Law School ends classroom Web access

By Alison Sider

University of Chicago law students faced a new challenge when they returned to class after spring break–: sitting through an entire class session without internet access.

Law School Dean Saul Levmore informed students in an e-mail announcement that the school had decided to disable wireless and local Internet access in the classrooms as part of an experimental attempt to reduce web surfing during class. Internet connections will still be accessible in the public areas of the law school building and in one classroom to facilitate computer training.

Faculty input prompted administrators to limit Internet accessibility in the Law School building. Students and classroom visitors also noted the trend toward Web surfing during lectures.

“If there are 50 students in a class, probably 48 bring computers. Probably 30 of them are occasionally surfing and checking e-mail. You almost have to see it to believe it,” Levmore said in a telephone interview.

Levmore said that bringing computers to class has become the norm for law students across the country and that other school have been struggling with the same problems of decreased attention to lectures and participation in class discussions.

“Several observers have reported that one student will visit a gossip site or shop for shoes, and within twenty minutes an entire row is shoe shopping. Half the time a student is called on, the question needs to be repeated,” Levmore wrote in his e-mail to faculty and students.

Limitations on computer and internet use have been instituted at Stanford, Harvard’s law and business schools, and are being considered by Yale.

Some students have challenged Levmore’s assumption that they are missing out on a valuable experience by sending e-mails or reading gossip sites during class.

In response to some students’ claims that computers are used as a relief from boring teachers, Levmore said that classroom visitors have noticed web surfing even in classes taught by professors whom students consistently rate highly or choose for teaching awards.

“Class attendance here is fantastic compared to other law schools. We have great teachers, and people like going to class. While in class though, they get distracted. They think, ‘I’ll just be an observer, and I’ll look up only when I hear cheers of enthusiasm for a particular idea,’” Levmore said.

Levmore also fears that students miss more than just the class material when they use the Internet during class. Internet usage in the classroom impinges on the essential human element of classroom learning, he said.

“Opportunities for human interaction and for classroom learning will soon become rarer in your lives, and I hope that you too can make the most of the opportunities that you have here,” he wrote to students in his e-mail.

Response to the decision has been mixed among Chicago students, with vocal opponents as well as supporters of the policy. A widely read blog geared toward law students, “Above the Law,” reported the issue under the heading, “Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids (and their Internet) Alone!” An informal poll on the site revealed that 63.8 percent of respondents believed that law students should have internet access in the classroom.

The faculty, on the other hand, is pleased with the new policy, Levmore said. Many faculty members hadn’t realized how big the problem was in their own classes, but have noticed that they have to repeat questions less frequently when they call on students, a problem that they hadn’t attributed to the distractions of the Internet, he said.

While he acknowledged that students could find ways around the shut down through leakages and radio-cellular enabled computers, Levmore said that he hopes students will come to see Internet usage in the classroom as a faux pas.

“Internet usage in class should be like cell-phone usage or the ostentatious reading of newspapers—inappropriate, a breach of etiquette, and an insult to teacher, classmate, and self,” Levmore wrote in his e-mail.