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Thursday Thinkpiece: The Risks of Technology in the Law Classroom

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The Risks of Technology in the Law Classroom: Why the Next Great Development in Legal Education Might be Going Low-Tech

(2018) 51:3 UBC L REV 773

Nikos Harris, Q.C., Instructor, Director of Experiential Learning, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia

Excerpt: Introduction (pp 773-775), “Implementing a Low-Tech Revolution” (pp 790-798) [Footnotes omitted. They can be found in the original via the link above]

Introduction

What comes to mind when one conjures up a picture of a modern law school classroom? The first image is likely that of uninterrupted rows of laptops behind which students are typing more information than they could record by hand and seamlessly using the Web to access the cases and statutes being discussed. An accompanying image is that of a professor on the other side of the silver wall, with his or her own laptop projecting notes onto large screens viewable from every seat in the wired amphitheater. The professor has also made lecture summaries electronically available to students to allow them to focus their attention on listening to the lecture, discussing policy, and solving hypothetical problems.

And what images come to mind when we enter a dated law school classroom? Students taking notes with pen and paper, struggling to write down material from a lecture delivered without accompanying text slides or online course notes. We might attribute these circumstances to a professor who has stubbornly refused to keep up with the times and has forced his or her students to be a part of this antiquated learning experience.

However, there is also a developing body of literature which speaks to the significant benefits of a dated classroom, creating a strong case that it fosters an optimal learning environment. This research, particularly that which has emerged over the past five years, not only provides evidence of significant pedagogical benefits flowing from traditional lecturing and note-taking techniques, but also sets out that these advantages are critically important to the content and objectives of a legal education.

The focus of this article is on the risks posed by the use of laptops and certain types of instructor-provided notes in the law classroom. It does not seek to speak to the risks of using technology generally in legal education, and further does not attempt to settle the debate about whether these two technologies are on the whole more beneficial or detrimental to learning. Indeed, there is literature supporting the benefits of the technology used in the prototypical “modern” classroom, and many law professors teach very successfully with such tools. These studies provide evidence that students can effectively take notes on laptops and that use of course slides can assist in comprehension. Electronic notes can be searched for specific content and are easily integrated into related notes from different lectures. Hand writers usually cannot take as fulsome notes as a typist, and handwritten notes can be lost and are not easily backed up. A full record of the content of a lecture captured by a typist, or available through a professor’s course notes, may also assist students in later learning material which they were unable to fully process during the lecture. It can also be argued that developing digital skills, including how to effectively use laptops, is essential for future legal practice.

The modest contribution of this article is to review recent social-science literature documenting the risks posed by laptops and text-heavy course slides to the core aspects of a legal education. These articles and studies collectively provide a reasonable basis for making an informed choice to limit the use of these technologies in law classrooms. This article then discusses some practical approaches for attempting to bring about a low-tech revolution in the law classroom.

Implementing a Low-Tech Revolution

Bringing about a low-tech revolution is much easier on one side of the law classroom than the other. A professor has the option of deciding not to make course notes available outside of class and limiting the use of text-heavy slides in class. Such decisions should be accompanied by a number of measures to ensure that students have the opportunity to make their own notes, including: having assigned readings that are accessibly written and of a reasonable length that permit students to familiarize themselves with the relevant material before class; lecturing at a moderate pace to allow students to make sufficient notes; periodically reviewing complex points; and providing time for, and encouraging, questions and comments to ensure that students are developing a strong understanding of the material, as well as the capacity to challenge it. It may also be helpful for a professor to briefly explain the pedagogical reasons and research supporting the decision to not provide extensive text slides or course notes in order to avoid the impression that the professor is simply uncomfortable with using technology.

The laptop part of the low-tech solution is much more difficult to implement. One option is banning laptops altogether, with the exception of students who have university accommodations that allow the use of a laptop in class. A laptop ban may be particularly helpful for students who are aware that noncourse use of laptops negatively affects their grades but are unable to control their behaviour. However, a mandatory ban is likely to engage significant opposition from law students. Most law students now take notes by computer and have likely been doing so throughout their university education. Some may claim that their handwriting skills are so diminished that taking notes by hand is not a viable option. A laptop ban would also make students with academic accommodations to use a computer highly visible in the classroom, which the University of Washington School of Law notes “would be tantamount to our disclosing to our disabled students’ classmates a disability that they might not wish to be made public.”

Further, as is noted at the outset of this article, the evidence is not universal concerning the impact of laptops on classroom learning and some students may have learning styles which are more suited to laptop use. Professor Murray argues that, because of the heavy cognitive demand of translation note taking, some students may be “better served by recording as much material as they can during the lecture and processing it at some later point.” While the emerging evidence suggests that laptops pose a substantial risk to learning in the law classroom, the fact that the evidence is not universal makes it difficult to justify a policy which prevents all nonaccommodated students from note taking with computers.

However, there are a number of options which can assist in reducing the negative impacts of laptops in the law classroom without a mandatory ban.

EDUCATION

Instructing students not to use laptops for noncourse purposes and recommending that they not take verbatim notes appear to have little or no effect. Further, students may not be convinced to exchange their laptops for pen and paper based on evidence of the depth of the “encoding process” or the lesser value of verbatim notes. However, the growth of specific studies linking handwriting to higher exam scores provides a renewed opportunity to motivate student change though education. If there is one common attribute of law students, it is an understandable concern, not just about grades generally, but about small deviances in grades. The difference of a few points in a student’s grade average can impact whether a student gets an interview at a certain firm, has the opportunity to do a judicial clerkship, or is accepted into a graduate program. Most law schools offer popular seminars and peer tutoring services to help students develop effective study and exam-writing skills.

In this context, presenting students with evidence that specifically links the use of laptops to lower test scores and the diminishment of skills that are critical to law exams, including the ability to deal with material conceptually, may have some real impact. Indeed, students can be informed that the connection between electronic distraction and lower grades may be especially relevant in a law school context. A 2018 study published in Educational Psychology found that the use of internet linked devices in the classroom negatively impacted grades due to a reduction in longer term retention of class material “. . . and the effect on retention was largest at the largest retention interval, on the final exam.” Many law courses base a significant portion of student grades on a single final exam, and many first-year law courses have a final exam which covers an entire academic year of class material. While a number of law students will continue to be convinced that they will be the exception to these risks, providing specific evidence to students that their grade averages could be improved through taking notes by hand and avoiding the Internet during class is likely to win some recruits to the low-tech revolution.

LAPTOP-FREE ZONES

Another strategy for addressing the detriments of laptops in the classroom is creating laptop-free zones. These zones are reserved for hand writers and can either be set out at the front of the classroom or in one front-to-back portion of a lecture hall. These zones attempt to minimize the serious learning distractions that can result from having persons multitasking on their computers in a student’s line of sight. Such zones may be especially important given that at least one survey of law students found that those most likely to be distracted by other students’ noncourse use of computers are those who are handwriting. This survey further found that a laptop-free zone lowered distractions for students not using computers and was viewed by students as a good balance between preserving the freedom to choose how to take notes and minimizing distractions for hand writers. Conversely, the authors of another study of laptop-free zones did not a find difference in course performance between hand writers who sat in laptop-free zones and those who did not. However, they did find that “zoning had a positive impact on the class environment and on student attitudes.” Further, this study once again found that hand writers scored significantly higher on exams than those using laptops.

A laptop-free zone may also have the positive effect of creating a visible community of hand writers in the classroom. Use of laptops is so prevalent in the modern university classroom that a mistaken impression can be formed that no students hand write. Hand writers are easily hidden if they are interspersed among the many laptop users. Some students do make the decision to change their note-taking method to minimize the inevitable distractions of laptops. Collecting the hand writers together in a group might assist in raising the visibility of this option.

NONCOURSE USE POLICY

One of the greatest drawbacks of technology in the classroom is the use of laptops for noncourse purposes. It results in students not learning certain material in the classroom at all, having shallower understanding of all the lecture material, and in the distraction of surrounding students. Furthermore, engaging in activities like shopping or gaming during a law class is disrespectful to peers, faculty, the legal profession, and the public, who are paying for a portion of students’ legal education. Students who work in clinical programs during law school, or enter the legal profession after graduation, will immediately be tasked with assisting clients who face complex legal problems involving serious implications for both the individual and the broader community. Competently serving these clients requires strong substantive knowledge of law and policy and well-developed analytical- and problem-solving skills. These are the very skills which are negatively impacted through noncourse use of laptops during classes. Legal work requires “the ability to shut out distractions and focus on the task at hand.” Maintaining focus for the 15–18 hours a week that most law students spend in class is a necessary first step.

A tool that can help address the temptation to be drawn into the web of the Web is simply putting a laptop on “airplane mode” during a lecture or using one of the widely available apps that make one’s laptop capable only of note taking for a set amount of time. However, noncourse use of laptops is one area which justifies a mandatory rather than voluntary approach. While students should arguably retain control over how to take notes, there is no justification for a right to scroll through Facebook or check “likes” on Instagram during class.

Instituting a mandatory ban on noncourse use of laptops is complex. Attempting to block all Internet access in a classroom is both technically difficult and possibly illegal, depending on the methods used. While policies regarding noncourse use of laptops may not provide a strong deterrent, I believe it is important for law schools to adopt a faculty-wide policy banning noncourse use of laptops in the classroom. Such a policy could be highlighted at the outset of law school orientation where students are educated about other core expectations around student behaviour. Further, the rule would be uniform for every class, as are rules on issues like plagiarism, eliminating any confusion about its applicability. While such policies are difficult to monitor, it would at the least send a message that noncourse use of laptops is not normal or acceptable behaviour. Law schools simply cannot be okay with students spending half their time on social media during law school classes. A faculty-wide policy prohibiting such conduct is at least a recognition of the seriousness of the issue.

THE FLIPPED CLASSROOM

Another strategy to minimize the negative impacts of laptops is to use a “flipped classroom” which significantly changes the focus of student activity during class time. In the flipped format, prior to class students watch instructional videos prepared by the professor which outline the key legal concepts for each component of the course. The video format allows students to view the lecture multiple times while learning the material. It also allows students to watch the videos later in the course for review purposes. The time in class can then be used for engaged activities such as analyzing how the legal concepts would apply to various hypothetical fact patterns and assessing nuances in the law. This form of active learning, which can often be done in a group format, frees students from their keyboards and promotes significant student participation during the class. As Professor Sankoff notes, a flipped classroom “enables the professor to engage in non-traditional teaching methods” which promote student engagement during class time, while avoiding standard lectures where students taking notes on computers are “‘checking out’ from time to time into the wireless universe.”

Even if one does not flip the classroom, use of interactive class exercises and a variety of assessment techniques can increase engagement and improve learning by drawing students away from their laptops and giving them less opportunity to multitask with noncourse activities.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

A low-tech revolution can also intersect with the growth of experiential learning programs in law schools, including competitive moots, clinical work, externships, and advocacy courses. Experiential learning provides students with the opportunity to learn substantive material and numerous skills in a hands-on context, while working closely with faculty supervisors and members of the profession. Many clinical programs also provide access to justice to persons who would otherwise be unrepresented and educate students about the complex barriers and struggles that marginalized persons face, both in the justice system and outside of it.

One of the overlooked benefits of experiential education is that it is carried out in circumstances where students do not have the option of prolonged Web surfing and educators cannot resort to prepared course slides. Competitive moots, for example, involve extensive research on unique legal issues where students are not bound by precedent and must use a combination of jurisprudence and policy to argue their positions. Moot work is carried out in a team environment that involves regular one-on-one or small-group engagement with coaches, and numerous oral practices in front of faculty, counsel, and judges. Clinical work similarly involves frequent one-on-one meetings with supervising lawyers and numerous tasks that require students’ complete focus, including client meetings, witness interviews, court appearances, and drafting and reviewing documents. It is simply impossible to perform much of this work while surfing the Internet and impracticable for supervisors to assist students through a series of prepared text slides. Particularly for upper-year students, whom the Sovern study indicates are more likely to disengage in classes, experiential learning can provide an opportunity to avoid the many learning barriers which flow from the extensive use of laptops and course slides.

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