When I Was In Law School

OPINION

When I Was In Law School

By Terry Calhoun

My own alma mater – Gasp! – the University of Michigan Law School (UMLS), has banned the Internet from its classrooms. Frankly, I cannot imagine a more short-sighted, action. (Well, I can, but I am keeping it to myself, just in case they decide to do that, too.)

If I were still in law school, I would be outraged. Instead, I am mildly amused. The U-M isn’t exactly a case study for ubiquitous wireless anyway. Until recently, in some areas of campus you could only get online if you were an affiliate of the particular program in the building, even if you were U-M staff, faculty, or student from elsewhere on campus. (Maybe that’s fixed now?)

The whole thing started at UMLS because a professor was questioning the slow reaction time and blank faces of students when he asked them questions. He investigated and was “stunned” (“stunned,” I tell you) that students were doing things like sending IMs, playing solitaire, and making online purchases while in class. Here’s where I found this out.

At least they stopped short of banning laptops. Of course that means that a lot of students are probably still online using cell phone modem cards or other devices. U-M law students are not, by and large, an impoverished group of students. They can afford to buy gadgets. I suspect that in a fairly short time, the ban will be lifted – hopefully without too much money being spent first on infrastructure to block wireless signals.

I am not going to enter the fray about whether or not professors need to be more entertaining. I do think that if a professor feels that students are not paying attention for an important, interactive part of class, it’s not particularly hard to ask everyone to lower their laptop lids for a while now and then.

But shutting off the Internet is like shutting off air to breathe. Well, maybe not for law students. They do tend to be a little older. There probably are not very many ‘Net Generation students in law schools yet, but watch out when they get there! It’s going to be very hard to make folks who spend most of their waking hours online in one way or another to stop it for classes. (And it may become another reason to skip class.)

I wasn’t the best student ever to attend UMLS, in fact I may well have been one of the worst, academically speaking. By the end of my first semester, it had become clear to me that I could not stomach the practice of law as a career, but I stuck school out to get the credential. And it’s definitely come in handy.

When I was in law school, for most of my classes I had the opportunity to type my exams instead of writing them in “blue books.” This was primarily because by the time I started law school at age 29 in 1977, my handwriting had deteriorated to the point (from too much typing) that no one wanted to read it.

The coolest part of being one of the students who typed their exams instead of wrote them was the fact that I got to sit in a small room by myself (one of many) and not shoulder to shoulder with dozens of others in a lecture hall with monitors walking up and down the aisle.

I would tuck my IBM Selectric under one arm, a six-pack of Coke under the other, and before the exam started I would unpack my Sony Walkman and headphones and enjoy solitude and music while I took the exams. I have a funny feeling that I would not be allowed to do that in 2006.

So, technology enabled me to make taking exams a little more fun. If I were a student today, surfing the Web while in class would make class a whole lot more fun. And I seriously doubt that it would diminish my learning. Actually, I am confident it would make it better.

Why is that? Well, I happened to be very lucky to have been permitted, a number of years ago, to participate in the first online law school class at Harvard, run by the Berkman Center. It was free, of course, and if I remember correctly, there were a couple hundred students – all virtual, all from around the world.

The way the class was set up was with a central auditorium and a bunch of smaller chat rooms that students could gather in and “talk” to each other via chat. The “lecture” came to us via slowly typed sentences in red text. I was thrilled with the process, because I found that being able to talk with the other students while we “listened” to the lecture was immensely educational. We were typing back and forth at a rate much faster than the professor was and were ahead of him most of the time.

I’d be willing to bet that if UMLS offered class-topical chat rooms where the students could share comments and notes with each other while the faculty members lectured or queried them, it would enhance the learning experience. So I’ve talked myself into thinking that I really don’t like the decision to stop the Internet in class at all. Instead of going forward with ways to use it in class, UMLS has banned it instead.

My hope is that the planning for the banning of the Internet in UMLS classrooms was accompanied by planning for some relatively objective evaluation or assessment of whether the result is good or bad fore student learning, as any such policy change should be. Then, in a year or two, we can hear something other than professorial, anecdotal statements about how much better the profs feel in class. We need to know whether the ban enhanced or hindered learning outcomes.

If there is such a study and report, I’ll cover it here.
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