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Friend or foe?

|Written By Robert Todd
Friend or foe?

The sounds of ruffling papers and scribbling pens have largely been replaced in Canada’s law school lecture halls by the tapping on laptop keyboards.

Most students probably can’t imagine how previous generations navigated life in law school without the devices, especially when finals roll around. (It’s never been easier to get top-quality lecture notes or to create a first-class exam review, thanks to word processors.)

But law professors across the country are wondering if the computers — coupled with internet access — are hurting the quality of students’ legal education.

Kimberly Arnal, a former University of Manitoba law student now articling at Winnipeg’s Deeley Fabbri Sellen, says only two students in her first-year class didn’t have laptops. Both of those holdouts had acquired them by third year, she says.

Arnal says she can type on a keyboard faster than she can write, which means she can take more thorough notes using her laptop. Typing her notes using a word processor — and trading notes with her peers — allowed her to organize her thoughts better, which in the end meant she retained more information from her classes. Arnal says some profs even provided computer files of PowerPoint outlines of their lectures beforehand, which allowed students to expand upon key points without worrying about getting down the basics.

Being able to run a quick internet search for an unfamiliar term used by a prof also helped. “It helped you to stay on top of things. And if you didn’t understand something, you got all of the information down and you can learn it after,” says Arnal. “Whereas, if I was writing it, I don’t know if I would get enough information down to be able to look it up and understand it later.”

Stéphane Émard-Chabot, the former assistant dean of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law’s Common Law Section who teaches commercial and municipal law, says virtually all law students now use laptops during class. He says the percentage remains lower in undergrad classes, where most students still take notes with pen and paper.

Émard-Chabot says laptop use isn’t new — he estimates about two-thirds of the students he taught seven years ago used them, but nearly all use them now. He says when his students began using laptops in class, distractions ranged from solitaire to movies. But when wireless arrived at the school three years ago, a whole new set of potential distractions popped up. “We had not announced yet that the wireless system was on, but the day I walked into the class — literally, I knew that day that the wireless was working; you could tell. And so people are surfing, people are on MSN, people are e-mailing, people are doing all of that. I guess they are taking notes, of course,” he adds with a chuckle.

Some of the more bizarre things he’s seen law students use their laptops for during class include one student watching a movie (“a newer version of King Kong,” he says). A complaint was also filed after a student was found viewing pornography in class.

University of Manitoba Faculty of Law professor Anne McGillivray says it’s clear many students are distracted by laptops. You’d think law students would know enough to turn the volume off when playing a video game in class, but she says several times game sounds have popped up during a lecture.

While Ottawa U has no formal policy on the use of laptops, Émard-Chabot says professors will intervene if students complain that another student’s use is distracting. “In those cases, we will have a talk and say, ‘What you do with your own time in your own space is your issue, but you don’t have the right to prevent others from enjoying their educational experience,’” he says. Incidents have been rare, so the school has chosen to deal with issues on a case-by-case basis rather than create a formal policy on in-class laptop use, says Émard-Chabot.

McGillivray says she would consider banning laptops from a class if they proved too problematic. She notes that one of her colleagues conducted a “swoop” during a lecture by forcing students to raise their hands while he walked around the classroom to see what was on their screens, “which I thought showed a lot of nerve, but I don’t think I’d ever would have done it,” she says.

Émard-Chabot says laptops also have forced professors to adapt their teaching techniques. He now uses the internet during lectures, and often has students consult material on the internet. He says professors at the University of Ottawa have weighed the net benefit of laptops in classrooms, and many note that potential distractions have always existed. “The reality is that all of us went through law school, and all of us at some point were either doodling or doing other things other than listening,” he says. “So the fact that a student will respond to an e-mail while the prof is answering a question that the student has understood — is that the end of the world? Probably not. Does it cross the line when somebody starts bothering others? Yes, and then we do address it.”

Overall, Émard-Chabot says the potential exists for laptops to hurt the classroom experience, but so far the benefits as a teaching tool outweigh the negatives.

University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law professor Michael Lynk says laptops have created a divide among faculty members: those who are tech-savvy and can grab students’ attention with multimedia lecture presentations, and those who prefer to teach in the traditional way.

Lynk is in the latter group, and he finds laptops lead to less class interaction and discussion. “It’s a problem because, for most law professors, they want to be able to use an interactive form of pedagogy, of instruction, to ensure the points are being absorbed, to get students thinking about what’s being taught, and critically assess the debates that are in the readings, or even to challenge the professor,” he says.

The decline of the old system, says Lynk, has led to a more one-sided teaching experience for professors. “We’re getting less of an accurate sense of how students are absorbing, thinking about, reacting, or critically assessing materials that are being lectured on.”

Lynk has observed in his classes an “affliction” he’s coined “the big-screen stare.” “I find students with a laptop in front of them during a lecture, they’re often being transported to another place in time,” he says. “I can tell when a student’s got this when they’ve got a wild grin, they’ve got an intense stare, they’re temporarily hearing-impaired, and they’ve lost all use of their peripheral vision.”

In order for lecturing to remain enjoyable, Lynk says he must choose whether to become more tech-savvy or to pay more attention to his teaching style. “I’ve got to be able to project more emphasis on what are important points, which may be a good thing and force me to become a better performer in the classroom. If I’m going to rely upon traditional lecture methods, I’ve got to find ways of engaging students, probably asking more questions to them, and I’ve got to occasionally, which all professors hate and students hate, I’ve got to ask students by name if they’re with me on this.”

McGillivray says she takes advantage of laptops by assigning internet-based readings for classes in classrooms equipped with internet access. She says she hopes laptops can be better integrated into lectures in the future, but notes that some students will fail to benefit from such improvements.

“People who are going to goof off are going to goof off anyway,” says McGillivray. “But the laptop makes it such an attractive goofing-off environment. When you’ve got the huge resources now of the internet . . . I don’t know how deal with that.”

She admits, however, that her perspective may be biased. “There might be a jealously thing at work,” she quips. “If that’s more interesting than me, I feel bad. Therefore, I’m going to be jealous of whatever is able to distract you from my fascinating presentation.”

Arnal admits she and her classmates surfed the web at times or checked Facebook during lectures. But she says some of her peers found it easier to absorb a lecture by multitasking on a laptop. “A lot of deans’ list students, who do very well, obviously, are on their computers and not always using it for Word,” she says. “Some people just learn better when part of their brain is focusing on one thing and then they can use the other part to focus on the prof. I don’t think it necessarily correlates to, if you’re on Facebook all class you’re going to do bad.”

But McGillivray says she disagrees with the notion that students can multi-task. She notes that a series of recent studies have suggested that when people think they’re working on a number of things at once, in fact they’re just shifting from one to the next, “which means you’ve tuned out whatever’s happened in that interim,” says McGillivray. “The brain doesn’t actually multitask.” So students watching a YouTube video are likely missing some important lecture points.

Lynk, meanwhile, says he can’t say the big screen stare affliction has detracted from the quality of students’ work. “I don’t necessarily see a difference in what they’ve absorbed, at least on exams, at the end of the day,” he says. “I do think, though, exams can’t be the only measure of how all the students know the course. Because I see the decline in discussion in the course itself, I think there’s some of the more nuanced points of law that aren’t being absorbed by as many students.”