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Maxwell, N G --- "From Facebook to Folsom Prison Blues: How Banning Laptops in the Classroom Made Me a Better Law School Teacher" [2008] LegEdDig 28; (2008) 16(2) Legal Education Digest 50

From Facebook to Folsom Prison Blues: how banning laptops in the classroom made me a better law school teacher

N G Maxwell

XIV Rich J of Law & Tech 2, 2007, pp 1–43

In the fall of 2001, I began using the classroom computer as a sophisticated blackboard. I would type and project on an overhead screen the material that, in the past, I had written on the board. Using the computer in the classroom meant that what I had written was not ‘erased’ at the end of class, but could be saved for later use. Consequently, I began to use TWEN, posting online the material I typed during class, which allowed the students to access the ‘class notes.’ In addition, I posted the course syllabus and old exams with model answers. Students also could use TWEN for threaded discussions, although they have not used this feature with much regularity.

One of the benefits of having the ‘class notes’ posted on the course web page was that, the next time I taught the course, I could use the old notes as a skeleton for material that I wanted to discuss in class. When I introduced hypotheticals or asked questions for class discussion, I could project the text of this material on the screen in sixteen or eighteen point font, and then leave some blank space for me to type the students’ responses or questions to move the discussion in a particular direction. I also added information if more clarity was necessary. I found that this technique was more flexible than PowerPoint, at least as it existed in 2001, because I could continue to add, highlight, or change the ‘notes’ during the class, based on the students’ responses and questions.

Because I was learning and applying technology, which resulted in my thinking more deeply about teaching, I had a positive attitude toward technology in general, including the use of laptops in the classroom. However, as more laptops came into the classroom, I began to notice a decrease in student engagement in the classroom. One cause of the disengagement appeared to be the result of some students’ unwillingness to become involved in the class discussion because they were attempting to transcribe everything said in class. The second problem became apparent when law school faculties began debating whether to allow wireless Internet access in the classrooms, as that form of technology became available. Like many of my colleagues, I worried that students could be distracted by Internet access, rather than engaging in class. This second concern was more problematic than the first because transcribing students were attempting to capture what was being said in class. Students distracted by the Internet, however, may not be listening to or comprehending anything occurring in the classroom.

Many faculty members decided to tell the students they were not to access the Internet during class, unless specifically directed to do so. But then came the problem of enforcement. One has to decide how to enforce the policy in addition to deciding the consequences for violating the policy — and does one set out the consequences in the syllabus, providing fair notice?

Some professors report having their teaching assistants patrol the classroom, or they give extra points to students for reporting classmates who are violating the ‘no-Internet policy,’ to the professor. Some professors use the cameras in the classroom, which allows them to scan the classroom for violators, and then project the camera view of an offending student’s laptop screen on the overhead screen, so the entire class can see who is violating the no-Internet policy.

In adjusting to the introduction of wireless access in the classroom, I decided that I would inform my students in the course description that they could not access the Internet with their laptops during class. I did not include any consequences for the violation of the policy, preferring to deal with any problems on a case-by-case basis.

When I did not restrict Internet access in my classroom, however, I noticed almost immediately that the level of student volunteers dropped significantly. I also found, when I called on students, many of their responses were not as thoughtful or as complete as they had been in the past. More students responded to being called on with a ‘deer in the headlights’ reaction and it took longer to orient the student to the nature of the questions. I suspected these differences were the result of student distraction by surfing the Internet and not paying close attention to the class. As evidence of this fact, I received student e-mails, written while the students were actually sitting in my class, something I had not experienced before.

I asked several students in this upper-level class whether they thought there was a decrease in classroom participation and preparation when students were allowed access to the Internet. Not only did the students agree, but they also said it was not merely the distraction of Web browsing, but that something more insidious was affecting classroom discussion. Apparently students were sending Instant Messages (IM) to each other and when a student was called on, the other students would make critical or disparaging remarks about the student on the hot seat. Very few people were willing to volunteer in class if they were going to be the target of their classmates’ critical and deriding comments.

To have a sense of laptop usage in the classroom, I set up an unscientific, but revealing, research project to record laptop use in the classroom. A law school librarian asked several students to keep track of laptop usage in one of the classes they attended. The ‘trackers’ were asked to record, starting at five minutes into class, what was on the laptops screens that were visible to them every ten minutes (hereinafter referred to as the ‘data collection points’), for the first two weeks of each month. Of the laptop screens that were visible, the trackers recorded whether the laptop was being used for taking notes, or whether the screens showed that students were using the laptop for e-mailing, sending IM, or browsing the Internet (hereinafter referred to as ‘inappropriate use’).

The students tracked three upper-level classes, referred to as Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3.

In Class 1 the course syllabus stated the use of laptops for non-course related reasons, such as e- mailing and sending IM, was ‘strictly prohibited.’ The syllabus did not state, however, the consequences for violating this prohibition. The student tracker for this class reported that the professor stated if a student was using a laptop inappropriately, that student would not be allowed to continue using the laptop in class. To enforce this policy, the professor would walk around the classroom and when he saw a law student on the Internet, he would reach over and close the student’s laptop lid. The tracker also reported that the professor had mentioned in class several times that, in the past, he sent students out of the classroom if they were inadequately prepared; however no students actually were sent out of the classroom during the semester he tracked the laptop usage. Not surprisingly, this class had the lowest percentage of inappropriate use. Even so, out of fifteen class sessions and a total of ninety- eight data collection points, in only the first class session were the students with visible laptop screens engaged in note-taking at each of the seven data collection points. Of the remaining fourteen class sessions that were tracked, at least one visible screen showed inappropriate use at a data collection point. In one class session, the tracker recorded inappropriate use at every single data collection point. In ten of the fifteen classes, at least thirty-three per cent of the data collection points showed inappropriate use. In four of these ten class sessions, at least one half of the data collection points showed inappropriate use.

In Class 2 the course syllabus did not mention inappropriate laptop usage, but the student tracker reported that the professor announced during the first class that laptops were to be used for note- taking only. Out of thirty-three class sessions and a total of 183 data collection points, at least one screen displayed inappropriate use in all thirty-three classes. In fact, in the very first class, every single data collection point showed inappropriate use. One other class session also showed inappropriate use at every single data collection point. In thirty-one of the thirty-three classes, at least thirty-three per cent of the data collection points showed inappropriate use. In twenty-four of these thirty-one class sessions, at least one-half of the data collection points showed inappropriate use.

Class 3 also did not have a laptop policy in the syllabus and the student tracker did not recall the professor stating any policy about laptop usage. Predictably, Class 3 showed the highest level of inappropriate use. There were twenty-eight class sessions tracked, with a total of 142 data collection points. Not only did all class sessions have at least one screen showing inappropriate use during a data collection point, but in all class sessions at least thirty-three per cent of the data collection points showed inappropriate use. In twenty-six of the twenty-eight class sessions, one-half of the data collection points recorded inappropriate use and in eighteen of these twenty-six class sessions, seventy- five per cent of the data collection points showed inappropriate use. In thirteen class sessions, every single data collection point showed inappropriate use.

One could argue that this data proves that having a strict laptop policy is an effective way to reduce inappropriate laptop use, based on the data from Class 1. The student tracker in that class, however, stated he did not enjoy this class because the class structure imposed more external controls on students than any other class during his legal education. Studies on law student morale support this dynamic finding that excessive external controls correlate with students’ lack of enjoyment in law school. On the other hand, the faculty member in Class 3, who had the most inappropriate use, was an extremely popular classroom professor.

Although this tracking is highly unreliable from a scientific perspective, it does point out that in only one class session out of a total of seventy-six sessions, there was no inappropriate use of the visible laptop screens at every ten minute data collection point. In other words, law school professors should assume at any given moment in class, at least one student, and probably more, are engaged in inappropriate use of the laptop, particularly considering that a high percentage of the laptop screens were not visible to the trackers.

Although that semester I tried various different teaching techniques, became much more animated and created interesting and even provocative hypotheticals, I was not able to feel the same level of student engagement. Not only was the lack of connection with my students supported by the tracking data, but recent scientific research on laptops in the classroom substantiated my experience.

Based on this research, laptops in the classroom do not improve student performance on examinations. In fact, even in situations in which laptops are required in order for the students to complete computer-based exercises, “applicable” use of laptops in the classroom does not improve student scores on exams that test the information learned in these computer-based exercises. On the other hand, the detriments of having laptops in the classroom are substantial. Students who spend longer periods of time engaged in extraneous activities on their laptops will perform more poorly on examinations, and among those students, the ones who have access to the Internet are most at risk.

My sense of disconnection from my students, after a semester of unrestricted laptop use, significantly reduced my enjoyment in the classroom. It was only when I read Professor Ken Bain’s description of how effective teachers conduct their classes that I understood what I was experiencing. Professor Bain stated that: ‘The most effective teachers might begin a point by looking at one student then move their eyes from one person to another before finishing the explanation with someone across the room . . . They watched their students’ reactions, read their eyes and other body language, and adjusted what they said to the enlightened, confused, bewildered, or even bored looks they saw in the classroom . . . They moved from behind the podium, or avoided artificial obstructions altogether.’

The sensation I had of trying to teach, only to be bouncing off a blank wall, began to make sense. There were various options to deal with the sense of disconnection I was experiencing in the classroom. One option was to allow the laptops but deny access to the Internet. Several universities have installed Internet blocking devices, allowing the professor to ‘turn off’ the Internet while teaching class. Even at schools that have implemented this software, however, students can bypass the university’s server and use an alternate server to gain access to the Internet.

Another option was trying to use the Internet to engage students during class. Some professors report having IM capability with all the students using laptops and when one student is on-call, the other students can send the professor an IM with their responses and the professor sends back a short IM. Initially this idea sounded ludicrous. It seemed that instead of sending IMs, the students should be raising their hands and getting into the discussion. Professors who use this system, however, may engage in a Socratic dialogue with only one student for an extended period of time, rather than taking volunteers to join the discussion. Thus, sending IMs becomes a way to involve more students. Some professors also reported more IM involvement by students who, in the past, did not engage in classroom discussion voluntarily because they were too shy to speak.

I sensed my feeling of disconnection would not be eliminated as long as laptops were in the classroom in large numbers.

Of course there is the concern that a no-laptop policy would result in student backlash, generally in the form of poor teacher evaluations. I had been tenured a long time, however, and because I had received higher than average teacher evaluations most of my teaching career, I decided not to worry about teacher evaluations.

On the other hand, I did not want student backlash to create an adversarial and resentful relationship in the classroom. I realised substantial student negativity in the classroom could obstruct a positive learning environment. The next semester, however, I would be teaching a first-semester, first-year course, Criminal Law, which was divided into two smaller sections of approximately thirty-five students each. Because first semester, first-year students are new to legal education, they are unsure about what to expect in the law school classroom.

Two days before the beginning of classes I sent out an e-mail to my students, informing them laptops, Blackberries and other electronic devices were not allowed in my classroom.

The obvious legitimate use of the laptop was to take class notes. Because I posted the class notes on the TWEN site after each class, however, I believed this procedure would reduce student anxiety about not having a laptop. To further assist the students with their note taking, I decided I would post, at least twenty-four hours before class, key ‘class questions’ about the reading material, which the students could print and bring with them to class.

Although all the questions were covered in class, I did not type in the answers to each of the questions. This uncertainty about what would be posted on TWEN after class encouraged the students to attempt to answer the questions before class and to take notes throughout the class.

Before the first class session, I posted a question involving the issue statements for the first case covered in the course. This case had two issues but, in past semesters, the students’ briefs invariably contained only one issue. By asking the students to state the two issues in the case, the students read the case more carefully and were better prepared for class. As the semester progressed, I included in the class questions some of the hypotheticals that, in the past, I would have raised during class. By having the hypotheticals before class, class time was used more efficiently and there was more depth in the class discussion, with the students having a better understanding of the concepts being raised in the hypotheticals.

Another technique I decided to implement was to assign one-third of the class to be ‘on call’ a specific day of the week. Because being called on activates students’ ‘startle response’ making them appear, at least initially, totally inarticulate, I found calling on students did not instill a sense of mastery or competency. If a group of students knew ahead of time they could expect to be on-call, however, they would feel better prepared when the questions were addressed to them, similar to attorneys who have prepared for trial or oral argument.

When the students came into class for the first time, I handed out three different seating charts, with different assigned seats for each class day. I explained to them the different seating charts and the idea that they would be on-call one day a week. I also told them, however, students could volunteer without being on-call and I might call on students who were not on-call. This way I was not discouraging volunteers, while encouraging all of the students to be prepared for every class.

One of the concerns I had about such a highly structured class was that the students would feel overly constrained, causing impediments to learning. To lighten this sense of constraining external controls, I decided to play a song on the computer, projecting the lyrics on the overhead screen, as students were getting seated in class, before class began. I selected songs related to the cases or subject matter for that class session. For the first day of class I wanted a strong beat and compelling lyrics, so I selected the classic ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ by Johnny Cash. As students filed into class, I handed them the multi-paged picture seating chart, with Johnny Cash belting out the lyrics ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ and the prisoners cheering in the background.

There was a clear consensus among the students, however, that they would not like the no-laptop policy if those features were not incorporated into the course.

One unexpected use of technology also assisted the students when they were preparing for their practice, midterm and final examinations. I had been asked to videotape my class sessions for viewing by pre-tenured faculty. I posted the videotaped class sessions on the law school webpage, which also allowed my students to have access to the class videos. One of my students told me, after I announced the practice examination was covering negligent homicide, she replayed the class sessions in which we covered negligent homicide as a method to review the material and to clear up questions that developed as she organised her class materials covering this topic.

As I began teaching in the fall semester of 2005, when I instituted the no-laptop policy, I immediately began to feel an increased level of energy and student engagement in the classroom. I could adjust my teaching to match the feedback I was receiving. We were engaged in the communication loop of receiving information and sending feedback — I was no longer bouncing off a blank wall. This positive learning environment was reinforced by students who continued to evaluate my classes with above average ratings.

Students also had slightly improved test scores.

Although it is not possible to isolate the causes for the improved test scores, it was clear that students were not being harmed academically by implementing a no-laptop policy in the classroom. In addition, adopting a no-laptop policy caused me to think about my teaching and the students’ learning in ways that are being substantiated by research on learning.

This past semester I taught the large upper-class course that caused me to implement the no- laptop policy three semesters ago. Enrolled in this course was an equal mix of students from the 2004 first-year class in which I allowed laptops, as well as students from the following year, when I implemented the no-laptop policy.

To provide advanced notice of the no-laptop policy, I sent an e-mail a week before classes resumed, informing the students I did not allow laptops or other electronic devices, except voice recorders, in the classroom. I also informed them the classes would be videotaped and the videos would be posted on the class TWEN site. I did not experience a mass exodus of students withdrawing from the course and, in fact, I had seventy-two students in a classroom that has seventy-five seats.

The lesson here is not an urgent call for every law professor to adopt a no-laptop policy. Rather, the point is that law school teachers need to be connected to their students in order to educate them. Because I experienced the presence of laptops as preventing that connection, it made sense to remove these obstacles from the classroom. It was, however, my sincere interest in providing students with skills that increased their competency and mastery in the classroom that made the laptop ban a success.

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