Harvard Law School students work on their laptops at the Harkness
Center yesterday. The campus is debating the role of laptops in class.
As the issue of wireless Internet access and laptop use during class
heats up at Harvard Law School, two prominent student groups hosted a
wide-ranging discussion yesterday on whether the school should limit
wireless Internet access during class time.
The panel participants, which included four professors and an extended
discussion with a crowd of about 50 students, largely
dismissed the idea that the Law School should adopt restrictions on
Internet access in the classroom.
At issue was whether the law school should adopt a policy
similar to the one at Harvard Business School, where students are not
able to access the wireless network when they are in class because
their course schedules have been linked to their wireless access.
The discussion—which was sponsored by the Law School Council
and the Journal of Law and Technology—centered on whether the use of
computers and the Internet aid classroom learning.
Jonathan L. Zittrain, a professor and co-founder of the
Berkman Center for Internet and Society, outlined the four schools of
thought that currently prevail regarding the issue: the “orthodox,” who
favor banning technology; the “fundamentalists,” who believe that all
instructors should ban technology; the “laissez-faire,” who favor
allowing professors or students to make their own decisions; and the
“innovators,” who experiment widely with technology and integrate it
into their teaching.
Zittrain said that he has experimented with varying degrees of
technology use in his courses, having used real-time polling data from
his students in some and banning laptops altogether in others.
Gottlieb Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren said that she bans
laptops from all of her classes not because students are distracted by
web surfing, but out of concern that many students transcribe her
lectures instead of taking part in the “intense class discussion.” She
reported that students are far more engaged in class activities when
they are not able to use laptops.
Williams Professor of Criminal Justice Richard D. Parker said
that he first became aware of the problem of distracting Internet use
when he sat at the back of a fellow professor’s class.
“This was a class about six weeks into the first semester and
two-thirds of the students had stuff on their screens that was
completely unrelated to contracts,” Parker said. He said that he banned
laptops in one of his classes at the urging of Warren, who challenged
him to stand up to students who protested the rule by asking, “Are you
a man or are you a mouse?”
But William “Terry” W. Fisher, a professor and the chair of a
committee on information technology, said that even if professors
wanted to impose restrictions like those at HBS, they would face
several obstacles, most importantly that students would exchange ID
numbers or purchase a connection from another wireless provider to
circumvent the restrictions.
There was also disagreement among students over whether the
Internet aided learning.
Many freely admitted that the Web serves
chiefly as a distraction. But others claimed that the Internet increases class
attendance, as students feel that even if their class is not engaging,
they can still make some productive use of their time.
Some added that
there is a “generation gap,” and that those who have grown up with
technology are “programmed to multitask.”
But the notion of multitasking was criticized by Warren and
former Law School Dean Robert C. Clark, the panel’s moderator. They
said that when people multitask, their ability to reason at a high
level is severely impaired.
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.