University nixes web access during class

University of Chicago Law School officials have a simple message for their students: less web surfing, more listening.

The school announced April 11 that the distractions afforded by wireless internet access no longer will be available during class time, although laptops still will be permitted for note taking.

The move comes as educators at schools and universities nationwide have struggled with how to keep students on task at a time when most have personal technology devices they bring to class. Although many professors have taken steps to block internet access during their instruction, the University of Chicago Law School is believed to be among the first to implement a school-wide ban.

Saul Levmore, dean of the Chicago law school, said the decision was an easy one.

When officials discovered they could turn off wireless access in classrooms, "we felt that we ought to move in that direction," Levmore said.

Professors at law schools across the country said web-less classrooms have not been students’ favorite policy, but some University of Chicago students supported Levmore’s decision.

"What makes our law school is our faculty," Peter Rock Ternes, a second-year Chicago law school student, said in a statement. "I think it makes sense to encourage focusing on them and on the classroom discussions."

Banning internet access in classrooms, Levmore said, would restore basic rules of politeness and professional etiquette between students and professors.

"When a student visits my office, neither the student nor I would dream of surfing the web or eMailing while communicating with one another," he said. "That is the level of attention and engagement we should expect in the classroom. Our overarching goal is to have a terrific and interesting classroom experience—that is too important to allow diversions."

Levmore emphasized his point in a recent letter to law students.

"We need to think of internet business as inappropriate in the classroom, much as everyone recognizes the need to shut off cell phones and to refrain from ostentatious newspaper reading in class or at business meetings or at Thanksgiving dinner," Levmore wrote.

Many law schools have given professors the choice of banning wireless access or laptops altogether. A professor at Harvard Law School who did not want her name published in this article said disallowing laptops has cultivated class discussion and student participation.

"Students have never complained about it, and if anything, they say the classroom environment is vastly improved," the professor said. "And I find the students listen to each other more."

While internet access opens the door for myriad distractions, allowing students to type notes on their laptop has essentially transformed students into stenographers as they type furiously, "just transcribing everything that’s going on," the Harvard law professor said.

"In the midst of doing that, it’s like they go on autopilot, and they don’t fully listen and they’re not fully there," she said. "It goes into the laptop without going into their head—and that’s just not how learning happens."

In implementing the wireless ban, Chicago’s Levmore said web surfing during lectures was not just distracting for students with laptops, but to anyone around them who glanced over and saw a web site, video, or game that took attention away from the professor.

The Harvard professor said she has seen students send out mass eMails to classmates during lectures, simultaneously distracting more than half the class.

"You’ll see everyone smiling and laughing at the same time," she said. "It’s just not good."

A spokeswoman for Harvard Law School said the faculty explored a school-wide ban on wireless web access in lecture halls, but the initiative never came to a vote and "nothing came of" the issue, although professors were allowed to institute any internet policy they felt would be best for individual classes.

The University of Chicago Law School joins a growing list of college and universities nixing students’ internet access. Suffolk University Law School made national headlines in November 2007 when a professor banned laptops outright in her classroom. Several colleges and universities in New England, including Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., have installed technology that allows faculty to block web access during class.

Last fall, steps were taken at three Washington universities—the University of Washington, Seattle University, and Seattle Pacific University—to limit laptop use during class time.


University of Chicago Law School

Denny Carter

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