics used by the professor or that the student thinks of during class to visualize a concept or relationship. 
  4. Strong-preference sensing-sequential and sensing-global students need more detail in their notes than global-intuitive students because they learn from facts, practicalities, and details.  One size fits all note-taking does not work.  For sensing-sequential learners hand writing their notes may well cause them more anxiety and less focus on the discussion in class because they will fear that they are not getting everything down that is needed for them to learn.  Sensing-globals will possibly compensate a bit better, but only if verbal (read/write) is also one of their stronger preferences.
  • Because research shows that deeper understanding and learning take place when students process the material themselves, we all encourage students to make outlines to help them focus on the big picture and inter-relationships as well as understand the application for the black letter law.  Lap tops encourage students to produce their own outlines.  It is extremely easy for a law student to cut and paste typed briefs and class notes and to add insights to form a condensed big picture/inter-relationships/application version of the course.  By restricting lap top class notes, two problems that jeopardize learning are likely to increase.  First, students will be more likely to go with their briefs and class notes alone (which may not focus on the big picture, inter-relationships, and application) rather than type out a whole new outline.  Second, students who want a typed outline will short cut and use commercial outlines or other people's old outlines rather than make their own from scratch because it seems such an ordeal without typed class notes. 
  • I also encourage students to take their own class notes rather than depend on "scripts" which are handed down over the years for professors whose courses do not change in major ways.  Taking one's own notes forces processing of the information rather than depending on another person's processing.  (Not only may the other learner have different learning styles, but the other learner may be wrong.)  Students who are not allowed to type their own class notes may rely on a script which is more appealing than the effort of re-typing hand-written notes.  As a result, learning may well decrease for students who would have typed their own notes if allowed to do so.
  • Students in this generation are tech savvy.  They are used to typing and using the computer technology to improve learning.  For example, students use split-screen so that they can view briefs and class notes or outlines and class notes simultaneously.  Alternatively, some students will toggle among these documents.  Students use computer organizers to organize their briefs, notes, and outlines.  If we want students to process after class, then we need to enable them to do it in ways that are conducive to this generation's modes of processing.  (And, the truth is that many students cannot even read their own handwriting these days and cannot write quickly because they are so used to typing.  In fact, I have been told that some elementary schools do not even teach cursive writing any longer!) 
  • Most of us would have to admit that we had law professors who talked 90-miles a minute, were regularly confusing, and/or were not very organized in their class presentations.  And, despite my best efforts, I would have to confess that I have a few days when my fast-talking Northern mode kicks in or I may not have been as clear and organized as I hoped to be because I know my material so well.  Students often need to sift through lecture notes to make sense of what happened in class and condense or re-organize material into a useable format.  That sifting and re-organizing process is much easier with typed notes offering the technology to cut and paste, edit with bullet points and numbered steps, use find/replace, etc.
  • We may need to consider how changes in our teaching methods can help our high-tech students to learn more effectively with or without lap tops.  I shall only give three examples here.  PowerPoint slides or other graphics that are available on-line or as hard copies to all students can assist in learning.  Students who know that these slides will be available later do not feel as compelled to take as many notes and can concentrate instead on listening to the discussion and elaborating the slides in their notes.  (However, PowerPoint slides need to be more than merely lengthy paragraphs stuck on slides or slides filled with distracting "bells and whistles.") Flow charts, tables or other graphics that capture many of the class points and relational aspects of the material can also be used in the same way.  Preview (for global-intuitive learners) and summary (for sequential-sensing learners) skeleton outlines can help students to organize and understand the material more effectively. 
  • There are students who have legitimate reasonable accommodations for disabilities which require that they be able to have lap tops to use in class.  Even a complete ban on lap tops will need to accommodate these students.  By stating that there is a complete ban and then having exceptions, these students are immediately marked as "disabled" among their peers.  (Some of the requisite disabilities are not obvious and visible to others already so they only become "visible" when the students are made exceptions to a new lap top ban.  For some disabled students, this identification as disabled to everyone is a big issue.)
  • Many of our law schools have touted our wireless capabilities, lap-top financial aid, lap-top purchasing programs, high-tech courtrooms and/or other technology prowess.  By banning lap tops completely, we seem to be making an odd statement in light of all of our marketing.  Restrictions with reasonable policies, procedures, and penalties seem more compatible to our descriptions of ourselves as high-tech than complete bans do.
  • Some professors state that students will never use lap tops in the courtroom or with a clients in practice so that they are just requiring what will happen in those settings in order to increase listening skills.  This argument has some merit.  We can all become better listeners with or without lap tops.  However, the non-use of lap tops in legal settings is not as complete as suggested.  It may be true for some areas of practice and in some courtrooms.  However, I have sat in courtrooms where lap tops were used during the trial for a variety of purposes with court approval.  Many states have made major financial commitments to technology use in their courtrooms including at the attorneys' tables during trial.  And, I have also seen lap tops used in client meetings effectively for drafting, strategizing, and note-taking without being disruptive, unprofessional, or insulting to the client.  Lap tops can be professional tools if the technology is approved/explained/used appropriately in these settings.  A complete ban is no longer the reality for all of the legal profession.      

I totally agree that there are some inconsiderate, rude, abusive, and learning-challenged technology users at our law schools.  But, we don't have to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, we need to deal with the problems and find solutions to allow students to use the technology in ways conducive to learning without penalizing those who are already responsible users who learn better with technology. 

So, how do we go about deciding effective ways of computer use in the classroom?  Each law school will need to make its own decisions that match its environment and concerns.  Here are some suggestions based on discussions that I have had so far:

  1. Have a law school study group to look at issues for the specific law school with members on all sides of the issue and with student, faculty and administrative input.  This study group can research the issue, gain information from other law schools if desired, and determine strategies that are appropriate to the specific law school.
  2. Have clear law school policies on what technology uses are not allowed in the classroom.  Surfing the net, instant messaging, shopping on-line, e-mailing, flashing graphics, and snide remarks about others in class would no doubt top the list.  Most students as well as faculty and administrators would readily support banning these behaviors.  Wording could be such as to include a catch-all that divides class-relevant educational uses from non-class-relevant educational uses to capture "creative" examples that may crop up. 
  3. Well-reasoned policies, procedures, and penalties should be well-publicized.  And, the penalties should be enforced.  It does no good if a professor or law school states that "X" will happen, but nothing in fact happens.  Some law schools have granted anonymity for students who turn others in so that "retaliation" is not possible.
  4. Have discussions with law students about the policies, procedures, and penalties during appropriate sessions (Orientation, class meetings, SBA sponsored events, or other venues that suit a particular law school).  Responsibility and professionalism can be included in these discussions.  Most law students are responsible and will react favorably to reasonable and explained policies, procedures, and penalties.
  5. Investigate technology for the specific campus that may solve some of the problems.  Some campuses are able to limit Internet access in classroom spaces while still activating it in other law school areas.  Some law schools are using privacy screens which make distracting graphics, screensavers, and other non-class items less annoying to responsible users.
  6. Solicit strategies that work from professors who have successful use of the computer in their classrooms.  I have heard of professors taking 5 minutes the first day to discuss responsible use and what will happen if students misuse computers (the student becomes the "expert" for the rest of the class; the student is reported to the Dean's office; the student is pointed out for non-class use).  I have heard of professors who "roam" the aisles as they teach, thus curing some of the problems.  I have heard of professors having students sign statements on proper use with the realization that they will be reported for disciplinary action if they violate the conditions.  I have heard of suggestions that the registration schedule should list the professor's lap top policy so that students can sign up for other sections if multiple sections are available.

Lap top use and misuse are important issues.  There are many valid arguments pro and con.  We shall not all agree on the final stance taken by our law schools and our colleagues, but a stance will probably be needed (with academic freedom considered, of course).  I just hope that as ASP professionals we will be a thoughtful part of these discussions and an active part of the solutions to the problem. (alj)

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