• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Literacy in the Digital Age: Part VI


May 28, 2011


Not because it is better than any other program but because it was the experience I had, I want to share the one at Cornell with you. My participation was as both coordinator and faculty member. Out to Berkeley we went, a steering committee of librarians, faculty and IT people, to learn from the masters about the “cluster” formation to create primary research, active learning projects for students especially in large classes. We heard from students about the relevance that these assignments in their academic life. For some students, it determined majors; others, career decisions. First generation college students from immigrant families shared how those projects fit into their understanding of citizenship.


A weeklong seminar, entitled Information Competency, back at Cornell a year later [description and details found at this site: <http://infocomp.library.cornell.edu/>], produced wonderful outcomes. In my “Culture, Law and Politics of the Internet” class, students broke into four groups and gave presentations on the “Lessig” factors that influence the Internet (market, law, social norms and technology). A member of the team, who had long been involved with pedagogy at Cornell, came to video one of the sessions and noticed a difference immediately. I never once set foot in the front of the room on days students gave presentations. When I entered I sat in the back of the room. The students demonstrating the “market” factor that day were in the front, chose to maintain traditional classroom seating for the kind of presentation that they gave (a mock project manager’s presentation of a new technology) and ran the class from start to finish, including the discussion portion. Just that placement alone, he commented later, completely changed the dynamic by empowering students with the responsibility to teach as well as learn.


In another class, during the presentation of legal factors, one of the audience students posed as me on a chat channel that students had unofficially set up making comments about the presenters. Even though no one had shared either the fact or the password of the channel with me, and – get this -- I sat in the back of the room without a computer, the students believed I was making the comments! After we critiqued the presentation, we had a fabulous discussion about human-computer interactions that incorporated concepts such as authenticity, authority, trust, technology, and humor that was one of the most fascinating conversations of my entire teaching career. Had we not transformed the class dynamic, that opportunity would have never emerged.


Information Science is the home department of the course, not the law school, but that fact did not deter us from using the other half of the course for a serious moot court competition. It could not have occurred without the collaboration of Thomas Mills, Associate Law Librarian, and one of the teaching assistants in particular who, as an attorney back in graduate school and with moot court experience, was an extraordinary assistant for this task, Chris Langone. The students’ performances were truly outstanding in every sense of the term: acting as “law students,” they were every bit their equals; indeed, they were just as good as any young attorney in some cases, and dressed the part. The content matched their tailored suits and coiffed or combed hair. Excellent, because it was their experience to make or break. The academic experience was no longer an imaginary divide between the “good child” who has learned to do what mommy and daddy want them to do or the “bad child” who either cannot or will not comply, but was that of young adults recognized for their ability to learn and grow intellectually with the right quality and quantity of guidance and support. The group projects we did in the first part of the course taught them something about the Internet, but the more important lesson they learned was that I trusted them as learners. They returned the gift gloriously.


The cases involved intellectual property, communications, privacy, electronic surveillance, defamation and reputation cases intersecting with technology and the Internet. We videotaped the sessions and put the videos up on a course wiki. The wiki, by the way, was the “place” where students wrote book reviews to which the authors (whom I had invited off-line) wrote comments and responses. Needless to say, students had never before engaged with the actual authors. Once they overcame their initial shock, they excitedly compared notes with one another about the comments, and became excitedly engaged, ultimately writing much, much more than would have ever been expected or required in the “10-15” page paper of your standard 3 or 4 credit class.


But here was the lesson. I walked into the room for the last class. A student immediately raised his hand and said how surprised he was in a job interview when the interviewer asked him a question related to the moot court competition. Did everyone know that those videos were on line and viewable by the world? A fearful hush went around the room. At the beginning of the course I had explicitly discussed making the wiki open and they voted on making it public for pedagogical reasons. Suddenly, when the reality of what “open to the world meant” became a reality, they wanted to reverse the decision. My trusty teaching assistant, Ben Cole, was on-line, and we asked him to put the wiki behind university authentication. Only then did it occur to me to turn to the student and ask him what happened with the interview. “I got the job,” he reported as if nothing were wrong. “The interviewer loved the video!”


The “Culture, Law and Politics of the Internet” story is a good one, but the best in show of what Cornell University produced goes to music professor, Steve Ponds. The team he assembled with his librarian colleague Bonna Boettcher and information technology video editor Noni Vidal speaks to the power of bringing primary source materials into the classroom and the hands of undergraduates. You gotta see this: http://cybertower.cornell.edu/lodetails.cfm?id=601



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