Saturday, May 17, 2008

Classroom Access and the "5 Whys"

(Cross-posted at Legal Profession Blog)

I considered giving this post an Onion-like title, something to the effect of "UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW SCHOOL PROPOSES LEAD DOME OVER HYDE PARK; DEAN LEVMORE DERIDES CITY-WIDE WIRELESS ImagesHOT SPOT AS 'ANTI-INTELLECTUAL.'"   But Legal Profession Blog is a serious blog (the ABA Journal's blog
regularly uses Mike Frisch's posts as source material!)  So I'll try a moderately serious response.

As has been noted in the blogosphere over the last day or so, Chicago has decided to shut off wireless internet access to its classrooms. Ian Ayres applauds this move; Calvin Massey is skeptical.  I tend to side with Calvin for the reasons he gives over at The Faculty Lounge, but I want to expand.

As Calvin notes, if the teaching is sub-par, students will find different ways of checking out.  I have done the New York Times crossword regularly going nigh on thirty years, and it all started in the back row of the classrooms at Stanford Law School, courtesy of the Stanford Daily's syndicated use of the puzzle.  I won't say which classes, but, trust me, there were some whose combination of turgid text and stultifying pedagogy earned my ennui many times over.

Insulating the classroom from the current iteration of technology is a piece of chewing gum in a crumbling dike.  It's only a matter of time until there is universally available city-wide wireless access (I think Boston has been talking about it.)  At which point, the construction of the lead dome will be necessary to avoid surfing unless the solution is indeed to start us on the road back to quill pens and inkwells by banning laptops in the classroom.

It seems to me that schools ought to be at least as forward-thinking as manufacturing companies in avoiding the quick fix in favor of getting at the root cause.  In modern Japanese-developed lean manufacturing (kai-zen or continuous improvement), one principle used in analyzing the cause of defects is the "five whys":  you don't truly get to the root cause of a problem unless you ask why, get an answer, and then ask why about the answer five times.  Using the five whys here would tell us, I think, that we haven't solved the surfing problem by constructing a technology shield.

Wait a minute.  Five whys.  Gosh, that sounds almost . . . Socratic!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished my first year at Michigan, and we witnessed a change mid semester in the Fall.

The school used to have a system for turning off wireless based on classroom. The default position was off when a class was in session. Our Civil Procedure class used an internet quiz system, so it was available to us in that class.

Anyway, people found ways around the system. Attaching to a Wi-Fi zone from a fraternity across the road; using a cell phone's data connection, whatever. Some of the tricks involved getting the password of a student who wasn't in class with you.

As a result, the school decided to allow internet access full stop. They allow us to go as far as registering our MAC addresses of our computers so we don't even need to log in to get TCP/IP on any of our devices.

What happened? Two of my three doctrinal classes banned the use of laptops full stop second semester, partly as a reaction to the new policy.

I have to say, I was pretty upset at the idea that taking notes on my laptop was not allowed, but in some ways I was grateful that I had to just stop using the computer, stop what I was doing, and had nothing to do but pay attention. I think it helped me focus on both of those classes in a way I probably wouldn't have if I was busy using the computer to organize my notes (or search the web, or play games, or whatever).

In fact, it almost convinced me to become the kind of person who wouldn't use a computer, even when it was allowed.

Whatever the case, I think Chicago will run into the same problems we did at Michigan. People. Will. Get. On. The. Internet. If you don't want people distracted, ban the computers full stop.

5/17/2008 12:28 PM  

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