The intersection of legal instruction and learning, skill-building and technology are hot topics this week in the Studio. Whether to employ technology, what purpose it should serve in the classroom and how to best pass along necessary knowledge to aspiring lawyers are questions of concern in the minds of those close to the process. In the LSSSE study discussed in my earlier post here, students who used technology in the classroom admitted to employing it for non-educational purposes (like tending their friends’ little green patches on Facebook or playing Tetris). On the other hand, those same students surveyed reported that when they used the computers as a support for their classroom learning, such as for briefing or note-taking, they felt better prepared in their classes. So, is technology evil? Is it anathema to learning and professional performance?
Patricia Grand Montana of St. John’s University School of Law has just published a short article, in a Legal Research Paper Series, entitled The Case For Limiting The Use Of Technology To Teach. It can be downloaded here. One might conclude from reading the title that Montana is advocating limiting the use of technology in the classroom. I reached a different conclusion after reading her article.
Montana’s premise is that modern students do not learn differently despite the pervasive presence of technology. Montana also posits that professors should think twice about employing technology in the classroom due to its drawbacks. Using the old stand-by, PowerPoint, as her example, Montana explains how a technology-laden presentation might hinder, rather than help, the process of learning. Montana cites a number of pitfalls to using PowerPoint, including overuse by packing too much critical information in a visual format difficult to digest for active or auditory learners. Montana also suggests that use of this visual presentation method invites students to “check-out” of the learning process and reduce their participation. Finally, Montana suggests that the more complicated or “gimmicky” the presentation, the more confused the students may become.
But even Montana concedes that technology, such as PowerPoint, can be used as an effective learning aid. It can hold the outline of a lesson or key concepts or can relay hypothetical problems. Highlighted information may help students grasp the big picture, organize their thoughts and encourage better note taking. A PowerPoint presentation obviates the need for the professor to turn his or her back on the students and take time away from the face to face connection to write the material on a white board.
So, what’s the answer? Should technology be granted access to the classroom or the study hall? We are well passed the “should” and are squarely in the “how” of it. Technology is here to stay and I don’t believe it is a bad thing. I don’t even believe that Montana believes it is a bad thing. “Limiting” in the title is too limiting a word: perhaps she could have said “The Case For Honing The Use of Technology To Teach” or “The Case For Best Employing Technology To Teach.” Even though a hammer probably should not be used to cut a piece of wood, the hammer should not be banned from the tool belt when it is the best tool for driving a nail. Penicillin, deadly to those allergic to it, also saves lives.
I agree with Montana’s assertion that active learning is effective learning and entreat professors to consider the best use of a particular technology in the classroom rather than ban it outright or even “limit” it. I return to my own nail, which I keep hammering deep into these posts about technology: the onus should be on the person employing it, engaged with it or distracted by it to ensure he or she interacts with it in the most effective way. We are as passive or as active as learners as we allow ourselves to be.