The Wired Law School Classroom: How Much is Too Much?

Jay Willis

Yesterday, the Boston Globe profiled the expanded use of technology in colleges and law schools, writing that institutional eagerness to make the Internet available in classrooms has been replaced with trepidation at what many professors and administrators now feel is a counterproductive distraction; for example, Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, calls it “demoralizing” to see students shopping for shoes as he lectures.  Law students are familiar with the steps that professors take to fight this trend; many ban the use of laptops in class, while the University of Chicago Law School has gone so far as to entirely cut wi-fi access in its classrooms during instruction time. Research indicates that such policies may have scientific backing; critics like psychologist Clifford Nass and author Nicholas Carr have recently purported to illustrate the negative effects of the Internet and technology on the brain’s ability to concentrate.

Opponents of such policies counter that the Internet can be a valuable tool that complements the classroom experience.  For example, students with a wi-fi connection can look up contextual material and rapidly search through long opinions for the exact provision to which the professor is referring.   It is only the misuse of the Internet that causes problems worthy of administrative intervention, they argue.  The fact that some students choose to occasionally shop online, send an e-mail, or post a clever Facebook status should not rob responsible students of the many advantages that in-class wi-fi provides.

Internet use is problematic, however, primarily because it distracts students other than just the individual surfer.  Students Tweeting rapidly during class do not do so merely at the peril of their own understanding; instead, such conduct too often affects the understanding and concentration of those surrounding them.  Furthermore, since the ability to multitask varies greatly among individual students, it is almost impossible for administrators to effectively implement more incremental restrictions.

Finally, allowing schools to limit wi-fi usage when necessary is faithful to the underlying expectations of both professors and tuition-paying students. The former are responsible for educating future lawyers, while the latter presumably expect that their investment in law school will eventually make them into competent attorneys. If the Internet interferes with the professor’s ability to fulfill these important duties and meet these valid expectations, it should be at the discretion of the school to limit or ban its use during instruction.

Young people are used to having constant access to the many benefits that the omnipresent Internet provides.  However, if abrogating this access for an hour or two each day will lead to more effective learning and more effective lawyers, students and administrators together may want to take a hard look at implementing such a policy for everyone’s benefit.

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