A case against higher tech in the law school classroom.

Author:Rothman, Andrew

Over the past two decades, technology has infiltrated virtually every aspect of human life. Accordingly, the day-to-day existence of young people has completely transformed, and educators have struggled to keep up. First, elementary schools introduced computer labs so that young people, who were not as privileged as their classmates with home computers, had access to these new tools and did not fall behind. (1) Digital projection replaced reel-to-reel films on days when teachers wanted to use audio-visual presentations to enhance their classes. (2) Additionally, word processing classes replaced typing classes for those who hoped for careers as secretaries. (3)

As computers became virtually ubiquitous in the homes of college-bound students, something else changed. Without having taken a high school typing class, without ever actually learning formal touch-typing, and without any intention of becoming secretaries, youngsters began typing. (4) Paying little attention to accuracy (spellcheck and auto-correction took care of that), children simply learned to type quickly. (5) By the time kids with home computers reached high school, most could actually type as fast as their teachers could speak. (6) Without learning shorthand or another made-for-dictation system, they could transcribe whole lectures on their laptops in real time. (7)

Faculties in schools across the country welcomed technology into their classrooms. (8) By delving into the Internet, a teacher could always find a well-crafted graphic resource that was far more attractive than the teacher's own hand-drawn scrawl on a blackboard or transparency for an overhead projector. This graphic resource was not only more attractive, but clearer, in full color (16 million different shades!) and easier to read with 3-D effects, well-written captions, and animation, which would certainly keep the students' attention.

Better still, within the wired and, later, the wireless classrooms, students could bring their own laptops to class and visit any teacher-referenced websites themselves. The students could, therefore, be further stimulated by browsing hyperlinks embedded in the site or by searching on their own for new and interesting material.

I first began to doubt the value of technology in the classroom almost ten years ago. At the time, nearly all of the students in my advanced civil procedure class had laptops in front of them. Colleagues complained that they suspected many of their students, hidden behind the lids of their open laptop, were playing Solitaire or Hearts and paying no attention to the class. That did not bother me much. After all, I was an incurable doodler as a student, and 1 still am now. I argued that they were adults and could choose to pay attention or not at their own peril. I worried a bit that their colorful gameboard screen (and their apparent obliviousness to that Queen of Diamonds that could be moved) would be distracting to the students behind them who wanted to pay attention to class. However, I contented myself with the expectation that any serious student in the row behind could overcome such a distraction.

What caused me real alarm was several (four or five) of the essays I read while grading that class's final exam. My exams are always open book--students are permitted to bring with them their casebooks, outlines, notes, and, in fact, any material at all that is in printed form. In these handful of papers, I read what I immediately recognized were verbatim quotations from my classes that semester.

My classroom tends to be a free-wheeling affair. Teaching civil procedure in the context of a docket of simulated cases to litigate, my goal is to create the atmosphere of the law firm war room. This permits students to learn not only how the rules of civil practice work, but how they can be applied strategically for the benefit of a client. Students are encouraged to think freely and to concern themselves not just with what the rules of court say, but how and whether they are enforced and whether they can be bent or broken...

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