Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Laptop Debate Part Two: Let Students Make Informed Choices

First, I wish to note that we have not attended to the blog in some time. I took time away from the blog (and blogging generally) to focus on writing and conferences during the first couple of months of this year. Now that my conference season is over, I am back with a post—and a response to my co-blogger, Jena Martin Amerson, concerning laptops in the classroom.

Professor Amerson wrote a blog about her choice to ban laptops from her classroom this academic year. She voiced a concern about how the instant feedback laptops allow may “thwart thoughtful ruminations” and lead students to “rush to judgment.” She also expressed that technology can lead to an “inability to learn basic skills of communication.” Jena’s objections are similar to those raised by other scholars: that laptops distract from learning and thus interfere with the pedagogical process. Kevin Yamamoto and Nancy Maxwell have written essays about the detrimental effects of laptops and they have discussed their own experiences with banning laptops to help the effectiveness of their classroom, arguing that banning laptops has improved participation in their lectures.

Though I am well aware of the problems of distraction, I think that the arguments about distraction and rush to judgment assume that the appropriate model for law school learning is the lecture-and-discussion format where participation is at a premium and thus distraction from the discussion (including distraction for learning purposes) is a detriment. I believe this premise unnecessarily dominates the conversation about technology in the classroom. The Socratic classroom is one where the attention is placed on the text and the professor and the conversation between student, text, and professor. Thus, answering questions and taking effective notes are highly valued activities and ways of learning—to the exclusion of other learning styles and preferences.

To apply the analysis by Kolb and McCarthy (as cited in Montgomery and Groat, Student Learning Styles and their Implications for Teaching, the Socratic teaching approach treats the faculty member as the “expert” and relies on professor-focused lecture and reading. What this approach does is to advantage students (and teachers) who prefer (or are used to) aural learning styles while disadvantaging others with different learning styles. Within this context laptops then prove to be a distraction to the discussion and thus are problematic. This problematizing seems to be based on its detriment to the Socratic or lecture method (with which we law professors are comfortable) rather than an open exploration of what learning styles best benefit students. Rather than a per se rejection of laptops, the real question ought to be how are students learning today, and how can technology help—or hinder—learning.

I would suggest, as Paul Caron and Rafael Gely have, that the use of technology—including laptops in the classroom—can actually foster student learning if guided the right way. More important, supporting laptops in the classroom would support student’s own choices in learning styles and approaches. Jana McCreary has argued that students come to law school having developed their own learning preferences—with many of them including laptops—and thus to ban laptops would actually be a detriment to their learning. (Rather than banning laptops, McCreay suggests that students who use laptops and students who do not use laptops ought to be given their own separate space in the classroom to facilitate these separate learning methods.) Finally, it is appropriate to include laptops in the learning environment because students will need to learn how to use laptops and other technology to augment their own practice and within the context of working with others. As David Thomson noted in his book, Law School 2.0: Legal Education for a Digital Age at 81, banning laptops in the classroom “would damage the digital literacy our students will need for practice.” Thus, rather than ban laptops, it makes more sense to teach students about using laptops professionally.

Most recently, Kristen Murray has a forthcoming 2011 article where she advocates for the conscious and effective use of laptops in the learning environment. Murray uses research data—specifically, her method is to ask students how they learn and how they use laptops in class—coupled with learning theory to explore the real effect of laptops in the classroom. She uses her conclusions from the data to debunk what she calls the five “laptop myths,” that drive professors’ decisions to exclude laptops. These myths include the idea at question here in this blog: that “laptops in the classroom decrease class participation.”

Murray notes that lack of participation in class may not be the fault of laptops, but the fault of professors who use teaching methods that don’t fit the learning preferences of Millennials. Moreover, though she acknowledges that distraction does happen, Murray observes that students more frequently use laptops to ends related to the class—including taking notes, reviewing notes, and accessing relevant online research—than they do as a non-class related distraction. Her quite thoughtful conclusion is that law schools should allow for the option of using laptops for student learning, but at the same time educate students about their learning preferences and how to accommodate those learning preferences in classrooms.

I think Murray is correct. We the professorate should provide leadership and informed opinion to our students about effective learning strategies—and the importance of avoiding distraction—rather than making choices for students that may conflict with how our students really learn. Rather than shy away from laptops in the classroom in the name of our own teaching styles, we should teach our students about professionalism and technology use (and abuse). Then we should let our students exercise their own judgment as to how best they learn.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Culmination - Part 1

As we stated at the beginning of this journey, Atiba Ellis and I began this blog to document our experiences using technology, inter-disciplinary teaching and the case of Citizens United. The purpose was to explore the mandate set out by the Society of American law Teachers: transformative teaching. Specifically, we wanted to explore the following:
Whether the Citizens United case provides an opportunity to expose the power that corporations have to change the political landscape and how that power has been augmented through the Citizens United opinion.
To do so, we wanted to illustrate the creative methodologies that can be used to demonstrate how corporate influence can transform the individual person’s relationship with the state. Specifically, at the conference, we had hoped to present the results of a semester of teaching the Citizens United case in our respective fields of Corporations and Election Law. We were going to discuss how we first took the opportunity to have a collaborative conversation among ourselves as professors to compare our disciplinary-specific analyses of the Citizens United case as well as elaborate on points of common reference which cross our disciplinary boundaries. Second, we wanted to discuss how each of us crafted an approach in each of our individual courses. Third, we wanted to reflect on our discussions of the Citizens United case in a cross-disciplinary forum at our law school and the techniques we used to generate discussion and focus on the power relationships created and reshaped by the decision.
Our presentation was to focus on how we as professors strove to bring to light—both individually and collaboratively—how the power relationships between corporations and political power have been reshaped through this decision, how those relationships have worked to the detriment of individual voters, and how, using the different disciplinary tools we possess, students should assess and answer the concerns raised by the Citizens United precedent.
Our goal was to present our findings to the Society of American Law Teachers at their conference in December.
As is the case with many projects, what our project became was very different from where we began. What had started as a project that would primarily focus on the Citizens United case and its impact on teaching, became a more generalized examination of teaching, Millennials, and technology.
What always amazes me is how much you learn, not from achieving your goals but from taking the journey to get there. For me, my fall semester, exploring all the frustrations, challenges and victories in making this vision a reality has helped me develop a better understanding of my students and myself as a teacher. I also was reminded of the challenges and rewards of working on a collaborative project.
I presented my insights during our panel discussion in December, but for those of you who were unable to attend, I summarize the main points here:
1. The Challenges in teaching Millennials;
2. The Student Engagement Conundrum – how to get students to engage;
3. The Substance – using Citizens United to teach;
4. The Effect this project had on my on my teaching and my scholarship;
5. Our Failures & Successes – and what I learned from them.
Over the next few mpnths, I will try and spend some time discussing each aspect of this. Hopefully, you can offer feedback and share your experiences as I review the last part of the journey.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Playing Games-

The focus of this blog has frequently been on the interaction of technology and the learning styles of Millennials. With good reason- so much of what defines this generation comes from growing up with unprecedented access to technology: smart phones, the internet, and email all have occurred within the last twenty years. Nonetheless, there are still ways to engage with these students using something as simple as a good old-fashioned board game. In this instance, the board game was Settlers or Catan and the class was International Business Transactions.

My IBT class is the smallest class I have all year – 5 students are enrolled. While I would have wished for a larger class size, there are some benefits to my small class. For me (other than the reduced grading time at the end of the semester) the biggest plus is that I get to engage my students on a much more personal level. It also gives me the freedom to experiment. So, although we are only three weeks into the semester, I have already played Jeopardy, shows them clips from the West Wing and, played Settlers of Catan.

For those of you who don’t know, Settlers of Catan is a board game that was created in 1995 by the German game maker Klaus Teuber. It has been called the Monopoly of this generation by the Washington Post and is reportedly played by millions world-wide, including “the Silicon Valley” set. The Washington Post video accompanying the article goes into details about the basics of the game; suffice it to say that the object of the game is to collect points by building roads settlements and cities. Each of these objects requires certain resources which (depending on the role of the dice) you may or may not have. As a result, trading resources with other players is often a crucial component of the game.

I have been addicted to this game since I was first introduced to it, a little over a year ago. As I was preparing for my IBT section on international trade, the idea of trying to use Settlers to teach some of the basic concepts appealed to me.
When I describe IBT to my students on the first day, I compare it a buffet. Over the fourteen weeks that I teach them, they are exposed to a wide curricular variety: securities law; corporate law; intellectual property (and a number of other topics) all from the perspective of a transnational environment. As a result, we never delve too deeply into any one substantive area, but rather sample a variety of issues with transnational law as our unifying theme.

So it is with trade. International trade is a foundational course in most international law curriculums. It is usually taught as a one semester, three-credit course. At WVU College of Law, Alison Peck teaches our International Trade class. Needless to say, trying to cover a semester’s worth of ideas in one week will not be successful – at most I can fly by and highlight the basic concepts. To me, Settlers of Catan was the best way to do it.

Before class, I had my students do two things: do their readings for the week and watch a youtube video on the basics of Settlers of Catan. When we first started playing, we went a couple of rounds, playing as you would normally play (except the Robber, was not used). Also, instead of being colors, the players were countries- I used Thailand, India, Jamaica and the United States. Then, after the students had a feel for the game, we added some custom-made additions. Now, every time the students rolled a seven (the common prompt for a Robber), they would pull from a pile of newly created situations. Some examples:

• “Thailand and India have entered into a trade agreement. They now sell ore to each other at half-price;”

• “All countries now recognize GATT;”

• “War has broken out between America and Thailand! No trade may occur between these two countries.”

Each of these scenarios impacted who could trade with whom and how trading with one person affected trade with someone else. I also added currency with various rates, allowing the students to buy resources instead of simply trading them (there is no money in the basic Settlers game).

The next class, we had a discussion about what take-away points that they could draw from Settlers and apply to international trade. The students had many insightful comments and discussed the concepts of trade succinctly and with a grasp of the basics.

So here are the things that I learned from the experience:

Keep it simple:

If you want to have the students involved playing a game, make the rules simple enough for them to pick up quickly. (I tried playing a version of Settlers last spring but I changed too many of the rules and it became confusing).

Keep it fun but not too fun:

I noticed that when we didn’t discuss the concepts and instead just focused on the game, the students got caught up in the competitiveness of it all. However, when I interjected with comments or applied instructions; the students took a moment to reflect on how what they were doing applied to what they had been reading.

Technology can breed isolation, games can breed community:

As I mentioned in a previous post, my practice is to ban laptops in my largest class. In my smaller classes (such as IBT) I feel more comfortable allowing to students to have them. Still even in these smaller classes I find that when students use their laptops, even to simply take down notes, they tend to become siloed in their typing. In contrast, playing Settlers required the students to interact and engage with each other.

The feedback I’ve received from my students has also been positive. One student said “I didn’t understand some of the concepts the book was trying to illustrate between laissez-faire and protectionism until I played the game.” To me, that makes it a game worth playing.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Wrap Up Panel (Part 2)

Simply trying to post this video on the blog has taught me much about the challenges and limitations of technology. Here is an excerpt from the video which you can watch directly from this blog. For the full video go here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wrap Up Panel

On November 4, 2010 Atiba Ellis, Stefan Padfield and Wilson Huhn participated in a panel to discuss the Citizens United case. The panel used Skype to have the discussion happen simultaneously in both Akron and at WVU. The timing was also fortuitous: although the discussion did not focus exclusively on the most recent election cycle, the case took on added relevance in light of the elections two days before. In fact, the panel garnered news attention because of its timeliness. The downside? The technology didn't record the panel. However, given the impact that the panel had both internally and externally, Atiba thought it would be a good idea to try again - this time with a wrap up panel discussing some of the key issues and the participants' experiences with Skype. The second time, the technology worked great and we were able to record the whole discussion. So, for your viewing enjoyment ...

Follow the link here to view the file through dropbox (since its over 10 minutes neither blogger now youtube could support it.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Justice Stevens and the Anti-Distortion Rationale: A Teachable Moment

I recently posted what follows on our "Thoughts on Citizens United" blog. I thought it worth re-posting here because it is an example of the kinds of points I have tried to raise in order to use Citizens United as a teaching touchstone to illustrate power and politics within the corporate system and within the democratic process. Another has been the use of technology to accentuate teaching, particularly about teaching about power in the internet age, something I've discussed previously. What follows hopefully illustrates both, and may offer a conversation starter for our panel at the SALT Teaching in a Transformative Age Conference--which is coming up soon!

From: "Thoughts on Citizens United":

Rick Hasen blogged yesterday about comments made by retired Justice John Paul Stevens concerning Citizens United. Justice Stevens' comments focused on the anti-distortion rationale rejected in Citizens United. He emphasized the idea that an actor in an election debate who has more resources than the other actors will distort the ability of the voters to make their decisions. Justice Stevens made these comments on "60 Minutes" this past weekend. You can read and see the original CBS story here. His Citizens United-relevant comments I repost from Hasen's blog:

    SCOTT PELLEY (voiceover): In Citizens United, the majority gave corporations the right to spend as much as they want on political campaigns; the majority said that limiting money in politics is the same as limiting free speech.

    Where does the court make a mistake in your view?

    JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Well, you know, which mistake do I want to emphasize?

    (Justice John Paul Stevens laughing)

    SCOTT PELLEY: You decide.

    JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Well, you know, basically an election is a debate. And most debates you have rules. And I think Congress is the one that ought to make those rules. And if the debate is distorted by having one side have so much greater resources than the other that sometimes may distort the ability to decide the debate on the merits. You-- you want to be sure that-- that it's a fair fight.
As I have stated during the recent forum Professor Amerson and I hosted with West Virginia University College of Law and the University of Akron School of Law, the rejection of the anti-distortion rationale represents, in my view, a departure from the Supreme Court caselaw that represented an uneasy but necessary pragmatism concerning corporate spending in elections. In his way, Justice Stevens echos this thesis quite pointedly and precisely. I will say more about this in future blogposts and other publications.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Laptop Debate ... (Part one)

According to the Washington Post, I’m about three years too late…
In a March 2010 article on banning laptops, the newspaper quoted a University Virginia professor who stated that, given the proliferation of other types of interfaces (such as web-enabled cell phones) professors are fighting a losing battle with technology.

This year was my first year banning laptops in my classroom. I had taught my business organizations class last year to a group of 75, my largest class size to date. I am a wanderer in class; instead of standing for the whole period at the front of the room, I walk around the class, trying to change my student’s focus, help them to engage. Now, while I’m not a millennial, I have had the uncommon experience of being a recent graduate of law school. I earned my LL.M. at the University of Texas in 2006, where laptops were common and wireless access prevalent. I know what happens in classrooms nowadays, in fact I participated fully – I chatted on-line (often with students sitting next to me), I surfed the internet and generally distracted myself. So, I have firsthand experience with how easy it is to get sidetracked through technology. Still, I have heard and agree with the arguments that students have been distracting themselves in class for generations and that technology is just the latest tool to facilitate.
But that’s not why I ban them.

I ban it for two reasons: one is based on a concern for my students and the other is based on a premise that I have yet to hear: the down side of instant engagement. The concern for my students came about after students complained to me that, even when they wanted to focus, it was difficult because the internet usage from other students was so prevalent that it kept the whole room preoccupied. The Washington Post article refers to it as the “cone of distraction.” But there’s an easy solution for that – all students who use laptops can sit at the back of class (although if everyone wants to use a laptop then that would thwart the solution). So, while that motivates me, the other reasons stem from something that I have not seen discussed – how the use of technology can thwart thoughtful ruminations.

Allow me to first illustrate with a hypothetical. What if you’re a student in a class, who had deep concerns over the competency of your professor: he’s a new prof who has no “track record” and you’re unsure as to whether what he’s telling you is really accurate or just a collection of platitudes. So, every time he makes a statement about black letter law you “fact check” it, Google it on your laptop to see if what he says pasts muster. Instead of listening to the lecture from a point of view of thoughtful absorption, you are spending your time trying to catch the teacher, not to educate but to condemn. Suddenly, the environment isn’t about learning it’s about condemnation. Now let me be clear – I know that there are a lot of incompetent professors out there, and many of them need to be challenged, but having this instant access to the internet can lead to a sense of false confidence (If I found it on Wikipedia it must be right and my professor must be wrong! True story, two days after I orginally this, one of my students in answering a question did exactly that: he referenced Wikipedia) that can then lead to a situation where confusion is heightened and learning is inhibited. If instead, the material were digested in class first, with questions designed to clarify, then a student might spend that time engaging in real learning.

Which leads me to ancillary point that my colleague, William Rhee, pointed out: namely that the legal system has not yet thrown aside all vestiges of the old ways. A law student needs to learn the basics of note taking and thoughtful discussion for those situations in the legal world where technology is either not accessible or not permissible. What if, you are so accustomed to relying on your computer to type questions that you are completely at a loss on how to behave during an oral argument, standing at the podium with nothing more than some paper and a pen? There will be something lost in client interactions if the only thing a client sees during a meeting is the two slits of eyes above your laptop. I have literally seen two teenagers sitting side by side on a couch not making eye contact or talking, both of them glued to their cell phones, expressionless as they were texting - each other. What does that say about our continued ability to interact with people face to face?

That for me is the real danger; it’s the dark side of what I mentioned in a previous post – using technology to get students to engage. I love technology and love how it gives people a means to access a discussion, a debate, in ways they never could before. I love that all of my seminar students and most of my business organization students have spent some time this semester blogging on issues of Citizens United and grappling with what the case means for them in different contexts. But something happened along the way to engagement: occasionally, the instant feedback of technology leads students to rush to judgment, and substitute thoughtful commentary with thoughtless reactions. It can lead to an inability to learn basic skills of communication (in much the same way that a calculator had a horrible effect on students’ arithmetic).

So, while I embrace technology as a mechanism for teaching my students, I also place limits. And so this year, I banned laptops in my class. There were grumblings at first ( I hear there always are) but the results have been worth it. It has given my students and me a time to slow down, to wrestle together with the questions they have and to think through these issues over the course of a two-hour period. And for me, that’s right on time.