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As classroom technology has edged out blackboards and ink pens in law schools, faculty and students are learning some lessons in tuning out the high-tech distractions and keeping focused on the law. Law schools across the country have spent millions in recent years outfitting their classrooms to accommodate laptop computers, PowerPoint technology and electronic research in order to improve the quality of their students’ education and to compete with one another. And while few argue that enabling their schools to keep pace in the electronic age is a bad move, some schools have discovered the problems that can arise from too much technology. “I’ve toyed with the idea of having laptop-free days, but I suspect that would make me the most unpopular professor in the law school,” said Vanderbilt University Law School Professor John Goldberg. A torts teacher, Goldberg said he uses the school’s recently installed Internet blocking device, a kind of on-off switch that allows professors to control wireless access in their own classrooms. Like several other teachers at the school, Goldberg kills wireless access in his classroom to keep students on task. “I don’t need other things crying out for attention besides me,” he said. The school installed the blocking mechanism this summer as a way to keep students from becoming distracted by the Internet and e-mail messages during class. The wireless gateway enables faculty to engage wireless capability room by room. Whether students want to pay attention is a function of their own choice, Goldberg said, but helping them stay focused is also part of a teacher’s responsibility. He said having Internet access in class can be as distracting as a big-screen plasma television at an intimate dinner party. “It’s human nature. You look at it,” he said. Faculty members at University of Minnesota Law School also are concerned about student browsing and e-mailing during class. Last year, it began a program of leasing all students a school-issued laptop. This year, it is implementing a policy that prohibits them from using the computers for anything other than school-related activities while in class. “It’s a concern at every law school,” said Joan Howland, associate dean and law professor at Minnesota law school. Hofstra University School of Law Professor Amy Stein said she walks up and down the aisles in her legal research and writing classes to make sure students are tuned in to lectures and activities. And if they’re not? “I embarrass them,” she said. “You do that once, and it doesn’t happen again.” In addition, she includes a statement in her syllabus that says they are to use their laptops only for course-related work while in class. Despite the problems, adding laptop access, the Internet, intranets and presentation software programs to law school classrooms generally has improved teaching and learning, these professors said, adding that it is rare to see students using pen and paper to take notes. Also driving the movement to upgrade schools are annual law school rankings in U.S. News & World Report, which take into account spending per student, facilities and support services. Whatever the reason, Minnesota law school student John Holt was happy to get a new laptop computer last year when he started school. Although he had another one at home, his wife needed it for her work, which meant that he would have been one of the few first-year students without a portable computer if not for the school’s leasing program. “As an undergraduate, I envied people with them,” said Holt, who will use the same school-issued computer this year. The laptop was particularly helpful for taking finals, he said, especially since he can type faster than he can write. “You’re just going crazy, trying to get as much in as you can,” he said. Last year, Holt sometimes saw classmates playing computer poker or solitaire in class, he said, conceding that he occasionally succumbed to checking e-mail. But he did not witness full-scale online shopping binges or rampant in-class Web surfing, he said. The computer and the Internet were particularly useful for group outlining, Holt explained, since it made editing easier. He was also able to access course outlines and other materials quickly. Leveling the playing field Minnesota created its leasing program to level the field among incoming students, said Howland, the professor. Most often, students “who didn’t have a lot of expendable income” were those without computers, she explained. “We wanted to know that every student had the same advantages,” she said. The school added about $300 to its tuition fee to help cover the cost. It spent about $1 million upgrading its classrooms and the library to accommodate the technology. Law schools are spending millions to get outfitted for wireless technology and more. For example, Georgetown University Law Center last year completed its $61 million campus refurbishment, which included 10 new seminar rooms equipped with audio and video recording, Web casting and video conferencing. Those rooms and its larger classrooms have wireless Internet capability. Columbia Law School’s recent technology upgrades were paid for, in part, by a $12 million gift. Its lecture halls have microphones at each student seat in addition to teleconferencing capabilities. A barrier to interaction? But all the lights, buttons and keyboards are no substitute for meaningful teacher-student interaction, said Goldberg, at Vanderbilt. The wall of laptop computers he faces each week as he looks out upon his students in his torts classroom undermines that interaction, he said. “It creates a barrier,” he said. Goldberg also encounters what he called “stenography problems.” Students become so engrossed in tapping away at their machines that they forget to listen, he said. In effect, he explained, they become transcribers instead of thinkers, a practice that can hurt at test time, when reasoning, not regurgitating notes, is required. It is outside the classroom where Howland sees the greatest benefit from Minnesota law school’s computer leasing program. Students often gather in study groups at the school cafeteria and other common areas with their laptop computers. She said the program has fostered more than just better learning. “It’s been incredibly helpful in building community,” she said.

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