Law School Reclaims Classrooms for Learning
The University of Chicago Law School has removed Internet access in most of its classrooms because of a growing problem of students surfing the Web on laptops during lectures.
"Every teacher underestimates the amount of Internet surfing going on" in his or her classroom, U of C law Dean Saul Levmore said in an interview Thursday.
"Whenever faculty would visit other faculty members' classes, they would come to me and say, `You just won't believe it. It's astounding what happened.'
"But they never believe it's going on in their own class," he said.
In a recent e-mail message to students and faculty, Levmore wrote, "Remarkably, [Internet] usage appears to be contagious if not epidemic" during law classes.
"Several observers have reported that one student will visit a gossip site or shop for shoes and within 20 minutes, an entire row is shoe shopping.
"Half the time a student is called on, the question needs to be repeated," Levmore added.
Law students' use of laptops to surf the Web, read and write e-mail and play computer games during class has brought changes at a number of schools, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
Stanford now has a posted policy that laptops and wireless Internet access may be used only for purposes relevant to the class and "not unreasonably distracting to fellow students."
And Stanford says "Harvard Law and Business [schools] have resorted to shutting down their wired connectivity in classrooms to address such problems" and Yale has considered it.
In his e-mailed announcement Wednesday, Levmore said that U of C law has removed Internet access in most classrooms "in order to ensure the value of the classroom experience."
On Thursday, he said some students object to his new policy.
"There are some who don't like it, who feel it's quite paternalist and so forth," Levmore said. "They are quite vocal.
"There are many who love it, and many who said they would hate it and were very resentful, and now say they love it.... It's gratifying to hear about people who benefit from tough love."
Some students also thought Levmore should have consulted them more about the move.
But Levmore said the question is, "How do you best learn? That's for the faculty to decide."
Whether to allow computers at all in the classroom is a continuing debate in law schools.
When Levmore proposed to the faculty in early March that the school might cut off Internet access in most classrooms, some faculty responded that computers should be banned, he said.
Some professors believe that students who take notes on laptops during lectures interfere with their own learning.
"Back in the day when we took notes by hand," Levmore recalled, "some people took fewer notes and learned more."
He said some law professors already have "no computer" rules during class.
But he said some students convincingly argued that note taking on laptops is a help to them.
The heart of his decision to prevent Web surfing in class, he said, is that the students "are going to go out to law firms and other settings where they're going to miss these years where they had opportunities for human interaction and contemplating ideas.
"And that's partly what the classroom is for. They don't realize the value of what they're being distracted from. That's really what I believe in most."
Levmore teaches torts to 1st-year students. He said he walks up and down the aisles, which could limit Internet surfing by students.
But he said a common practice was students sending e-mail to each other about what to say in class.
And "for some students, checking e-mail every 15 minutes is like breathing for us," he added.
The U of C information technology staff initially told Levmore that cutting off wireless Internet capacity in classrooms could not be done.
Recently, Levmore said, they found it could be done for the most part. One classroom continues to have Internet capability to allow computer training.
Levmore also said he discovered while researching the subject "how offensive it often is when phone calls are taken in public and when Blackberry and other e-mail devices are consulted during meetings."
So in his e-mail message to the school, he promised himself "that I will no longer check my Blackberry under the table at university meetings."
So far, he said Thursday, he has stuck to his promise.
Copyright 2008 Law Bulletin Publishing Company