Ban the law school lecture

The simmering debate over whether to allow laptops into the law school classroom came to a head in March, with the decision by the University of Chicago Faculty of Law to ban wireless access in class. Follow those links, as well as this one from Paul Caron’s TaxProf Blog (HT: Dennis Kennedy), and you’ll be struck by the sheer volume of comments (178 at the Freakonomics blog alone) from people who feel strongly for or against the ban. It should be no surprise that students and profs tend to line up on opposite sides of this debate.

Well, first of all, there’s a qualitative difference between simply allowing laptops into class and enabling those laptops’ Internet capacities through wireless access. Banning laptops today would be tantamount to banning pen and paper in a 1990 classroom — law students now take notes directly onto their computers, and I don’t see the point in making them take notes manually in class and then type them out later at home (though I’ve heard, and can testify, that writing in longhand seems to engage different and more creative parts of the brain than typing).

So a laptop should be viewed as an essential learning tool nowadays. But activate that laptop’s wireless capacity, and suddenly the entire Net is inside the classroom on dozens of different screens, and that’s a whole different story.

It’s true that millennials are great multi-taskers and can surf the web for a few minutes while still staying engaged in the flow of the lecture. But if you’re sitting in class and there are 50 different screens between you and the professor, featuring a continuous flow of video, e-mails, Facebook pages and the like, there’s no way you won’t be distracted. Your eyes will be drawn whether you like it or not, and your attention will be divided any number of ways. The individual surfer can control what she sees, but the people behind her can’t. That’s not fair, and it damages the larger learning environment.

That said, I don’t see any way in which a wireless ban is sensible or feasible. In most cases, wireless access isn’t something you can just turn on and off at the classroom door — other parts of the school need it (especially the library), and in any event, there are private- and pubic-sector wifi sources outside of those provided by the university. You could order students to disable their laptops’ wireless access, but who’s going to police that? The professor is busy lecturing, few students will be anxious to squeal on their classmates, and anyway, is this really something we want to introduce to the law classroom? Muni-wifi’s struggles notwithstanding, we’re heading rapidly towards a “wireless everywhere” future, so we need a better solution than prohibition.

But maybe the problem isn’t students accessing the Internet during law school lectures. Maybe the problem is that the law school lecture itself is an instutition whose pedagogical day has passed.

Read the comments from law students opposing the wireless ban — their most frequent argument is that the lectures themselves are dull, pedestrian, long-winded, and not particularly useful in helping learn the subject. Even if these charges are unfair at least some of the time, they’re not new. Sitting through lectures in the early 90s, long before laptops, I remember being bored out of my gourd on quite a few occasions — passing notes to classmates, checking the clock, trying to stay focused on the professor’s drone in order to pick up important or useful bits as he went along. Profs failing to engage students is nothing new — and today, with more schools hiring faculty for their research and publishing credentials rather than their teaching skills, I expect it might be worse.

But I don’t really blame the profs either, because it’s a tall order to keep scores of smart young law students focused and engaged for a full hour (sometimes two or three hours at a time) in the traditional lecture hall format: semi-circles of students rising concentrically from the foot of an underground classroom, lengthy monologues interrupted by occasional questions to and from students, detailed notes taken laboriously in a hedge against the possibility that this item might appear on the 100% final exam two months away. This is not how adults learn.

Nor is it how lawyers learn or conduct business. I can’t think of any occasions (outside of equally primitive CLE presentations) where lawyers accomplish anything useful sitting in an auditorium and having someone talk at them relentlessly. But I can think of numerous occasions where lawyers gather around a conference room table with a small group of fellow professionals and pitch in to understand a problem or hash out a solution. If that sounds like a law school seminar to you, then we might agree that the small-group seminar is a far more promising method to pursue if we really want law students to learn and engage.

I don’t hear of too many seminars where wireless laptop access is a problem. When you’re one of at most two dozen people gathered around a common surface, facing each other and expected to contribute to a common goal, you’re not going to be checking your e-mail — you don’t have the cover and comfort of facelessness and anonymity that a lecture-hall setting provides, and you’re too busy keeping up with the conversation to wander onto the Net. It’s one thing to go surfing in the eighth row when the prof rarely glances your way; it’s another when you have to directly demonstrate to your friends and classmates how little you care about what they have to say.

What we’re seeing here is a harbinger that the days of “bulk learning” in law school are drawing to a close. It’s long been convenient for schools to gather scores of students into one big hall and “teach” them en masse — it requires fewer professors and fewer facilities, and therefore less money and less hassle. If that has ever really been a good way to instruct future lawyers, it isn’t anymore, and the wireless laptop debate is bringing that into sharp relief.

If law schools really want to stop students from surfing the web during class, here are some steps they could take.

1. Drop the bulk lecture. Stop teaching students in any group larger than about 20 or 25. The bigger the class, the less focused the teaching and the less engaged the students will be. Take away the protective cover of relative anonymity, and students will stop hiding in the long grass.

2. Increase small-group instruction. My first-year Torts class was taught in a group of 25, and was markedly more engaged and engaging than the lecture-theater courses — the prof couldn’t fall back on monologue lectures, and students didn’t want to run the academic and social risks of detachment. Small-group teaching also allows “class participation” to be graded meaningfully. Better still, further sub-divide students into work-group teams, MBA-style, to achieve tasks — another skill they’ll need in the practice of law.

3. Put the onus on students to lead discussions. Law professors should be facilitators, not lecturers — their job should be to guide students as they take charge of their own learning process. I guarantee that law students — bright, ambitious, extremely motivated and competitive — will be tougher on themselves and each other than the hardest of veteran lecturers. Students responsible for leading the discussion won’t be checking their e-mails.

4. Hire and reward professors for classroom skills. I understand the pressures faced by law schools that make them undervalue the ability to teach. But that’s no excuse for failing to meet their promise to deliver a truly powerful learning environment to the students who pay their bills. If you must keep the large-lecture format, hire professors who can maximize the learning impact of this stunted opportunity.

Wireless laptop access in class is nothing more than a symptom of a disengaged student population and a lecture-hall method that has outlived its usefulness. The less we talk about wireless, and the more we talk about in-class engagement, the closer we’ll be to a solution.


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