Thursday, August 28, 2008

In Re Professors Who Don't Allow Computers In Classes


Let's be frank. 

Almost nothing will get us out of a class more quickly than a professor who decides not to allow computers in class.   And we think that there are very few other ways in which a professor can more quickly and severely inconvenience his students and impede their educational experience than by saying - on the first day, no less, with no warning in the course description! -  that computers are verboten. 

There are several independent reasons for this conclusion, outlined briefly below:

1) COMPUTERS IN CLASS ARE AN EXTREMELY VALUABLE NOTE-TAKING, ORGANIZATIONAL, AND OUTLINING TOOL

In order to be successful in law school, you have to be able to absorb a large wealth of information extremely quickly.  While it's true - as everyone says - that being successful involves a composite understanding of the "big-picture", it also involves understanding the nuances in cases and statutes, in being able to distinguish conflicting precedents, in being able internalize dueling rationales of opinions, and even being able to parse a holding's language to the point that the understanding of a single word can make the difference between true insight into an opinion's significance and merely coming away with a wikipedia-esque  summary.  

There's no better tool to do this than a computer.  Professors in class talk a mile-a-minute, and it can be difficult during the lecture and even immediately afterwards to get down what's most important.  For students that choose to, using a computer allows them to take down  much more information. 

And, lest you think that not all the information that a student can take down isn't important and/or useful on a final exam, we would strongly disagree.  We had the pleasure of taking a course with Professor Caleb Nelson, and can safely say that the man said very little that wasn't significant to some degree, insightful to some greater understanding, or key to internalizing the main aspects of the subject.  Even with a computer, it was impossible to get it all down - but that said, having a computer was invaluable.  Like in many other courses, not having it would have been a serious - almost insurmountable - handicap to understanding the material.

Doubtless, some students will always prefer to take notes by hand, and nobody is foreclosing that option.  But taking notes on computer means that students - especially those who have organizational difficulties or poor/slow handwriting (like us) -  have a chance to record and lter analyze and parse the information in a way that is fast and efficient.

Not at all coincidentally, it is recommended (by PAs and everyone else) that students use a computer to organize and condense their notes into an outline.  What would be the point if students were first required to transfer their notes - likely less detailed than they otherwise would be - from a paper notebook to electronic form first.  In fairness, one student suggested to us that this helped him review - but again, no one is foreclosing that option.  We're merely saying that law students are busy enough and there's no need for Professors to impose an extra-step in the already laborious process of preparing for exams.

Finally, the exams themselves are taking on a computer. Since the major method of evaluation is done - almost without exception - electronically, students should be allowed to prepare using a computer as well - and that includes having a computer in class to take notes, as class attendance and participation (i.e. paying attendance) is one of the most important aspects of preparing for exams.

2) HAVING THE INTERNET IN CLASS CAN ENHANCE STUDENT PARTICIPATION AND UNDERSTANDING

Being able to use the internet is extremely useful for a student.  In Property, when we were discussing the landmark case of Penn Central v. New York, we - being upstaters and not knowledgeable of what happens on the island - were able to google to the history of Penn Station and thereby understand the posture of the case and the Professor's lecture a little bit better (also if you laughed at the pun, you *are* a gunner).   In Civil Procedure, it helped a LOT to have a searchable version of the FRCP at our fingertips, and the same is true of Ks and the UCC.  And that's to say nothing of the benefits of having Lexis and Westlaw at our finger tips in class (Hey - we *BIKE* to school - sometimes we don't feel like shlepping a 13 pound, 150 dollar piece of some professor's retirement fund 4 miles everyday, OK?).

On that note, I'll address the issue people who surf the internet  / play games / whatever during class:  Who cares?  If they want to use their hard-earned tuition money to surf the internet, that's their business - if you think this will affect what they get out of the class than you should be thankful because it means they'll find themselves at a lower spot on the curve (Our problem with curved grading will have to be saved for another time).  And if you're "distracted" by all this - kindly ask them to stop, or to move to the back row, or move yourself.  Don't insist that the professor take away a valuable resource that most are using responsibly and intelligently because of your hang-ups. 

3) UVA REQUIRES STUDENTS TO OWN COMPUTERS - WHAT IS THE LOGIC IN DOING SO IF STUDENTS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO USE THEM TO TAKE NOTES?

We are not at all sure. UVA sells computer "bundles" at high rates, and then allows its professors to ban the use of computers in school?  So we're supposed to shell out another 2 grand - a lot of which doubtless goes to the universities tech-support people - for an expensive piece of equipment that we are not allowed to use?  

4) THE DECISION OF WHETHER OR NOT TO ALLOW COMPUTERS IN CLASS SHOULD BE MADE BY STUDENTS

Why?  Because we're paying for it. Law professors have a pretty sweet gig - a competitive job that a lot of people want with great hours, great salary, and great benefits.  Law students pay annually significantly more than the average American makes in a year, finding themselves in a virtual indentured servitude for years if not decades after the fact, to come to law school.  Throw on top of that the outrageous tuition increases of the this year, and I can see no reason why it should be up to the professors alone to abolish our use of computers by fiat.  At very least a vote should be held.  To have a Professor strip the students of an extremely valuable and heretofore oft-relied upon study tool is antithetical to the democratic principles of UVA. 

We can anticipate the counter-argument here - since when has the way a class been run ever been a democracy?  Point is that IT SHOULD BE, especially with the fortunes we're shelling out to be here. We could have gone to other law schools, and if UVA Profs continue down this no-computer road, you can bet that word will get out and that prospective students will avoid it like the plague - especially if someone tells them how truly useful if not necessary having a computer in class is (it will be interesting to see what happens with UChicago in this area; as they recently banned internet use in class).

NB: We heard of one professor holding a vote between "No Computers" and "Can Use Computers But Pledge Not To Use the Internet".  While this is better than nothing, we feel that the internet - in class - can be a valuable learning tool, supra. Nonetheless we congratulate this Professor on giving the students some choice 

5) CONCLUSION 

To us, there are few justifiable reasons to disallow computers in class, especially by Professor fiat - and those reasons that there are seem to be readily outweighed by the litany of uses a computer has in the classroom, and what we see as a truism that the decision should lie in the hands of the students. 

If anyone wants to take the opposite perspective - that Professor's *should* be allowed to outlaw the use ofcomputers in their classes - or maybe that the school should outlaw computers altogether - let us know.  Apologies for the typos. 

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The professor who allowed the class to vote stated that occasionally we will be using the internet for classroom purposes. I think by signing the honor pledge, we are promising not to do online shopping or reading celebrity gossip -- in other words, do not use the internet if it is not related to what we are learning in class.

Rule 12 (f) said...

Fair enough. Far preferable to an outright ban!

Anonymous said...

Not advocating any side - but this might interest you: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1078740

Anonymous said...

Sorry about that - Here's the link

Rule 12 (f) said...

Thanks 2:08, we'll take a look when we get the chance.

Rule 12 (f) said...

and needless to say, we disagree with just about everything that professor said.