HLS Debates Laptops in Class

Some worry that net surfing distract law students from class discussions

Unnamed photo
Nami Sung

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 pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.