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Donahoe, D R --- "Autobiography of a digital idea: from waging war against laptops to engaging students with laptops" [2011] LegEdDig 30; (2011) 19(2) Legal Education Digest 48

An autobiography of a digital idea: from waging war against laptops to engaging students with laptops

D R Donahoe

Journal of Legal Education, Vol 59, 2009-2010, pp 485-514

Many law professors feel as if they are fighting a battle against the students’ laptops in the classroom. Some professors have turned off the wireless routers in their classrooms while others forbid the use of computers altogether. Most professors continue to lecture using the Socratic Method though many students no longer are paying attention. As a result, both students and professors are often frustrated with their classroom experiences. Professors label their frustration as a war against the laptops, whereas students consider it a battle against boredom.

This is an autobiographical account of my attempt to bridge the digital divide to meet students’ changing needs. When I first began teaching at Georgetown University Law Center in 1993, I employed many traditional teaching techniques and used printed textbooks. However, laptops soon began peppering my classroom; at first there were only a few, and then suddenly almost every student was hiding behind a laptop. When I realised that I was teaching to eyebrows instead of engaging my students eye-to-eye, I concluded that the traditional teaching methods were no longer effective. In 1999, I decided to research the mindset of these new learners, to overhaul my teaching methods and ultimately to create an interactive, electronic book that could sit conveniently on those laptops in the classroom.

The electronic book (which took more than eight years to design, write, build, and test) has transformed the ways in which I teach my students – both in and out of the classroom.

When I began teaching at Georgetown in the 1990s, I employed many traditional teaching techniques but decided I would not rely solely on the Socratic Method in my classes. I tried to find ways to engage the students by utilising the social constructivist method of teaching where I told the students they were associates in my law firm working on a client’s problems. Therefore, instead of focusing on the case method of teaching, I focused on problem solving.

While the social constructivist method was helpful, it did not totally engage the students in the classroom. At the time, PowerPoint was the new, exciting technology. However, when I used PowerPoint, I found that my students actually became less engaged in class as they sat back and passively watched a slide show instead of sitting up and becoming engrossed in the materials. Therefore, I began researching the ways in which digital students think so that I could use the new technology effectively to better reach them in the classroom.

First, while most professors think in linear fashion, moving from broad category to narrower categories usually in a page-by-page textual format, digital students think more three-dimensionally, moving from one screen to the next on the computer without regard for context. As a result, digital students are not passive, waiting for the author’s next sequential move. Instead, students are the ‘drivers’ of the information-gathering process, navigating their way through multiple layers of text on the screen’.

Second, digital students research by multitasking and ‘telescoping’. In multi-tasking, a student performs many acts at one time such as reading email, taking notes during lecture, playing poker, and listening to music. In telescoping, a student delves deeper and deeper into multiple screens and varied content seamlessly.

Not only are students used to multitasking and telescoping, most of them spend time playing video games, IM-ing, emailing, and blogging. As a result, digital age students are used to being ‘powered up’. However, powering up does not mean merely turning on the computer to stare at a screen, tap on a keyboard and move a mouse. Text alone often bores digital students. They need to become a part of the material through collaboration, interactivity, and simulation.

Digital students also crave peer review and interaction. Collaboration is at the heart of learning for them. By bouncing ideas off of each other, students can formulate their own opinions and drive the discussion themselves. As a result, the professor no longer needs to be the sole and centre point of learning; instead students have many resources from which to choose.

Digital students demand immediate feedback. Quizzes, self-assessments and tutorials are useful tools for these students because they immediately receive an answer, a score, or a response of some sort.

Digital students demand convenience. They are so accustomed to getting their information instantly at the touch of the keyboard that they become frustrated easily by wasting time looking for materials, relying on books in distant libraries, or even scrolling for too long on a computer screen.

The interactive, engaging online book,, incorporates the learning theory I had researched into a practical, pedagogically sound, fully integrated, technological tool for digital students. I designed it to combine non-linear text, interactivity, immediate feedback, and multimedia into a convenient digital package to try to bridge the digital divide and meet my students on their side of the laptops.

First, I recognised the need for some text so students could read materials; I realised, however, that the resource would need much more than traditional text. I, therefore, decided the text would not be linear. Instead of chapters, I created ‘rooms’ for exit and entrance at will. I wanted professors to be able to easily assign readings from any room so that students would not feel as if they were ‘skipping’ parts of the text. As an alternative, I wanted students to be able to ‘surf the book’, through a random clicking process, a search function, or the navigation system.

Second, I decided that navigation would be important so students would not get lost in this three-dimensional environment. So, I added three methods of navigation – a top bar with branches for the whole site, a more detailed side bar for each room, and a site map to serve as a linear table of contents for the whole e-book.

Third, I knew that students would want to link to other relevant sources to add to the dimension of the content and to allow for further telescoping. Therefore, I set out to link to as many resources as possible. The key was not just adding a multitude of links. These needed to be organised in a logical way and be accessible at any time.

Based on my research, I also wanted students to interact with documents – to touch them, manipulate them, and think about the writing process all at the same time. I created sample documents with annotations and highlighting keys so students could get their hands on documents and focus on aspects of writing while manipulating text. The many layers of these documents tapped into the multitasking and telescoping needs of the students as well as their constant demand for samples of good writing.

Besides interactivity, I knew I needed to add multimedia to engage students and provide context and enriched text. Here, I found that too much video or too many intricate graphics took too long to download and often were not worth the ‘bang for the buck’. So, I used video to bring legal problems to life in client interviews lasting three- to five-minutes. These clips let students easily absorb the legal issue and feel compelled to help a ‘live’ client.

From my research, I knew convenience would be crucial to digital students. I strove for a paperless classroom with assignments that are uploaded and downloaded at students’ convenience and without the need to ‘print’.

From the professors’ point of view, the product needed to be convenient for many reasons. First, I wanted the paperless classroom to let professors avoid the copy machine. Second, I wanted them to avoid the burdensome process of collecting papers. Instead, I designed the e-book so documents would be uploaded and time-stamped so professors need not track late papers in an assignment book.

Third, I wanted the electronic book to provide a ‘bank’ for professors to share materials; via the e-book, they would have a resource of assignments, syllabi, multimedia files, and other material at their fingertips. is the only text I now require for my course. It has replaced all traditional books I previously required: a legal research text, a legal writing text, a persuasive writing text (or advocacy text), as well as a grammar book. I distribute assignments, worksheets, class exercises, and extra readings through the case files section of the e-book. The electronic book is convenient and multi-functional because it provides ‘reading materials’ for the students to prepare for class, as well as ‘class materials’ for the professor to use in the classroom.

The ‘reading materials’ are designed to provide not only content but also interactivity for the students. As for content, the materials cover legal research, legal writing, grammar, and citation. These ‘readings’ are linked directly from the syllabus so students simply log into, click on the syllabus and from there, they can link directly to the readings.

I tried to keep most of the ‘text’ pages short so students would not tire of reading on screen. The trick was to create layers – the telescoping feature – so students could go as deep into the text as they wanted. For example, if a student wants more information on a bit of text, he can click on the ‘more information’ icon to dive deeper into the material. If a student wants to see examples of a certain legal issue or research source, he can click on the ‘samples’ icon to view them in a different window so those don’t interrupt the flow of the text.

I also wanted students to explore while doing ‘reading assignments’ to take advantage of their discovery-based learning preferences. So instead of simply reading about the United States Supreme Court, students can find materials directly on the high court website, listen to real oral arguments and read about the court all at the same time. Instead of reading about how to find cases and statutes out of context, students can find them in any jurisdiction (state and federal) while learning how to find them.

Some ‘reading assignments’ are not reading at all; they might be video clips. That way, the students get more engrossed in the facts and are more interested in helping to resolve the problem

As part of their readings, students are assigned ‘testimonials’, video clips of students talking to other students about research strategies and the writing process. These videos let students learn from more experienced peers. Instead of relying solely on my ideas, they can listen to a third-year student speak of an experience in a law firm.

I also wanted students to receive immediate feedback while doing ‘reading assignments’ out of the classroom. I assign quizzes, self-assessments, and annotated samples all semester to provide students with immediate feedback. The quizzes are quick multiple choice or drag-and-drop questions that let students test their knowledge in a specified area. The self-assessments let students read a whole document and answer questions within it so they can take into account the overall context, purpose, and audience; these assessments are more complex and in-depth than quizzes. Annotated samples let students interact with documents and get immediate feedback in comments on screen that pop up and disappear with the click of a button.

By piquing their interest out of class with interesting and interactive material, students come to class ready to learn and ready to teach others. They ask more pointed questions, pressure me to dive deeper into the subject matter and force each other to think more critically about the material than they had when I used traditional texts. This means my goals, role, and techniques in class also have changed dramatically to meet my students’ learning needs.

First, because the students are more prepared and interested in materials when they come to class, my primary goal is to engage them to make them critical thinkers and independent writers. That way, they can ask themselves pertinent questions when they are young associates and I am not there to consult about research and writing projects.

Second, my role in class also has changed dramatically. I now focus not only on how I teach but also on how students process what I teach. While I still may stand in front of the class, I am no longer always the focal point nor are students merely receptacles ready for all the knowledge I pour into their minds. Instead, I often am a facilitator, helping students learn from each other. As a result, students in class have transformed from passive participants to active learners and discoverers.

Third, I use a variety of pedagogical techniques to facilitate learning in the classroom. I use both online exercises and annotated samples from to help facilitate that learning.

The online exercises in are particularly useful for collaborative learning environments. For example, I will assign an online, peer review exercise as an out-of-class assignment. In class, students discuss the peer review assignment with an assigned partner. These discussions help each student hone in on specific issues and learn about general problems affecting the whole class.

The annotated samples in also are extremely useful for collaborative learning. Here, I ask students to click on a sample (memo, brief, or other document) in the e-book. While I will stand at the front of the room with the document projected onscreen, I ask questions about each part of the document. Students provide answers and ask more pointed questions relating to their own documents. I also ask students to manipulate the text of the samples; they can look for wordiness, and then delete it; they can outline the document, and then click on a sample to check their work.

I also harness students’ desire to multitask, open multiple windows and telescope. Throughout class, I require them to open multiple screens on their laptops as I toggle back and forth. Because students follow with me on their own screens, they have little or no time to IM their friends or play computer poker. At first, many students found that the class went too quickly and that I had too many screens open at once; they complained they could not get the screens open quickly enough to follow (much less to have time to check email). As a result, I now post a class outline, in the e-book and on a projector, with relevant windows linked so students can open them before class starts and have them minimised and ready to bring up on their laptops. This simple solution has permitted me to cover the same amount of computer territory but allows students to keep up.

I also choose materials for class based on the needs of my students. Now that they are so interactive in class, I have a much better sense of what material they comprehend and what I need to address more aggressively. Further, self-assessments are embedded in the electronic book and after students take these, I automatically receive a report on their performance. I can view these reports for individuals as well as track each class cumulatively so I can determine the class needs.

While most students appreciate the use of technology to meet their learning styles, I was concerned that would be underutilised or used poorly because it was so different from the expectations of law students and professors. Its strengths and weaknesses are similar from the perspectives of students and teachers.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the e-book from professors’ point of view is the shared bank; it lets any professor using the e-book to access files from other professors using the book (professors can make files public or keep them private). The electronic book also has a school bank so professors from the same institution can share materials with each other.

I deliberately had chosen not to create a print version because the text was not linear and the interactivity made printing pages interfere with the usefulness of the electronic book. However, some students complained that they could not highlight and write notes on the e-book nor could they access it, say on the subway or mass transit. To address these issues, I created a CD version of the text of the e-book, and then I created a ‘Print Companion’ – a printed book version of the written, static content. While these versions do not include the web’s interactivity, they do point out to readers where it exists so students realise when they are missing interactive resources.

The greatest weakness of is that it requires a user-school to have an excellent infrastructure to make the Internet available. If that system is faulty or slow and students cannot easily access the e-book in class, they will be frustrated. The e-book, of course, requires students to own a laptop or access one easily.

Because digital students log onto blogs and wikis every day to communicate and collaborate, we easily can use these types of sites to enrich the learning environment in and out of the law school class.

On blogs, professors can share ideas on teaching techniques, scholarship, and service.

Blogs also can be used for professor-to-student communication and collaboration. A professor can create a blog with discussion threads and monitor it as students post entries and comments regarding legal issues that arise in class or areas of law on the syllabus. Blogs can aid online study groups.

Wikis also can be useful in legal education. A wiki is a website that allows for simultaneous collaborative writing.

The use of video games as a teaching device, also known as digital game-based learning (DGBL), will make look like a classroom dinosaur. The games will be more effective because they will place the learning within a more meaningful context using life-like graphics; the learning will be applied and practiced within that context at different levels.

For example, in Objection!, a game that teaches evidence, students are situated in a court and asked to provide judges with a basis for their objections as evidence is presented at trial. Although the graphics in this game are simple, the interactivity, immediate feedback, and engaging simulation make a creative tool for students learning about evidence; the learning occurs on students’ laptops – not in class.

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