April 18, 2008

Editorial: Surf’s up

As any student who has ever tried to take notes while a classmate plays Starcraft can attest, there are definite downsides to having wireless Internet access in classrooms and lecture halls. Something as simple as The New York Times web page can distract even the most alert students sitting in the vicinity, and laptops provide an easy diversion for those who just want to check their e-mail. In this light, it is tempting to support the Law School’s recent decision to shut off Internet access in all of its classrooms. The new policy, however, is misguided. Administrators should not dictate how professors run their classrooms, nor what constitutes an undue distraction for students.

The rationale for the Law School’s decision is sound, to a certain extent: Professors shouldn’t have to compete with the Internet to hold their students’ attention, and a student’s online escapades can distract his classmates. But use of the Internet in class is not completely illegitimate; it’s not uncommon for a professor to ask a student to look up, or check, a fact online. Moreover, students who are eco-friendly—or just cheap—prefer to access course readings online, rather than printing them out and bringing them to class.

These are important trade-offs, and reasonable people can disagree about whether the downsides of Internet access outweigh the benefits. But the person to best weigh these trade-offs is not an administrator, making a sweeping top-down decision—it’s individual professors, who know their classes best of all.

To be fair, it’s virtually impossible to give every single professor the ability to control Internet access in his classroom. Blocking the Internet in a large lecture hall that relies on a single wireless access point is easy. Giving professors of small classes the ability to regulate Internet access would be impractical—each individual classroom in Cobb, for example, would first need its own dedicated wireless access point and a way to block out neighboring signals: a major expense to address a relatively minor nuisance. However, the problem of the Internet’s allure is less pressing in smaller, discussion-based classes, where students have little opportunity to check the Cubs’ score in the middle of class without drawing the professor’s attention.

If a professor wants to cut off Internet access in his classroom, the Law School—and the College—should give him the means to do so where practical. Some professors value the advantages of classroom Internet access more than its downsides, and administrators should not force them to comply with a universal policy. The Law School may be famous for its erudition, but it seems to have forgotten a basic axiom in life: One size rarely fits all.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Managing Editor, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.