The Ethics of Student Engagement Technologies: Using Clickers & Smartphones to Learn the Law

Guest Column Technology Ethics

The Challenge

Digital natives now comprise a major sector of law school entrants. Don’t be surprised if they appear in your Contracts 101 class this September expecting to use their Apple Watches or Google Glass in learning the law. Such a scenario raises a troubling discrepancy in legal education methodologies: while most students are quite adept with student engagement technologies (SETs) from undergraduate classes, the majority of their law school professors prefer the passive environment of lectures, podiums, and PowerPoint. There might be a variety of reasons for avoiding SETs: apprehension of the technology, the time required for set-up, or fears that techno-wizardry will bog down content-intensive curricula. Some might also hold deep ideological commitment to the timeworn Socratic method.

As the inventory of SETs increases to include both more functional clicker remotes and web-based mobile phones, as well as videos used in the flipped classroom, there is mounting empirical evidence that active learning can address alarmingly short attention spans, improve grades, and close gender and socio-economic gaps. Such benefits raise the ethical question for us all: are we not obligated as law teachers to employ active learning, including SETs, in the best interests of our learners?

The Controversy

A 2014 report by Dr. Scott Freeman and a team from the biological sciences at the University of Washington describes the analysis of over 250 studies on active learning within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs in American universities. Active learning methods the team examined included use of SETs. Across all class sizes and course levels, the study found that student grades improved about 6% in classes with active learning, including use of laptops and other digital media, compared to students in traditional lecture classes. A closer review of three introductory STEM courses revealed that students in lecture classes were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those in classes where active learning transpired. The Freeman study results were interpreted to mean that, within a letter-based grading system, active learning could translate into a median increase from a B− to a B or from a B to a B+. When asked if those results raised an ethical suggestion that educators use active learning to offer more favourable learner outcomes, Freeman commented, “There is a growing body of evidence showing that active learning differentially benefits students of color and/or students from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or women in male-dominated fields. It’s not a stretch to claim that lecturing actively discriminates against underrepresented students.”

The debate between wired (and active) and unplugged (and passive) learning within the law school environment is not new: it can be traced back at least to a 2004 laptop ban for first year torts classes by Harvard academic Jonathan Zittrain, ironically a founder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Four years later a wider WiFi ban was imposed within the University of Chicago law school. The intervening years have produced innovative learning technologies that have intensified the controversy. Conflicting opinions range from those of New York University law professor Clay Shirky (defending his recent technology ban as necessary to avoid distractions); and those of Saul Levmore of the University of Chicago law school (“I like the feedback… [c]lass can go much quicker – I’m not pulling teeth”); to those of a Pepperdine University law student (pleading for wider classroom use of web technologies). UK law lecturer Catherine Easton promotes SETs as providing real time feedback, breaking up the lecture, developing high-level conceptual skills and deeper understanding, and holding learner attention for early morning or late evening classes.

Most Canadian law schools have not enacted technology bans. In fact, University of Calgary law school professors Peter Sankoff and Stephen Penney praise SETs for infusing theory with practice, and for pinpointing learner difficulties.

The Ryerson case study

The Freeman study affirmed my choice of teaching methodologies at both Osgoode Hall Law School at York University (crime in the digital age) and Ryerson University (criminal law and criminology). I present my experiences with SETs in the latter setting in the UK publication The Law Teacher as framed by the ethical debate about whether active learning reduces gender and socio-economic divides in the classroom. In the article I define “ethics” not within the moral scope of Judeo-Christian thinking but in the Platonic sense of individual self-realization and self-improvement. My use of clicker technology in large format classes at Ryerson University was prompted by the intensifying debate over laptop and mobile device use, concern over engaging students for three-hour classes, and the availability at Ryerson of strong administrative support.

Learner Impressions

Anecdotal feedback confirmed students’ preference for the objectivity and frequency of evaluation, as well as the anonymity afforded by SETs. All students were aware of their standing by the course drop date in each semester, objectively calculated without educator bias or error. Each student was heard from at least five times per class by clicker response without having to speak. Students could map their progress through private access to their own marks and could gauge their areas of weakness for exam preparation. Overall, students expressed satisfaction with the fast pace of each class and the energy around peer consultation that allowed little time for attention lapses.

The principal concern to students was cost. They were encouraged to share a clicker with colleagues not enrolled in the same course or to use second-hand devices. Another concern was the time entailed in troubleshooting technical glitches, a drawback that eased as SET use became more routinized over the term. Overall, students showed a progressive engagement through the constructive “busy-ness” of problem-solving in the class. There was some appreciation by students of my efforts to make the technology work, although I am still learning what the technology can do.

Lessons Learned

Clicker use relieved my apprehension concerning engaging students in large format, three-hour classes. Most rewarding was the ability to get responses from every student – in most cases within less than a minute. Even my mistakes in question formulation provided humour and a chance for more critical thinking. Other benefits included connection of content with real-world situations and high attendance even during midterm and final exam periods. SETs became personalized learning tools rather than a distraction demanding administrative management.

Admittedly, web-surfing and phone texting by back-row students did exist, primarily during the final hour of class. Although no integrity issues were presented, I frequently moved about the large lecture theatre on the lookout for students wielding two or more clickers. The tight orchestration of classroom events required by clicker use, however, required that students pay attention to keep pace. The fact that most clicker responses were graded might have discouraged prolonged distractions.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge the financial assistance of Dr. Lorne Sossin, Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, that enabled presentation of this paper as “Point & Click or BYOD: Assessing Student Engagement Technology for Law Teaching” at the CALT 2014 annual conference in Winnipeg.

Elizabeth Kirley received her PhD (’15) from Osgoode Hall Law School, York University with research interests in reputational privacy on the Internet, including law’s role in digital memory, robotic companions, and the Internet of Things.

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