May 1996 [Internet version 10/15/1996]

[Questions or comments on this report should be addressed to:
Questions about the ongoing E-LEARN program at Chicago-Kent should be addressed to Professors Sowle or Warner of that faculty: or]

What Do Law Students with Laptops and Electronic Casebooks Do? - The Chicago-Kent Computer Section (1995-96)

Peter W. Martin, Legal Information Institute

Introduction and Background

In 1994-95, the Chicago-Kent first year program included an experimental electronic casebook section of 32 students. This past year, 1995-96, it expanded the program to a full first year section of 100. Like the year before, this subset of the full first year class was self-selected in the sense that only students who elected to be in the computer section (which entailed paying the $2,000 to $3,000 for a laptop or notebook computer meeting the school's specifications) were chosen. However, not all those who wished to be in the section could be accommodated.

The plan for the section (hereafter referred to as the "computer section") included: electronic versions of as many of their coursebooks as possible, an organized suite of applications and information labeled the "Law Student Desktop" held within the Folio VIEWS software platform, training in the use of these tools, and follow-up support. All of these elements were surrounded by an environment and school culture that affirmed the use of computers as essential professional tools. E-mail use is pervasive among faculty and students at Chicago-Kent. Students are allowed to take exams on computers. The classrooms include power and network connections at all student seats. They are also set up so as to facilitate teacher use of audio-visual equipment including a computer. In short, the computer section was an extension of well established commitment to the integration of computer technology and legal education at Chicago-Kent that dates from the eighties.

The background and aims of the electronic casebook initiative have been well detailed by its leaders. [n1]

This report, prepared primarily for the Chicago-Kent faculty, assumes a familiarity with the school and its emphasis on technology. It also assumes basic familiarity with the current generation of word-processing software and Folio VIEWS. (The latter is well documented in the articles noted below and in handouts of the Chicago-Kent Center for Law and Computers.)  In this Internet version of the report the names of individual Chicago-Kent faculty members are omitted.

As a visiting faculty member at Chicago-Kent during the 1995-96 academic year I devoted much of my time to learning from this program that is at once unique but at the same time a forerunner of changes soon to occur at most U.S. law schools, more or less inevitably. At least once a month through the year I visited classes for which these students had electronic casebooks -- Criminal Law and Justice in the fall, Contracts and Property in the spring. I interviewed most of the faculty who taught them, members of the Center for Law and Computers (CLC), and many of the veterans of last year's computer section. Finally, I prepared two questionnaires that were distributed to the students in the section. The first, given in January, dealt with the fall semester; the second, given in late April, covered the entire year.

The essence of my inquiry was straightforward: Does such a substantial shift in the technology available to students for their use in performing the standard range of tasks put before them in the first year of law study make a difference? If so, in what ways? What are the gains, tradeoffs, surprises and problems associated with the pervasive use of computers that, significantly, hold a comprehensive set of course materials?

Any program of this ambition and scale carried out in an institution with well established habits and practices will experience problems of implementation. And when high expectations have been encouraged, as they were among these students, such problems have added impact. This past fall's start for the "computer section" had its share, ranging from lapses in communication among the key actors (CLC staff, faculty, administration, and students), through delayed delivery of the key software, to serious problems with one hardware vendor. And these lapses led to initial morale problems. Some or all of them undoubtedly played a role in individual attitudes or choices reported here. A student whose computer crashes during the critical early weeks of the fall term has ample cause to renounce it altogether. A faculty member inadequately forewarned about his or her involvement in an innovation of this magnitude may view the venture skeptically and project that attitude to students. Less training with unfamiliar software may lead to greater reliance on the tried and true. Early into the study I concluded that effects like these seemed, in context, to be far less important than understanding the results of what, in fact, did work more or less as intended. Consequently, I spent little time puzzling how things might have been different had there been more VIEWS training earlier for the students, longer lead time for the faculty, and so on.

This report is a first cut attempt to lay out what I've learned. It is divided in two parts. Part I provides my tentative conclusions about a wide range of questions or effects drawing on the full set of data I gathered. Part II lays out in greater detail, source by source, what I heard, read, and saw. Needless to say, its more complete picture is more complex and therefore more contradictory than the one drawn in Part I. There are some fundamental points, though, that emerge consistently enough from all sources that they deserve headline treatment at the outset.

First, the students in the computer section did in fact use their computers throughout the year. Although admitted to the section, nothing forced them to follow through. Laptop attendance was never taken. Every major law student task they were assigned in their substantive courses, they could perform using print materials. Indeed, a small fraction of the students read their assignments in print, took notes, made their final outline, and took the exam by hand, but probably no more than 10%. Between 80 and 90% of the students used their laptops in class more or less on a daily basis from August through April.

Second, the students of the computer section ended up strongly persuaded of the value of many of the elements that made up their "electronic first year". Among these elements the one about which they were most enthusiastic is use of the computer for note-taking, outlining, organizing research materials, and doing professional writing. However, the electronic course materials themselves were seen as sufficiently useful that roughly half the group said they would if confronted with a "section of a course that had electronic course materials and one that had only print materials, all else equal" select the former. Only 10% or so reported they would affirmatively avoid the electronic casebook section; the rest were "indifferent."

Third, neither the faculty involved nor most students perceived there to be significant adverse effects.

Finally, the students responded with extraordinary enthusiasm to one teacher's use of the electronic casebook in the classroom, along with his related use of a laptop to present and emphasize elements of the classroom exchange.

I. How the Students (and One Faculty Member)
Used Their Laptops and Electronic Casebooks
and Perceived Effects on Classroom Exchange

A. The Implicit Paradigm

During the fall term the computer section took two large-class courses for which there were full electronic materials -- Justice and Criminal Law. A large portion of the group made up one Justice section. A subset numbering about 50 made up a Criminal Law section. In both cases, the full basic text for the course had been prepared in infobase form and installed on the hard-drives of each student's laptop. Neither instructor was sufficiently forewarned of their distinctive assignment to organize the conversion of any supplemental readings -- a significant feature in the Justice class. The students all received training in the use of their electronic casebooks and the underlying software platform, Folio VIEWS. They were offered tutorials and support sessions with a group of second-year students who had been members of the school's first computer section.

Spring term the section had full electronic casebooks for Property and Contracts.

While introduction to these electronic tools was heavily laced with caveats that there was no single "right way" to use them, the structure of the electronic casebooks and the instruction of the prior year's power users both pointed toward having the electronic casebook, surrounded by a set of features prepared in VIEWS, at the center of each student's work. Built into the course "infobases" were highlighters for "Facts" and "Key Quotes" -- designed for use both before and during class. Students were instructed on how they could create additional highlighters to discriminate among key passages. A "Notes" level was built into the electronic books. This was designed to allow students to enter notes at points throughout a case and was specifically created as an alternative to or supplement for the notes feature directly incorporated in the Folio VIEWS software. An advantage it offered over the latter is the capacity to collect all notes for a case into a single "view" with a click on the "Student Case Notes" link located following each case heading.

The training in use of VIEWS pointed out that this collection of elements allowed automatic generation of an initial course outline. As the article by Matasar and Shiels explains:

With a click of the mouse button, a query link draws up the entire structure of the course as an outline with the students' personal notes inserted at the proper course chapter and section. Students can print their outlines to study for exams or export them to a wordprocessor for further formatting, a feature that is available automatically because of the integration of the reading and notetaking material in electronic hypertext medium. [n2]

At the beginning of each set of course materials are a preset cluster of four "query links" that allow a student to extract: the book's table of contents alone, the table of contents with all highlighted portions of the text (in context of chapter and section headings), the table of contents with all student notes embedded in their proper place, or all of the above. In short, the structure of the materials and advice about their use carried a strong suggestion that students might use the casebook not simply as a searchable text from which portions could be extracted to notes, but as the framework for their accumulating ideas on and condensation of both the readings and class discussion -- a framework from which they could in the end, by virtue of the software, extrude their ultimate course outline.

B. Actual Student Use of the Laptops in Substantive Classes

Perhaps ten percent of the computer section practiced that paradigm in close to pure form. Those that did brought no print materials to class so long as they had the material on their laptop. (Students in all electronic casebook classes had print versions of the course materials available to them. In some cases, e.g., the Justice book, they were required to buy the print version -- a condition laid down when the publisher permitted creation of the digital version. Even without a mandate, the case with the Criminal Law book, virtually all purchased the print version of their electronic casebooks.) Students adhering to this model referred to their electronic casebooks when class discussion dealt with a particular passage in the day's reading, highlighted key passages, and placed their notes directly in the infobase using the notes "level." Presumably they also used their electronic casebook centered notes, highlighted passages, and book headings and subheadings in pulling together a final course outline. Indeed, in several of their electronic casebook courses, the exam was an open book, that is to say, open laptop exam, so they could work directly from those VIEWS-based notes right through the final exam.

As already noted, another group, probably a bit smaller, ended up on the other extreme, rejecting the pattern of work reflected in the above paradigm altogether. Nothing required students to use a laptop. Students could, and some did, leave their computers and the electronic casebooks they held backstage, even on the shelf. (In some cases this followed serious computer failure.) Throughout the term at least ten percent of the students in electronic casebook classes operated without laptops in the classroom, referring to a print version of the casebook (or the day's portion of it) and taking notes using paper and pen or pencil. Some few of these later redid their notes on a computer. Ten percent of the group responding to the spring survey indicated they would choose a print only section of an upper class course over one that offered an electronic version of the casebook.

The bulk of the class fell between these two extremes, affirming the computer as a tool but deviating in significant ways from the pattern of use for which the electronic casebooks were designed. It is instructive to consider the ways in which students' actual use departed from that paradigm and possible reasons for it.

To begin, a majority of laptop users read their course assignments in print. This is hardly startling. In all likelihood most people today given the choice would prefer to read a preset sequence of essays, stories, or opinions in print. Several students distinguished between this type of reading and the exploration of preliminary research results drawn from an online session, indicating a preference for the computer's navigation and manipulation capacity in the latter situation. Students in the Contracts teacher's section were drawn to use their computers in preparing for class because the tutorials that were part of his course materials had no print counterpart. The capacity to search, link, and annotate, alone, however, seemed for most to be insufficient reason to choose the screen over a more familiar interface. Electronic casebooks in which the authorities cited in an assigned opinion or subsequent problem or note are a "point and click" away and interactive casebooks with built in tutorials, exercises, and problems are likely to exert a stronger pull in competition with print. But electronic casebooks that simply place a digital copy of what is essentially flat book material in even a very sophisticated software environment will, by virtue of habit and experience, but probably more enduring reasons as well, be put aside by many for the print equivalent.

The preference for print carried into the classroom. When class discussion focused on a particular passage in a statute or opinion, most of those who had their laptop (and its electronic version of the casebook) in class nonetheless turned to the passage in print.

For most of the section, the laptops were in class not as electronic casebooks but as note-taking tools. And most students chose not to place those notes within the framework of the casebook. Many of the laptop users, probably a slight majority, (in a proportion that seemed to grow through the year) used word-processing software for their course notes. Even among the other large group, those using Folio VIEWS for their notes, only a handful put them within the structure of the electronic casebook. Most opted instead to work in a separate notes infobase.

Does all this mean that the electronic casebook was not valued or used? No. Recall that half the group viewed having an electronic version of course materials as important enough that, all things equal, they would prefer a section that had materials in that form (in addition to print) over one that had only a book. Those who did their course notes in VIEWS, though not within the casebook, did so in part because of the capacity to link those notes to the book. Indeed, that is the principal advantage of using VIEWS rather than WordPerfect or Word for daily notes. Notes on a particular case can be linked to the case or even a particular passage in it. That is presumably why so many students used VIEWS for their class notes even though they later switched to word-processing software to prepare their course outline. A very high percentage of those doing their notes with word-processing software right along brought extracts from the electronic casebook into their notes and even read from it directly on occasion.

Whether the students used VIEWS or word-processing software there were two classroom situations where those working with paper and pen or pencil an edge. The first were those where pictures or diagrams worked better than words. VIEWS like word-processing software is predominantly a word tool and to the extent that it enables information structuring it embodies a structural model of a linear hierarchy. One more than one occasion I observed a teacher working to get the class to visualize information graphically. The property professor asked his class, one day, as many teachers of this subject will, to instruct him in the creation of a map of the neighborhood of a property dispute which the assigned case had "sketched" using words only. He pressed for the location of the streets and key buildings. From time to time, this same teacher and others I observed also drew simple flowcharts and diagrams on the chalkboard. Confronted with such non-textual presentation many of the laptop note-takers attempted to pack the information back into words. Very few (4 out of 68 responding to the April questionnaire) were sufficiently comfortable using the graphics tools on their computer (built into the wordprocessing software or bundled with Windows) to make use of them under these circumstances. A slightly larger number set their computer aside and used paper and pen. My classroom observations led me to believe that some of the students who rejected computers for in class notes did so because their personal method of capturing a class included extensive use of their own diagrams or conceptual "maps" -- often as simple as a web of words or phrases circled or boxed and linked by lines.

The second situation where the paper notebook appeared to have advantages over its electronic equivalent was when the teacher distributed something important on paper (without parallel electronic delivery), not supplementary reading so much as a piece of the class -- a problem for discussion, the key section of a statute. The dominant approach of the laptop using group to such print chunks was "to keep the material along with other odds and ends apart" from the course notes. Those faculty members who transmitted such "handouts" in digital form provided a path around this problem. A frequent suggestion from students responding to the spring questionnaire was that faculty "send all handouts through e-mail."

Having lumped the students into a small number of categories on the preceding points, I should conclude by observing that those categories conceal a wide variety of individual work styles. One day in February the students around me in class were coordinating their course materials and notes in the following ways. Immediately to my right was a student working within the Folio VIEWS version of the casebook, applying highlighters to the text, and toggling to class notes which she was writing with word-processing software. On my other side, a student read his casebook from the laptop (no print version of the book was visible) but took notes with paper and pen. In front of me sat one student working from a print book, taking notes in WordPerfect (including notes on the case under discussion) and a second using print, paper, and pen.

C. How Students, in Fact, Created Their Final Course Outlines

As already noted a majority of students preferred to do their notes in WordPerfect or Word from the start. And significantly, a majority of those who did notes in VIEWS transferred to word-processing software for their course outlines.

There is a sense in which at least some students do not want an "automatically generated" outline. Many seem to operate on the belief, very likely sound for them at least, that the process of making a course outline is at least as important as the product. For a good number this process includes not only filtering, ordering, and reconceptualizing the course content but "handling" it in some more literal way. At least one student in the laptop group prepared the fall term course outline by hand from computer based notes. Others rekeyed their outlines from materials they read from printed out versions of notes they had previously prepared on their laptop.

D. Classroom and Other Secondary Effects

Since nearly 90 of the students in these courses brought their laptops to class and used them at least for taking notes, these were classes beyond the experience of most law professors. How do 60 to 90 laptops affect the classroom environment? Before reporting the more specific impressions of those who had this experience at Kent as well as my own observations (see infra), I can summarize them succinctly with the phrase "more the same than different." None of those who had this novel teaching experience would shy away from another like it, indeed some would volunteer. None thought the computers had a measurable negative impact on the kind of teaching they try to do.

The "clicking noise" was not a significant distraction, nor was the ability to do e-mail or pursue other network activities while in class.

E. Legal Research and Writing

There is widespread enthusiasm for Folio VIEWS as a tool for holding and working with research results. The computer section made extensive use of VIEWS for these purposes in the legal writing course. Significant numbers of students who made little or no use of the electronic versions of their casebooks embraced VIEWS in this other work setting. To the lawyer (or law student) researching a specific problem using a commercial CD-ROM product holding a large data collection the search and cross-reference linking capabilities of software like VIEWS offer powerfully attractive functionality. The highlighting, linking, and annotation capabilities of VIEWS are highly useful in working with scattered materials gathered from digital sources.

F. Teacher Use of Computer Technology

Among the faculty members teaching the computer section in a classroom-focused course, only one made use of a laptop, himself. That one largely, though not completely, substituted a laptop with projecting monitor for the chalkboard. It was not a straight substitution for he used his computer to do some things that one cannot do with a chalkboard, at least to the same degree. The student response was overwhelming affirmative. My spring questionnaire asked the students in the section about three distinct ways I had seen this professor use the computer:

  1. to draw attention to key passages of the materials, under discussion, in "real time," that is as they became the subject of discussion, not just as the teacher introduced them;
  2. to put a problem or hypothetical before the class for discussion; and
  3. to record, in outline form, the several responses to such a problem.

Well over 80% of the students responding valued all three to the level of checking them off as "particularly effective." Number 1 received that rating from 66 of 68 filling out the questionnaire. Over half the group were so thoroughly pleased they had no constructive criticism to offer on how to improve. Those that had advice stressed points bearing on visibility -- larger font size, leaving particular passages on the screen a bit longer, use of a pointing device.

An even higher percentage of students made extensive use of the interactive tutorials that this same teacher assigned. Only one student responding to the April questionnaire indicated she or he did not. This means among other things that students rejecting the electronic casebook and computer use for notes, nonetheless, used the tutorials. Since they included material not available in any other form this alone is not surprising. What is striking is how affirmatively the students characterized these materials. An index of the value they placed on the tutorials was the recurring suggestion that they be set up so that students could copy material directly from them into their notes.

In response to a general question about specific things the faculty might do "that would enhance the gains of using a computer in class" twenty students urged widespread adoption of these two innovations. The words of one are representative:

"My teachers would benefit from watching [this professor's] class. The on-screen display he uses is helpful, and the tutorials he prepares are outstanding."

All teaching the computer section were already accustomed to the use of e-mail to communicate with their students. Their general experience was that e-mail exchange over the content and details of the course increased significantly with this group of students. Indeed, since the Kent classrooms have network connections and 90% or so of the students were using their computers in class to take notes, more than one teacher had the experience of finding messages from students sent during class waiting for them when they returned to their office -- e-mail expressing puzzlement about a point or continuing a line of discussion that got broken off.

The most important fact about faculty computer use is that it did not and did not have to parallel student use. With the exception of this one professor, the faculty members worked out of the print version of their course materials, they approached a classroom filled with computers no differently, and their experience was that the presence of electronic course materials and computers used to take notes had little or no effect on their ability to use the classroom as they had before. The only direct implications for them of widespread computer use by their students had to do with course supplements or handouts and exams. Since members of the computer section had the casebook in electronic form, they wanted timely digital versions of other print communication from the teacher, such as the syllabus, supplemental readings, problems of any length. Furthermore, at exam time many wanted to use their laptop to write their exams and expected access to their digital course materials and notes in any exam that was "open book." These quite natural expectations forced attention to a new set of issues.

G. Some Overall Conclusions

While the preceding sections have presented my observations, in this one I draw some tentative conclusions. While these conclusions are based upon the study, they are not compelled by and can be readily separated from the data. Any conclusions based on a single study at single law school are rightly suspect, especially when they deal with a phenomenon that is at once new and fluid.

Relationship of Electronic Casebooks to Student Note-Taking

My first conclusion has to do with the use the use of electronic course materials as a framework for student note-taking. It seems to me that there are serious flaws in a design that supposes that the electronic book will provide the principal matrix for student notes, particularly when applied to a "national" set of course materials rather than a set specifically assembled by the teacher for his or her own course. Most teachers do not teach the assigned coursebook; they filter, reorder, and add. For this reason in many if not most cases the teacher's course outline or syllabus is probably a more useful starting framework than the book on which to begin hanging personal notes. What students want most from an "electronic casebook" is a smooth path along which they can move material they select from the course materials into their notes (with the capacity to link notes to the full set of course materials being attractive to some, as well).

In the emerging multi-platform law school environment, students are probably well advised to position their general course work tools and skills between VIEWS and PREMISE rather than within either of them.

Relationship of Electronic Casebooks to Print Ones

Electronic casebooks that amount to little more than moving a standard print casebook to a searchable hypertext linked electronic workspace don't offer anything like the functionality gains achieved by moving substantial research collections or complicated code materials to such an environment. [For a review of some of those gains see the electronic publications of Cornell's Legal Information Institute such as the Federal Code of Civil Procedure or the U.C.C.]  So long as preparing for class involves reading and analyzing the equivalent of 20-30 pages of assigned text, the teacher for sure and students in large number will, under most circumstances, prefer a print interface. Most researchers having found the most relevant appellate decisions or key code provisions prefer the same. The capacity to search and follow references and to select the relevant and important from the less useful so valuable in the research setting are not needed when the editor and teacher have already selected (and edited) a set of readings. Insofar as they have value in the typical law school course scenario it is late in the course as the student reaches back to review the case that involved the "hairy hand" or a "Florida building that threatened to block the sun."

Highly structured codes like the U.C.C. or FRCP are a different matter. They are not read from beginning to end. Their structures are more deep than they are linear and laced with both explicit and implicit cross references. Students can and do bring casebook fragments to class, the pages assigned for a particular day, perhaps hedging a bit on both sides. Most realize it would be foolhardy to do the same in a tax course with the Internal Revenue Code.

As noted previously, teachers add, subtract, and reorganize published teaching materials. Indeed, I believe it is the "open architecture" of the standard law coursebook design that allows teachers who would never turn their classroom over to another to adopt teaching materials someone else has prepared. They can "adopt" while disagreeing with the author about countless details of content or view.

So long as electronic casebooks are tied to books sold and distributed in print the capacity for electronic materials to be more modular and modifiable will not likely be explored. I suspect that many law teachers would be quite attracted to an "electronic casebook" they could easily reorganize and add to. The once discussed "mother of all casebooks" concept placed more responsibility for teaching material preparation on the teacher than most teachers want. However, an electronic casebook that allowed a teacher to adjust how tightly any case was edited, to add materials at any point, to reorder sections, and delete them, and finally to deliver a conformed print and digital version of the composite to the class would, I think, draw teachers into the medium if the tools for doing all this were no more challenging than basic word processing. [The LII's recently released CD-ROM Collection of Historic Supreme Court Decisions was designed with precisely these goals in mind.]

Relationship of Electronic Casebooks to CAI

The contracts tutorials engaged segments of that class that otherwise resisted use of electronic materials. But these tutorials reflect these teacher's views on contracts and his pedagogy. Before the casebook with embedded interactive exercises, problems, or tutorials gains wide acceptance with today's faculty it must have an open print version for the teacher to review. It also must allow a teacher who disagrees with a particular feedback message to provide a substitute or at least an overlay that his or her students will see at the same time.

II. The Data in Greater Detail

A. Perceived Effects on the Classroom (My Classroom Observations)

While student testimony is that use of the electronic materials declined through the fall term I observed no tailing off of computer use in the classroom throughout the year. From start to finish, I saw close to 90 percent of the class using computers in class to take notes -- to take notes, but not necessarily to access the casebook. Many students brought both laptop and print materials to class. A substantial number of students used their computer in class exclusively as a note-taker. Of the laptop group, I observed a significant fraction (somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2) working steadily in WordPerfect or MS Word. This meant they were neither using the electronic casebook to refer to texts being discussed nor to hold their notes.

But the dominant application on up to half the screens I was able to see throughout my class visits was Folio VIEWS which indicates that up to half the class might have been using the VIEWS-based casebooks more or less as envisioned, often assisted by a copy of the print materials. (However, see data from questionnaires.)

Are the computers noisy? All I spoke with, students and faculty, found that the sound of so many keyboards in action swiftly slipped into the background. Almost no one found it a significant distraction. (The warning sound of a computer about to drain its battery is a different matter.) Since the keyboard activity is quite variable -- ranging from still periods as when a problem-oriented discussion dominates the class (or the teacher is going on about a topic he has announced will not be on the exam) to the cascade of key strokes accompanying a teacher's drawing ten minutes of discussion to a carefully articulated conclusion -- the sound offers the teacher aural feedback on the level of class note taking.

Do computers encourage students to concentrate on taking complete notes to the detriment of reflection and participation? A small minority of faculty and a somewhat larger number of students thought that might be the case. My own impression, based on class visits, is that the ability to capture more of what takes place in the classroom may indeed accentuate a tendency on the part of some beginning students to sacrifice real time analysis and reflection to transcription but that most learn before too long how unwise that is. I observed that whenever the teacher posed a challenging problem or stirred real discussion any tendency toward transcription ceased.

What other secondary effects did I or others observe? One legal writing instructor thought she had better eye contact with her students. (Most being good touch typists could take notes without looking down -- while those with yellow pads, lacking word-wrap, had to.) No one else raised the point and my own observations cannot confirm the effect. One faculty member believes the need to hook up equipment before class gets underway leads to increased punctuality. He also experienced less post-class discussion at the podium. My class visits lead me to believe that both effects are slight but real.

I saw nothing that would lead me to believe that computer games and web surfing (or e-mail and on-line research) are a more serious threat to classroom concentration and engagement than cross-word puzzles, newspapers, and private correspondence or doodles. On the other hand, none of the faculty whose classes I observed used the network in direct support of their teaching -- for in-class drafting, testing or research, for example. Unless a teacher has such plans, any concerns on this front can, in part, be dealt with by turning off the student network connections in the classroom (or by having none to begin with).

B. Teacher Response (Electronic Casebook Classes)

At the end of both terms I interviewed faculty members who had large numbers of computer section students in their sections.

My notes on those interviews are set forth below [with names omitted].

1. Torts Professor

Fall Term - Enrollment:100. (Casebook not on disk. Supplementary materials will be next time)

What was Different?

Not nearly as much as she expected. She had been worried that the computers would get in the way of participation. She thinks they had a slight effect but not close to that she feared.

She believes the laptops encourage the all-too-common tendency of beginning law students to try to get every word down. Even when teaching a group with fewer computers she employs the strategy of arresting note-taking -- i.e., telling students to stop, listen, and think. With the computer section she found herself doing that more often -- which may have been simply that the sound allowed her to be more conscious of the need to do so.

Other specific measures she employs to fight the passive, obsessive note-taking tendency include random Socratic calling and having groups in the class take different positions in a dispute or policy debate.

She had no experience that led her to be worried about students being distracted (by games, e-mail, etc.). She never called on a student who seemed to be elsewhere in this sense.

Classroom Environment

The clicks don't bother her. The beeps do, but the students have kept them to a minimum.


She has not experienced more e-mail from students, but her TA is receiving much more.

Teacher's Own Use Level and Attitude About Future Use

She is supportive of the program and would readily teach a computer section again. What she is not willing to do is to switch course books in order to allow her students have digital materials or give up on a closed book exam.


Her exam is closed book. All students who want to will be able to take it on lab computers. She feels very strongly about both elements.

2. Criminal Law Professor

Fall term - 50. (Entire set of course materials in Folio VIEWS)

What was Different?

The professor believes that the students volunteered less in class discussion. On the other hand, his impression is that when called on they were, generally better prepared and more willing to work at his questions.

The number of students coming in late is significantly reduced. (The need to plug in and get organized is a deterrent.) However, a corollary is that fewer students come up to pursue matters after class. (The need to disassemble and pack equipment -- one theory -- or a plan to stay set up in the room for a time and not wanting to leave their notes and equipment to come talk with the teacher -- another.)

The teacher told of one student, an active participant in class, who more than once after an exchange that he moved on from pursued the dialog via e-mail then and there directly from class.

This teacher hedged his several "different than" comments by observing that this year's section of fifty is about half the size he usually teaches. Furthermore, he had not taught in the particular classroom before. Some of what he experienced may reflect those variables rather than the laptops.

Classroom Environment

See above. The professor hasn't noticed the clicking nor has he observed other secondary consequences - body language, eye contact, etc.

Teacher's Own Use Level and Attitude About Future Use

The professor doesn't use a laptop, although he writes with a computer. He hopes to create criminal procedure materials (his upper-class course) in digital form this summer so that these students (this year's group) will have something beyond first year. Last year he had a normally large criminal law class (100) of which 30 or so where last year's cohort. His impressions are based in part on a comparison with that situation.


He regularly gives a closed book exam. He is a fan of students using computers to write their exams because of how much easier it is to read printed answers.

3. Justice Professor

Fall Term - 75. (Casebook on disk. Supplementary materials were not this year, but will be next time)

What was Different?

This professor  got used to the ambient noise very quickly. He experienced little or no difference in how these students worked/behaved in the classroom (when compared with students, albeit night students, in the same course last year or his other first year course this term, criminal law). He felt no difference in preparation or participation in class discussion. He confirmed the Criminal Law professor's observation about students needing to (and therefore managing to) get to class on time. He had not observed less discussion at the podium after class -- although generally he gets less of that in Justice than in Criminal Law.

Using the Computer to Communicate

This teacher is an extensive user of e-mail. He believes he has received less from these Justice students than last year's. He knows he has received less than he gets from Criminal Law students. The Criminal Law class is larger, but he thinks that even adjusting for that the observation holds. It may be far more a consequence of the course content and other variables than the "laptop" element. When he took up Feminist Jurisprudence and dealt with some current hot issues (like McKinnon's position on pornography) there was an enormous flood of e-mail from the class, for at least a week.

Teacher's Own Use Level and Attitude About Future Use

He wants to be laptop equipped himself and imagines bringing his laptop to class, not only for personal reference but to be able to display text under discussion to the class.

4. Property Professor

Spring Term - 100. (Casebook on disk.)

What was Different?

This professor had the initial electronic casebook group last spring (30 students) so this was not his first exposure to a computer-filled classroom. He also pointed out that computers are a substantial presence among the evening division students to whom he taught property last fall. He reported that he was unaware of clicks or other environmental problems. One student did for a time habitually fail to plug in his computer which led to annoying beeps as his battery approached empty. The teacher spoke to him directly and the problem ceased.

The keying activity was, he said, a useful and more obvious index of the students' note-taking activity than one has with students taking notes by hand. On more than one occasion, the professor asked the class why so many were taking notes at a stage of discussion where he considered it a waste of time and a distraction.

He sees no connection between computer use and quality of classroom exchange. He did note, however, that a smaller percentage of the class took advantage of the opportunity he regularly provides for personal contact. From time to time he announces lunch sessions and takes sign-ups. To his great surprise, the last two had no takers. By contrast he received more e-mail than he has from past classes.

5. Contracts Professor

Spring Term - 100. (Casebook on disk.)

What was Different?

The most significant difference in this professor's class was his own daily use of a computer in the classroom as a presentation device. He used the electronic casebook to put key passages under discussion on the screen, he brought his problems or prepared hypotheticals to class as word-processing documents that he could display, and in the course of discussing an issue or problem he would record the answers in outline form. In all these cases he made use of large fonts that when projected to the screen were quite legible through the room. He also on at least one occasion ran a tutorial in class and sought group response; however, since that software didn't give him control of font size a good number of students couldn't read what they were being asked to respond to. The teacher is very positive about using a computer this way. He observed that doing computer presentation before an audience filled with computer users working with materials with which they are familiar probably puts less sense of pressure for flawless computer manipulation on the presenter. The students are understanding and can assist if some glitch arises. He also observed that putting key texts on the screen in front of the class is a powerful way to bring heads up. That gives the teacher more eye contact and may promote discussion.

In order to be sure about his setup, he spent 10 to 15 minutes before class preparing in the classroom itself. (The room was not used by a class in the prior hour.) This pre-class time was often the occasion for questions or comments from students who were themselves coming in early to set up.

The professor has worked hard to create a set of engaging computer-based tutorials that he uses to communicate basic concepts and rule formulations. They are assigned in advance of class. While he invites questions about them in class, his aim is to build on or apply the mastery gained from the tutorials in discussion.

C. Student Questionnaires

In early January and then again in late April I prepared questionnaires for all computer section students (see Attachments 1 and 2). On January 17 and 18, Rosemary Shiels scheduled meetings of the computer section, at which she distributed the first one. Students were told they had to attend one of the two scheduled times. Despite the mandatory tone of Rosemary's notice, only 39 out of a total 98 in the section came. Of the number attending, 33 filled out questionnaires. In other words, this is a poor fraction of the section as a whole, but a good sample of those attending the meetings (> 80%). While the more conscientious members of the full section are presumably over represented in the resulting sample, there is little reason to think that it is systematically biased on the issues covered by the questionnaire.

The spring questionnaire was administered during a contracts class. It yielded 68 responses of which 30 indicated the student had filled out the prior one. The spring questionnaire asked about fall use and subsequent changes. The responses tended to confirm the representativeness of the January sample.

January Questionnaire

I. Before Class

Twenty-two generally read the assignment from the printed book before class, 6 read from computer screen, 1 from a printout from the electronic materials.

Only a small number of students offered descriptions of their use of different formats under different circumstances. These tended to be situational - i.e., "on the train (computer)," "at home," "on the couch," "at school." Several spoke of shifting to print when their eyes were tired. A couple focused on whether or not they intended to read or read and take notes. In the latter case, they used the computer.

Fifteen did their briefing and pre-class notes using VIEWS (8 in a separate infobase, 6 directly within the casebook), 11 used word-processing software, 4 used paper and pen or pencil, and one indicated he or she did not prepare pre-class notes.

II. During Class

Sixteen students did their in-class note-taking with VIEWS with the breakdown between separate infobase and notes directly in the casebook being similar to that noted above (8 and 6, with two doing some of both). 12 used word-processing software and 2 used paper and pen or pencil.

In referring to a particular passage in the text, 16 used the printed book, 14 the infobase, 1 a printout from the latter. (And one explained that she or he first located the passage in the book and then found it in the infobase if it warranted highlighting or annotation.)

III. After Class

Most students (28) did not move their class notes into a different medium or format shortly after class. One student moved them from VIEWS and handwritten form to word-processor, one from word-processor to VIEWS, and one moved them quickly to print.

For most students (23) the ultimate course outline was done with word-processing software. (Seven used VIEWS and one made a handwritten outline.) For 5 students this involved moving their notes from VIEWS to word-processing format, for 2 from handwritten form. Eighteen students did not move their notes from one format to another in producing the final outline. This would include both students who did the original notes in word-processing format and those who stuck with VIEWS throughout. The "other" category (4) included some interesting patterns -- e.g., VIEWS to handwritten and printout to VIEWS or word-processor.

E-mail is widely used. Twenty-four said they used it more than 5 times to discuss course issues or topics with classmates. Nineteen said they used it more than 5 times to discuss course issues or topics with the professor.

Those in the Justice professor's class provided the following information about how they took his "open laptop" exam. Nineteen wrote with the laptop, 2 wrote on a lab computer, 2 wrote by hand. (This yields a total count that is higher by one that the number of students who indicated on question one they were in this professor's Justice class. The actual breakdown of the full class of 74 in taking the exam was: 50 took with laptops, 11 used lab computers, and 13 wrote by hand.) Fourteen did not refer to the "open book" laptop while writing. Eight said they did.

IV. Background

Twenty-eight of the respondents said they were familiar with Windows at the beginning of the term. Twenty-one said they were "beyond basic skills" in relation to word-processing. Most (28) had no experience with VIEWS or anything like it.

Twenty-six students said their comfort and skill level working with a computer changed significantly during the term. A majority (19) said their use of the electronic course materials did not change significantly. Those who said it did change included 4 who largely gave up on the electronic casebook at some point in the term and 10 who spoke of finding more effective ways to work with the electronic materials.

Most (26) said they did not work very differently in the courses for which they didn't have electronic materials (some of them noting that they made infobases in those courses as well).

A majority believed that the computers did not have an effect on class discussion or atmosphere. Thirteen believed they did. The most frequently mentioned effect was noise, some saying that they had gotten accustomed to it. A handful thought that students with laptops concentrated too much on capturing all that went on in class and thus participated less in discussion and gave less thoughtful answers.

V. Bottom Line

Only 1 student responded that given a choice between a section of a course with electronic course materials and one that had only printed materials she or he would choose the latter. 13 said they would be indifferent so long as they had access to printed materials for the course. A majority (19) indicated a preference for the section with electronic materials.

Twenty-three students had no advice on improving specific features of the materials. Those that had advice had scattered views on fonts and format, wanted different access to page numbers, or wanted more levels and highlighters built in.

Some with advice also used this question to make points that most saved for the final open-ended question -- i.e., to speak for better training before or as the term begins, better coordination and communication, for getting all courses and course supplements in digital form.

Some of the additional observations offered in the final section included --

April Questionnaire

I. Fall Term Pattern

The spring questionnaire asked students to identify which of three work patterns their own most closely resembled during the fall term. Only 4 put themselves in the "non-computer" group (read in print, took notes by hand, wrote final exam by hand). Forty-nine (over 70%) said they read their assignments in print but took notes in class with a computer and used the computer to prepare their course outline. Seven said they read their assignments on the computer.

II. Change in Pattern, Fall to Spring

Fifty of the respondents indicated that their pattern of pre-class reading, in class note-taking, and after class consolidation and outlining had not changed. The balance who reported they had changed included 5 whose responses I interpret as indicating less computer use and 8 that I interpret as indicating greater computer use. Among the group reporting change were 3 who had shifted from VIEWS to word-processing software for their note-taking, and 1 who had gone the other direction.

III. Reasons Given by Those Not Using a Computer in Class

The spring questionnaire asked two questions of those not using a computer in class. Of that small group nearly all had tried using a computer and stopped. Among the reasons given for taking notes by hand were these: the bother of lugging a computer around, computer crashed early in the term and never got up to speed on it once repaired weeks later, an inability to type fast enough, use of drawings when doing notes, encouraged one to listen more carefully.

IV. How Those Who Brought Their Computers to Class Used Them

Most (49 of those using a computer in class) referred to print rather than their electronic case book when discussion focused on a particular passage. Eight said they referred to the computer version; six said both. The reasons given by those using print had to do with characteristics of the medium and not particular features of VIEWS or the implementation of these casebooks. For example, students cited greater facility in finding a passage, better view of context, and the need to take notes and focus on the text at the same time. Quite possibly future generations of students will be more facile and therefore more comfortable working in multiple windows and navigating within digital materials (like the 8 who extolled the ease with which VIEWS allowed them to find a passage), but this generation is as one put it in general "more comfortable with print."

A question about exactly how students did their note-taking yielded totals of 25 for VIEWS (2 within the electronic casebook, 23 in a separate infobase) and 35 for word-processing software. Of those who used VIEWS only 14 indicated they intended to stick with it for their final course outlines. Of those who used word-processing software for note-taking 22 said they used VIEWS in working with course materials although the comments of several suggest they were referring to legal research and writing assignments.

Two questions dealt with special cases -- situations where the professor uses a diagram, map, flowchart or other graphic and handouts. As to the former, 4 indicated they used a graphics program to create a comparable diagram or map in their notes, 22 that they attempted to approximate the graphic in words, lines, dashes, etc., 12 that they turned to paper and pencil or pen, and 33 some combination of those techniques. Handouts were keyed into notes by 10, kept along with odds and ends apart from course notes by 32, and handled by a combination of methods by 16.

V. Response to Teacher's Use of Computer to Present Material in Class and Tutorials

With a degree of consensus exhibited in no other area of the questionnaire the students applauded their Contracts professor's "use of a laptop with projected image in support of classroom presentation and interchange" and his tutorials. Invited to selected any or none of the following uses as "particularly effective," 66 cited the teacher's use of the computer to draw attention to key passages of the assigned materials, 59 to put a problem in front of the class for discussion, and 60 to display the important points of discussion. Thirty-eight had no adjustments to the software or technique he used to suggest. Of the 16 who offered constructive criticism most sought greater legibility or clearer indication of the location of the displayed text within the assigned materials.

Sixty-seven of the responding students said they made significant use of this same teacher's computer-based tutorials. Words like "great," "fantastic," and "excellent" dot the forms, as well as "fun" and even "they rock!" The single improvement the students asked for is the ability to copy and paste from the tutorials directly into course notes.

VI. Class Atmosphere and Bottom Line

In response to the question "Did the use of so many laptops in the classroom have an effect on class discussion or class atmosphere?" 39 said "no" and 25 "yes." While the faculty do not see negative effects on engagement, a fair number of the "yes" group are persuaded that the computers reduce the quality of reflection and discussion, that "people get engrossed in trying to type everything the professor says rather than participating in class."

Like the January survey this one put the group to a hypothetical future "choice between a section of a course that had electronic course materials and one that hand only print materials" with everything else equal. Thirty-four indicated they would choose the section with electronic materials, 26 that they would be indifferent. Seven said they would choose the section with only printed materials. Wrote one of that group "I hate computers."

D. Teacher Response (Legal Writing and Legal Research Instruction)

While I did not visit any of the Legal Writing sections, I interviewed all instructors who taught the laptop section. My notes on those interviews are set forth below.

1. Visiting Assistant Professor A - Legal Writing I

What was Different?

The distraction caused by machine problems. These fell into two categories. First, as many as six of her students experienced some sort of mechanical problem. Sometimes this was a straight defect -- i.e., hard-disk crash -- other times it was an accident. Two students slipped on ice and broke their computers. Finally, one of her students lost hours of LEXIS downloads due to inexpert use of Folio VIEWS.

The second category of difficulty had to do with plans or expectations that led to frustration. The laptop groups (or her section at least) had imagined doing LEXIS and WESTLAW training in regular classrooms with students working at their own laptops. However, all Legal Writing sections met at the same time (not just the laptop 100) and the Kent network and Internet gateway were not up to the kind of peak load created by simultaneous on-line use by so many.

What Did You Do Differently?

She imagined doing WESTLAW and LEXIS training differently. Even without all students being able to have a "hands on" experience in class it was good to be able to do this work in a regular classroom and to be able to go on-line with a demonstration in a class other than a scheduled LEXIS or WESTLAW session. Indeed, this teacher did some out-of-synch on-line class work to avoid the peak load problem.

Second, this teacher consciously chose for her second memo problem (the first requiring actual research) a research topic that could be pursued electronically more effectively perhaps than in print. It was a good mixed media problem. (By consensus at Kent, first-years are now introduced to the on-line systems within the first eight weeks.) The problem involved a tort, explicitly recognized only in New York and California ("Breach of Confidence") which was, as a consequence, hard to locate in the principal print resources on torts. By contrast, the cases could readily be retrieved by a computer search, though in that environment the challenge was to frame a search sufficiently narrow to avoid being overwhelmed.

Environmental Effects

Her classroom experience was affirmative. The computers did not, she felt, create a barrier. She had quite a group of good touch typists and so her experience was of improved eye-contact.

Computer Communication

She uses e-mail a lot. During the term she had 381 e-mail exchanges with her 33 students. She used e-mail to arrange meetings, but also to answer questions. All the latter was one on one. Exchanges of broader interest she tended to share in class. She also relied on e-mail to stay in close touch with her TA. Each of them would copy the other on messages to or from particular students or to work on a strategy for dealing with a particular student.

Comparing this year to last (and the laptop group to her students last year) the teacher is struck by how many more use e-mail to contact the teacher than use the phone. She gives both phone number and e-mail address equal prominence on her syllabus. E-mail is especially important over weekends when students are working, under pressure, on their writing problems. She checks her e-mail quite regularly during such periods.

She allowed students who wished to turn their memo in on disk. Five out of 33 did so.


How do these (computer section) students compare with the Kent day student body as a whole? She would not be surprised if they were brighter, on average.

Positive Outcomes

Students (many of them) mastered the use of Folio VIEWS as a way of collecting, organizing and using the material they gathered in pursuit of a research mission. The teacher herself did not show students how to use VIEWS, but she did encourage them from personal experience.

Teacher's Own Use Level and Attitude About Future Use

The teacher is growing in experience at using and enthusiasm for Folio VIEWS. She is not a laptop user but is excited over the prospect of doing live research demonstrations in class and of working on writing samples in front of the entire class. She would like to have a laptop and would use one in the classroom.

This coming term she plans on providing some course materials in digital form to students. (She is teaching copyright, spring term.)

Institutional Advice

Legal writing staff and computer staff need to work more at communication. The surprise over the problems created by having too many students trying to access WESTLAW or LEXIS simultaneously could have been foreseen had the technology staff known of the teachers' plan.

2. Visiting Assistant Professor B - Legal Writing I

What was Different?

This teacher thought that the computer section students had an even more pronounced enthusiasm for computer-based legal research (vis-à-vis print-based research) than current first years generally. He is pretty sure he has students who have not seen appellate decisions in a print reporter. (He tells of students turning in papers with quoted portions showing "emphasis added" with no emphasis evident, and who didn't seem to understand what was missing.)

He had no experience of computer problems being blamed for late papers or other difficulties.

About one-third of the students brought their writing and backup research to memo conferences. (The teacher marks the papers up with red ink so he does not encourage use of the computer as a review workspace.)


He found no difference in the level of classroom interaction.

Teacher's Own Use Level and Attitude About Future Use

This teacher is a powerbook user. He doesn't imagine using it in the classroom except to demonstration WESTLAW or LEXIS. This year he had a student volunteer with laptop do that demonstrating under his supervision. He expresses the need to counterbalance the tendency, reinforced by the laptop, to emphasize on-line materials to the exclusion of print.

Institutional Advice

There were start-up problems. The students were oversold and expected both more content and more technical support than they got. There is a need to keep students focused on the main mission. They should not be permitted to imagine that law school will be less stressful or down right easy because of a computer.

3. Visiting Assistant Professor C - Legal Writing I

What was Different?

This teacher was the Legal Writing teacher for last year's computer section. This year was (at least from the students' perspective) far less successful. Last year the students were more conscious of being part of an experiment, of going where no one else had gone, of receiving support without being given a recipe while this fall's group expected more support than they got, expected more content to the "electronic casebook" than they received. She has two students who have simply stopped using their laptops, even to the point of not doing e-mail from where they live.

Effects on Student Performance

Her impression combining last year and this year is that with legal writing, at least, computer use spreads the class more at the extremes. The strong students do even better, the weak students show up even more clearly. She had one student who handed in a paper that amounted to a page and a half quotation. It was in quotation marks and attributed so no plagiarism was involved. It was, plain and simple, an act of desperation. She believes that the ease of pasting in chunks gathered from research materials may permit the weakest students to believe that they are writing when they aren't.

Those students who are having the greatest difficulty in coping with the computers are the students who are having the greatest difficulty with everything else going on in the first term of the first year.

Only 3 or 4 of her students brought their laptops to conferences over papers as the means of going over the teacher's comments, their papers, and research notes.

Using the Computer to Communicate

The teacher is an enthusiastic user of e-mail. She gets sections of papers from students for review by e-mail and lists of questions. She sends broadcast messages to the entire class when a question from a student indicates she left a matter unclear in class. She has no impression that these students use e-mail more than other Kent students.

Teacher's Own Use Level and Attitude About Future Use

She is not an experienced VIEWS user and made it clear to her students that any VIEWS questions should be directed to the CLC staff. She believes that teachers need training in the skills and tools that their students are using. She can imagine using a projected laptop in class but would need to see a clearer demonstration of its advantages over the chalkboard than she has (and be more comfortable in its use) to do much of that.


1. The most recent accounts are: Richard A. Matasar & Rosemary Shiels, Electronic Law Students: Repercussions on Legal Education, 29 Valparaiso Univ. L. Rev. 909 (1995) and Rosemary Shiels, Hypertext Electronic Law Books: Progress Report, in Intellectual Property Rights and New Technologies: Proceedings of the KnowRight'95 Conference, at 67 (1995).

2. Richard A. Matasar & Rosemary Shiels, Electronic Law Students: Repercussions on Legal Education, 29 Valparaiso Univ. L. Rev. 909, 925 (1995).