Learning and Technology in the Law School Classroom

Teaching The Digital Caveman: Rethinking The Use Of Classroom Technology In Law School” is an article written by James B. Levy, Associate Professor at Nova Southeastern University, Shepard Broad Law Center. In it Levy provides a great overview of the impact of technology and its effect on the science of learning in the law school classroom including examining our assumptions about so-called “digital natives.”

He outlines his paper as follows:

This article begins in Part II with a short history of modern classroom technology, why it has routinely failed to work as promised and the lessons this can teach us. To make better informed decisions, Part III discusses the “science” of how the brain learns. Based on the foregoing, Part IV suggests strategies for using, and knowing when not to use, popular classroom technologies like laptops and PowerPoint in ways that promote critical thinking skills. Part V concludes by recommending law professors adopt a hybrid approach that balances traditional classroom tools with new technologies.”

It’s an interesting read because he explores the perception that new forms of media tend to lead us to what some have called a “moral panic” because “technology is changing the way people think.” But Levy then draws on the research of Roger Schank, Steven Pinker, and Matt Richtel and notes that “the way we think and learn has not changed much in 50,000 years.”

In the law classroom it’s all about critical thinking and teaching law students problem solving skills and how to “think like a lawyer.” Levy notes that law students may “use digital tools to gather information but [they] still process it into knowledge using the original factory equipment of our caveman ancestors.” However, he makes an excellent point regarding one’s ability to find a place in the current legal environment, where technology is changing many aspects of law practice: “only the most intellectually prepared get hired to handle the difficult tasks that cannot otherwise be commoditized and outsourced to cheaper, non-lawyer alternatives.”

In the concluding section, Strategies for Using Classroom Technologies Even a Caveman Would Love, Levy looks at the research and provides the pros and cons of using technology in the following areas:

  • General Guidelines For Deciding Whether To Use New Classroom Technology
  • “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”: What To Do About Laptops
  • Death By Powerpoint and Other Visual Crimes and Misdemeanors
  • The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Books and Screens
  • “That’s Not Writing, That’s Typing”
  • Meta-Analyses of Online and Classroom Digital Technologies

One thing that comes up in many of these strategies, and something that really resonates with me, is the different affects that physical and digital tools have on the learning outcome process. As Levy points out both the mind and the body are involved when developing thinking and problem solving skills.

Research on teaching technology is consistent with this by finding that tools incorporating tactile, or ‘haptic,’ characteristics like books, pens and paper are effective multimodal learning tools that promote critical thinking by engaging students both visually and physically.”

It’s especially interesting when you consider how these differences might relate to recent reports indicating that electronic book sales have declined.

Levy touches on that here as well noting the following findings for university students:

Numerous polls of university students find the majority prefer print for school work and believe it helps them learn better. Even surveys of tech-savvy teens show they like print more than their parents. Only a short time ago it seemed certain ebooks would do to print what the mp3 did to the music industry yet sales have plateaued or even declined some sources believe.”

He suggests too that because these digital distractions exist (e.g. “the siren call of Facebook”) teaching students how to “manage their technology” should be an important part of the learning process.

Thinking like a lawyer will always require the ability to shut out distractions and focus on the task at hand. If constant exposure to digital technologies is undermining our students’ ability to do this as many believe, we must create opportunities for them to practice these vital skills more, not less.”

It’s an informative and nicely researched piece. And it’s timely too appearing at the end of term when law professors might consider their recent teaching experiences and how best to incorporate (if at all) technology into their classroom.

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