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April 26, 2008

Much Ado About Chicago Law's Classroom Internet Ban: A Faux-Empirical Study

It has been a month since Spring Quarter classes commenced at The Law School, and more importantly, since the policies outlined in the now infamous e-mail read 'round the world went into effect. Of course, here I refer to the e-mail from the Dean which informed us, much to our chagrin, that the beloved Internet which had once been provided in its full edu-network glory—for educational purposes only, of course—would no longer be available to us in the classroom.

Worse still, this was not a result of the so-called democratic process, where poor and starving law students, induced by promises of free food from sub-par establishments in the greater Hyde Park area, arrive to do whatever it is they need to do to get said food, but instead, an onerous mandate from the administration. People had complained, they said. Learning would be enhanced, they told us. In the end, our experience will be better without classroom Internet, they assured us. Somewhere, a University of Chicago Nobel Laureate rolled over in his grave. Paternalism, the bane of libertarians, conservatives, and Federalist Society members near and far, had supposedly arrived at the once stalwart home of the free market economy. Oh, the irony.

Since that fateful e-mail some weeks ago, there has been much brouhaha, both online and off. Angry messages have been exchanged and ambitious petitions set forth. The legal media (or at least, the blogs) have run articles (see, e.g., ATL; WSJ Law Blog) and it would not surprise me if the (much-abhorred) mainstream media picks it up soon enough, if they have not already. And yet, through all this breathless chatter, I cannot seem to bring myself to care. More than that, for the life of me, I cannot seem to understand why others care so much.

Just to be clear, I am no anti-technite, vehemently opposed to this newfangled series of tubes that has all the young'uns on their computers instead of learning the law like in the good ol' days. Quite the opposite, I would bet that I am probably one of the biggest computer nerds in the entire 1L class (I don't know enough about the 2Ls, 3Ls, or LLMs to speak to the other classes). To be honest, there is a strong possibility that I prefer my computers (plural) to my friends; certainly the former add more value than the latter. (Then again, who am I to speak? My own worthlessness as a member of society transcends that of most people around me.) That being said, I was never beholden to the 'net in the classroom my first two quarters, and have only barely felt the much-discussed ill effects this quarter. How is that possible?

In the end, I think the level of emotion over the situation probably tracks (though not linearly) with one's classroom Internet consumption habits. Of course, what those habits are is an empirical question, but I have never let the lack of good—or any—data stop me from drawing wild and entirely unsubstantiated conclusions (I really should have been a social scientist rather than an engineer), nor will I be prevented from doing so in this regard. To begin with, I would divide classroom Internet consumption into six categories (or at least, points of demarcation on a continuous scale, insofar as consumption is a continuous, not discrete function):

  1. None: You do not use the Internet at all in the classroom, whether it is because you take notes by hand or because you just love the law that much (these people really do exist!);
  2. Low: You use the Internet only for looking up definitions of obscure Latin phrases, reading Wikipedia summaries of cases you neglected to read, and checking e-mail;
  3. Low-Moderate: You engage in one to two simultaneous IM conversations, read mostly law-related or headline news/blogs, check e-mail regularly, and sometimes, though rarely, compose one as well;
  4. High-Moderate: You spend at least half of the class actively disengaged from the classroom discussion, engaging instead in a minimum of three simultaneous IM conversations, often with those outside the classroom, reading blogs and news unrelated to the law, trawling on Facebook for friends of friends to stalk (online or otherwise), playing games such as Scrabulous, chess, or crosswords, and reading/composing lengthy e-mails;
  5. High: You spend almost all of class on the Internet, engaged in high-attention activities such as playing Counterstrike or watching pornography, while those sitting behind you wish you had not bothered to show up to class; and
  6. Very High: Your Internet consumption is so extreme (e.g., MMORGs, hardcore and/or weird porn, online worlds laden with sexual deviants, etc.) that you do not even bother to come to class, preferring to enjoy the Internet without being under the pretense of learning.1

Results (Which I Made Up)

Anger Graph

The nearby graph demonstrates the increase in anger over the Internet-ban as a function of classroom Internet consumption. Granted, consumption will indubitably vary depending on the class, the professor, etc., but my guess (again based on a sample size of maybe five) is that most people remain within a particular category for the most part regardless of such extrinsic factors. Notice further how the graph is exponential, but with a discontinuity at the the Very High category. This is to be expected since those who do not show up to class presumably could not care less whether those of their peers who do have access to the Internet or not. Personally, in autumn and winter, I probably fell mostly in the low-moderate category (though that is not to say I did not have my high-moderate days), and a such, my anger has perhaps been more tempered than others. (Another reason might be that I am too busy hating Hyde Park to be angry about the lack of Internet in the classroom, but that's quite besides the point.)


Though many folks have been quite quick to express their outrage over the ban, Internet in the classroom is hard to defend on a substantive basis. Pedagogically, the classroom Internet is of dubious value. Whatever little value that is added by having access to handouts or the like in class is seriously undercut by the extreme and unchecked potential for distraction. Those who say otherwise are either liars or clearly have not sat in a law class and watched nearly everyone using the Internet for purposes that are anything but educational. In fact, I have spoken to several individuals who feel that the banning the Internet has increased not only the level of discourse in the classroom, but also the amount of comprehension.2 I agree fully with those sentiments.

The paternalism argument, i.e., that each student should be allowed to make his or her own decision with regard to Internet consumption, is stronger, but still inapposite in my view. First, a law school is not the State; on the contrary, it is an educational institution whose raison d'être is to train and educate future lawyers, a responsibility that Chicago Law takes especially seriously (believe me, it's rough). It has every right to impose whatever rules or regulations it sees fit to promote that goal, and in fact, it would be remiss not to do so.

Second, Internet in the classroom is not a right, individual or otherwise; it is a privilege. No one signs up to come to top 14 law school on the basis that he or she will be assured Internet access in the classroom. In fact, I would bet that it is not even a consideration for most students; it certainly was not for me when I was making my decision (though being forced to install and use exam software on my computer may very well have been a deal-breaker). Thus, to claim that a policy banning the Internet is a paternalistic infringement on one's rights is misguided; no one is being forced to attend class (or for that matter, stay at this particular law school). Those for whom it is a real big deal are always free to leave; that's the beauty of freedom of contract.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, classroom Internet use creates nontrivial externalities, which the so-called market is particularly ill-adjusted to compensate for. I may choose not to use the Internet at all, but if someone is watching YouTube videos of animals copulating (or whatever) in front of me, I am going to be distracted nevertheless (yes, this has happened; no I don't want to talk about it). Those who claim that I can always look away or simply not be distracted patently ignore basic biology/psychology (who isn't going to be distracted by such a video playing directly in your line of sight?).

The more fundamental issue is that those who do not abuse the Internet should not be forced to adjust because others do. Since the Internet is clearly not required for the purposes of most—or any—law school classes, and since it adds next to no value beyond the traditional lecture model, if anything, those who would abuse the privilege should be forced to adjust. The Internet ban, in my opinion, does a good job of getting the incentives right: those for whom the Internet was a casual phenomenon will get over its unavailability; those who cannot live without it will not attend class and incur the cost of their behavior. That result is preferable to transferring costs onto innocent (or at least, less culpable) bystanders.

None of the above is to say that I am a supporter of paternalism in general, or onerous administration mandates in particular. I just think that given the little value which is added and the high costs which are incurred, the ban in this case is a Good Thing™. On the other hand, was the administration to decide to ban computers all together, or to force me to use a particular brand of computer, or to install software on my computer which would prevent me from using it the way I wanted to, well then, we could talk about paternalism. (As it is, I am pissed that I have to write my final exams in Word.)

To the first point, I think computer usage in general probably creates a lot of costs, but on the whole it adds more value than it detracts. Again, that's an empirical question, but me making up data on that subject will have to wait until I have more time. Spring Quarter is starting to kick my ass.3

^ 1 Shout out to the homie Mandamus. Though not a rap nickname per se, it would definitely be a good one if ever so adopted. Given that Ja Rule's first album was Venni, Vetti, Vecci, I do not think it too extreme to suggest that an aspiring young MC may choose a writ as his moniker. Certiorari, on the other hand, would probably be too much.
^ 2 An added bonus that Sleazy-E points out is that the Internet ban has drastically reduced total gunner airtime in the classroom. When the Internet was available, most people simply retreated to the interwebs when gunners began to make asinine and off-topic statements not-so-cleverly disguised as questions. Now that that escape hatch is no longer available, more people are forced to participate, lest they slit their wrists (with a dull razor) from sheer frustration, and this counteracts so-called gun shows.
^ 3 Rather inconveniently, the one-month anniversary of the Internet ban falls on the due date of the appellate brief. Too bad writing that isn't as easy as writing a worthless blog article on the Realm.


You Benedict Arnold bastard! How dare you defend the Internet ban?

Let this be a lesson in the utility of a neo-conservative outlook: social liberalism in your classrooms vis-a-vis the Internet led to the deterioration of the school's very essence. This downward spiral was only forestalled by the elite cadre of politicians and bureaucrats running the University. They had no choice but to limit your freedom in order to ensure the absorption of His Holiness Saint Friedman's teachings. It is best we all adhere to the politics of deference and yield to our benevolent officials. It is only fitting that we learn this lesson from the University of Chicago.

However, is all this too little, too late? The advent of mobile phones with respectable screen sizes and resolutions seems to augur well for those looking to have a little porn with their provisos. Connection, and therefore distraction, is only an iPhone away.

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