The students sit in class, tapping away at their laptops as the boring old law professor mechanically plods through his lecture. Except one. Instead of hunching over a portable computer or a notebook, he's playing solitaire with a deck of cards on his desk. The professor halts his droning. “What are you doing?” he demands. The student shrugs. “My laptop is broken,” he says.
It was a sketch, performed at a Yale Law School skit night some time ago, that sent a chill through the professors' section in the auditorium.
Ian Ayres, the William K. Townsend Professor of Law at Yale, remembers it well. Long a critic of giving students free reign to surf the Web during class, he's tried multiple approaches to discouraging laptop users from distracting themselves with e-mail, games (like solitaire) and gossip. Now his theories are being put to the test.
Late last month, as students returned from spring break, the University of Chicago Law School announced that Internet access would be blocked from classrooms. While individual professors at law schools have created policies banning laptops or allowing them only for specific uses -- and while some colleges don't even have classroom Internet access, or mandate classroom-only use without any enforcement -- the move by Chicago appears to be the first institution-wide directive of its kind. Already, there's been an uproar among students and even senior administrators, while some law professors have stepped up to defend the policy.
As first reported in the blog Above the Law , Dean Saul Levmore sent an e-mail message to students on March 25 announcing the change, which came as a surprise to many. Calling the policy "experimental," he said it would now be considered a "breach of our norms" to use the Internet during class time.
"A great many conversations and classroom visits have generated the perception, and I think reality, that we have a growing problem in the form of the distractions presented by Internet surfing in the classroom," Levmore wrote. "You know better than I that for many students class has come to consist of some listening but also plenty of e-mailing, shopping, news browsing, and gossip-site visiting. Many students say that the visual images on classmates’ screens are diverting, and they too eventually go off track and check e-mail, sometimes to return to the class discussion and sometimes barely so. Our faculty (and I, as well as many of your classmates with whom I have spoken) believe strongly that we need to do everything we can to make Chicago’s classroom experiences all they can be."
Further down the message, he continued: "Visitors to classes, as well as many of our students, report that the rate of distracting Internet usage during class is astounding. Remarkably, usage appears to be contagious, if not epidemic. 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."
The solution, which has already been in place for over two weeks: Switching off most wireless access points and under-the-seat network jacks covering the law school's classrooms, a method that works only because they are located in a single building wing that can easily be isolated. But even Levmore conceded that there would be ways around the ban, such as using wireless cellular or radio cards that bypass the campus network.
There are also exceptions. The dean noted that one classroom would continue to have Internet access to "facilitate occasional computer training." At the same time, said Gregory A. Jackson, Chicago's chief information officer, one out of four classrooms -- as well as all the podium areas -- still has live connections available via network cable. He also added that depending on students' computers, they might be able to get online if they sit at the back of their classrooms. (Plus, Sprint has plans  to launch its new WiMAX service in Chicago, which would provide a new, high-speed way to get on the Internet beyond the campus network.)
"I think now, the social norm is that people who have the equipment ... check their e-mail constantly, maybe even every 15 minutes," Levmore said in an interview, noting that those everyday norms seep into the classroom as well. Speaking of the policy, he added, "It’s obviously paternalistic to a degree, and I wish it weren’t. I feel quite libertarian in my own life," he said, but in this case he found that "intervention is worthwhile."
Levmore also said that many of the professors -- as well as students -- he's spoken with have expressed support for the policy. But others contest that view, saying he is painting a distorted picture of the opinions. It's "not terribly popular with anybody except the dean who requested it,” said Jackson, the Chicago CIO who was ultimately charged with carrying out the policy. “I actually don’t think it's a good idea and I don’t think it will work.” Moreover, he said, in conversations with senior administrators at the university, he found a "general consensus” that it wasn't a good policy.
In Jackson's view, students today are adept at multitasking and they expect to be connected in "sophisticated ways," and any attempt to circumvent those tendencies will eventually fail. If students aren't paying attention, he said, it's “not the fault of whatever is distracting them” but the lecturer who isn't captivating their attention. Levmore's idea to create some sort of "on-off switch" that would enable Internet access between classes, or give professors the ability to allow students online for specific classroom purposes, was also a non-starter, Jackson added: It "won't happen," he said.
Law lectures aren't necessarily more susceptible to the capricious attention spans of Web-surfing students than those of any other discipline, but they do tend to have the greatest concentration of laptop owners. Some law schools, such as Chicago, require students to take all exams on laptops -- among other reasons, so that they can upload or e-mail their work on the spot. But as student technology use continues to evolve, even laptops are starting to be supplanted (or augmented) by smartphones such as BlackBerries, Treos and other devices that can access the Internet through cellular networks. Students using such devices would not be affected by the Chicago law school's policy.
Whether or not most Chicago law professors agree with the dean's view on Internet use, prominent academics have come out in favor of limiting it in the classroom setting. "I think that surfing the Internet is qualitatively worse than daydreaming and doodling in a couple of senses," Ayres said. "One, I think there’s fairly strong evidence that it’s a more addictive activity, and independent of that it has more of an externality, more distraction [to others] than many of the alternatives."
Ayres has tried different ways of regulating students' Internet use and has dreamed up even more, such as one scenario in which students who wanted to surf during class would sit in the back row (so that no one else would be distracted) or another that would require all applicants to law school to check a box pledging not to misuse the Web during lectures.
"I wholeheartedly applaud the move," said David D. Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, in an e-mail. "I've barred students from using laptops in my classes for two years now, and it has manifestly improved student participation and the level of engagement and discussion. And no wonder -- allowing students access to the Internet is like putting several magazines, a telephone and a television monitor at each students' seat and inviting him or her to tune out and browse, talk or watch TV anytime their mind starts to wander. It is corrosive of an engaged classroom."
Not surprisingly, many students don't hold the same view, and most who responded to requests for comment did not want to be quoted by name. "Surfing the Web was widespread in class, but to be honest, class discussion hasn't changed much since the ban," wrote one in an e-mail. "People now play chess, solitaire or just go through their pictures in class." Another suggested that some students even save Web pages to their hard drives to read later in class.
The number of students who spend all of their class time on the Internet is relatively small, suggested Chicago Law student Hadi Nilforoshan. Another group, probably bigger, doesn't use the Internet at all in class. "The rest of the students probably fall into a middle range," he wrote in a Facebook message. "This group is usually paying attention to the professor, but will occasionally check their e-mail or chat online. The only time this group of students uses the Internet excessively is if they feel that the professor does a horrible job of teaching, and know that listening will be of no use. This is very rare, however, given that we have mostly phenomenal professors."
Levmore said that other law deans had contacted him about the policy, many of whom were enthusiastic or at least interested in the results. Yale Law, which had been reported to be considering a similar move, said through a spokeswoman that no such discussions (to the chagrin of Ayres and others who share his views) were under way.