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Using laptops in Law Schools irk Professors, but students wont give up

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It all began on March 6, 2006, when University of Memphis professor June Entman sent all of her first-year law students a friendly email to bring a pen and paper to class.

"When you focus primarily on transcribing everything said, you are not making good use of the class as a practice opportunity," she wrote, according to an Associated Press article.

When students showed up to Entman's class with laptops and were told to put them away, things got heated. Unwilling to silently follow the professor's rule, students joined together and began passing around a petition against Entman. They also made an attempt to file a complaint with the American Bar Association based on an ABA rule of technology and law schools. The complaint was dismissed.

"Our major concern is the snowball effect," said Jennifer Bellott, a University of Memphis law student, in the same article. "If you open the door for one professor, you open the door for every other professor to do the same thing."

"If we continue without laptops, I'm out of here. I'm gone; I won't be able to keep up," replied law student Cory Winsett.

In response to the controversy, Dean James Smoot took a stand, claiming that the decision was up to the professors. The University of Memphis is not the only school that has encountered this computer-in-classroom dilemma. Two professors at Harvard Law School have independently banned laptops from their classes. Many others have done the same.

"If the Internet is distracting in law school," stated second-year Harvard law student Bryan Choi in The Christian Science Monitor, "it will be just as distracting in the real world; and if the Internet is helpful in the real world, it can be just as helpful in law school."

Last year, at the University of Michigan, when law professor Don Herzog asked his students a question, there was a five-second pause followed by blank stares. Knowing that something was amiss, Herzog decided to investigate the matter on his own.

Sitting in on his colleagues' classes, the professor was astounded by what he discovered. "At any given moment in a law school class, literally 85 to 90 percent of the students were online, Herzog said. "And what were they doing online? They were reading the New York Times; they were shopping for clothes at Eddie Bauer; they were looking for an apartment to rent in San Francisco when their new job started…and I was stunned," reported Herzog.

In an attempt to solve this problem, UCLA blocked wireless Internet access to students in class; however, this was short-lived.

"We all came to realize that if students wanted to communicate electronically, they could do so by hooking up their cell phones to their laptops or by just text messaging," reported UCLA official Susan Gutman in The Christian Science Monitor. "In some ways, student behavior is the same as it ever was. In the old days, they chatted with each other, passed notes, read the newspaper, or did other work in class…. Now they surf, IM, and email, or play solitaire. The issue is behavioral."

As an experiment, Herzog banned laptops for a day and claimed that the students had a fantastic discussion. This encouraged him to make permanent changes in his classroom.

Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone explained, "The problem professors face is continuous partial attention." Checking emails and listening at the same time equals a student-teacher disconnection.

Yale Law School Professor Ian Ayres believes that laptops in class do more harm than good. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Ayres said, "Solitaire and Minesweeper are everywhere now in university classes, and the abusive use of laptops is getting to be increasingly prevalent." He goes on to explain how surfing the Internet and playing games on the computer keep a student from being "fully present to ask or answer questions and is demoralizing to other students."

University of Michigan law student Michael Jacobson said in The Christian Science Monitor, "I think my laptop has enhanced my study skills in that I'm able to capture a lot of what's said during class."

"With wireless Internet appearing everywhere, I am sure that this is going to be the wave of the future. I can't imagine any professor banning it," stated a student at Acadia University.

As students and professors are at a technological standoff, the students are whipping out their digital weapons, while professors confidently encourage them: Go ahead, make my day.

The University of Memphis


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