Teaching while Chatting in the Law School Classroom

January 31st, 2011

At The Faculty Lounge, Bridge Crawford has a great post about using Twitter in the Classroom. I first blogged about my plans to use social networking in the classroom last term, and I have been experimenting with something similar this term.
I teach a Federal Courts seminar at the Penn State Law School. I have seven students in my classroom in State College, PA, and two students in the Carlisle, PA campus (Penn State has two campuses, campi?). I keep a live chat (using the school’s content management system) open during the class, and encourage all students to type questions, comments, and other ideas into the chat. I have found it to be quite effective, and the students really like it.
Frequently, when a student is engaged in a lengthy answer, rather than raising their hands, other students will simply enter their question or comment into the queue, so to speak. If it fits into the discussion, I will refer to the question. If not, I will ignore it. Additionally, students can alert me to an idea of insight that perhaps I didn’t see. This enables the class discussion to follow more closely what the students want to discuss.< I also use it to explore bonus topics, so to speak. For example, we were talking about the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial. I typed a question into the chat, and asked what other rights in the Bill of Rights have not been incorporated. I saw the students googling ferociously, and eventually they came up with the right answer. All the while, the class discussion continued. Some may view this as distracting the students. I view this as a way to keep the students engaged, and even learn more then they set out to learn. I think this approach really fits well into my class setting, which has two different locations. Additionally, it helps quiet students who may not feel comfortable raising their hand participate. Finally, it makes the limited class-time we have so much more efficient. I would highly recommend it to other teachers. On a broader pedagogical note, many teachers have banned laptops and the use of technology in the classroom. I could not disagree more with this approach. Certainly, students without laptops will not be distracted, and will make eye contact with the professor. They may even participate more. But are they learning better?┬áPeople learned differently today then years ago. My generation (I am only 2 years out of law school) learns in a fast-paced, multi-tasking world, with lots of intellectual stimulation. If I am able to supplement a traditional law school Socratic dialog with an interactive chat room, and the students can learn well from this, then I feel accomplished as an educator. Invariably students will find other ways to chat, even if laptops are banned (iPhones and Blackberries under the desk are hard to police). Denying students access to the very tools which enable them to learn--ostensibly┬ábecause the professor prefers to have a class's undivided attention--seems shortsighted. I will continue blogging about my experiences with this new technology.