IT in Teaching

 

IT in Teaching

by

Professor Jerry Kang
UCLA School of Law

(c) 1998, updated in 2002

Introduction

Information technology can help us become better law professors, in our scholarship, teaching, and service. In this brief article, let me describe how I use information technologies to further the specific mission of teaching.

1. Before Class: Content Delivery

Administrative Materials

Obviously, information technologies such as the Web are superb at delivering information. This includes administrative materials such as course information, syllabus, weekly assignments, and anything else that might be delivered on paper throughout the semester. There are least three advantages of delivering such content electronically through a class web page.

  • First, you save the time and avoid the disruption incident to passing out handouts during class.
  • Second, if your law school network is reliable (a big “if”), you avoid the hassle of students asking for administrative materials that they have lost or never received.
  • Third, you can offer a greater amount and variety of information. For example, on my Web site, I have information that includes a short biography and a detailed resume. For interested students — and it seems that all students are oddly interested in unearthing more about their professors — this is a valuable resource.

Educational Materials / Courseware

It would be a colossal disappointment if delivering administrative notices were the end-all. Fortunately, you can use a class web page also to deliver educational content and other reading materials. There are at least two reasons why delivering such content through the Web can be better than delivering it through paper.

  • First, standard text-based educational materials can be enriched with photographs, drawings, audio, and video. For instance, in my Asian American Jurisprudence course, we spend considerable time analyzing the Japanese American internment during World War II. To understand the scope of the human tragedy, however, one must not only read but also see what we did in the name of national security. Photographs tell this story more powerfully than any text. And photographs presented through the Web, with their greater clarity and visual immediacy, tell that story better than any low-grade photocopies of photographs ever could.
  • Second, sometimes, the Web is better than paper because the Web is the only place where you can find the materials you need. To take another example from the same class, I teach about a horrific hate crime, in which a UCLA graduate Thien Min Ly was stabbed to death by White supremacists in Southern California. After I had put together my course reader, I learned of a Web site (no longer available as of 2002) dedicated to his murder. On that site are personal letters written by Thien’s immediate family. They are extraordinarily powerful, presented again in a visual medium that is hard to forget. In a class that emphasizes constitutional history, doctrine, and high theory, I use the Web to provide materials that remind my students of the human stories that fundamentally animate our work. Obviously, such materials can be downloaded and photocopied in a reader (subject to relevant copyright laws). But things pop up at the last moment (and alas disappear also), and the Web may be a useful way to supplement already produced course materials.

2. In-Class Presentations

In addition to delivering administrative and educational content to my students, I also use a computer projector as a replacement of the blackboard. I call it the virtual blackboard (v-board).

What I Do

Currently, I use a program called Mindmanager for various tasks, including writing up my lecture notes. Then, for any given class, I hide most of the branches of my mindmap and present a skeletal structure for my students to see. In the course of running the class Socratically, I add branches (typing in real-time as the students make various points), move them around, draw arrows back and forth, highlight and circle ideas, etc. Here’s an example of what is saved to the web at the end of a class.

Also, pre-prepared graphics, such as plaintiff-defendant diagrams (created using Smartdraw) that capture the procedural history of a case can be displayed at the appropriate moment–typically after the students have struggled with stating the facts. Consider how the following image might make Pennoyer v. Neff easier to comprehend. Concept maps (created using Smartideas or Inspiration), which are somewhat different from mindmaps, can also be displayed as overview or after-discussion summary.

Finally, the v-board concept is incredibly useful in projecting statutory material. In teaching civil procedure, I’ve created a single Word file that includes all the relevant portions of the Constitution, Title 28, and the Federal Rules. By opening up the “document view” on the left hand side, I can display the correct section with just a few clicks of the mouse. This allows me to focus the entire class’ attention on specific wording almost immediately, underlining and highlighting wherever useful. Instead of wasting a few minutes having students find their supplements, flip to the right page, and try to find where the third sentence of the fourth paragraph not counting the run-over paragraph might be, we’re already discussing the text.

The advantages are many. Much of it stems from a visual approach to learning, which I think is extremely valuable and underutilized. (From surveying my students, most find these tools very helpful, and surprisingly those with undergrad degrees in the humanities and soft sciences find them even more useful than those who majored in math and hard sciences.) In addition, starting with a skeletal mindmap of the class provides clear organization (just like putting up an outline on the blackboard before each class). Little advantages should also be credited. My handwriting is terrible; typing is much easier to read (assuming that the lighting and classroom projector geometry has been well implemented, another big “if”). And the ability to save everything to the web afterwards frees students from obsessing over transcription. (This does not decrease class attendance because the v-board is hard to understand completely without having attended class.)

Not Powerpoint

Just to be clear, one should not equate my concept of a v-board with PowerPoint. I have never used PowerPoint in the classroom because it’s incompatible with a Socratic style of teaching. At least for me, PowerPoint encourages an overly linear exposition of materials. What I seek instead is the dynamic qualities of a plain old blackboard, something PowerPoint doesn’t really allow. That’s why I use programs that allow me to add and change content ** during class ** (currently Mindmanager as the basic program, Smartideas for real-time concept mapping, and Word to display and mark up statutes). This requires fluidity with the software, which admittedly takes practice.

3. Out-of-class Discussions

Finally, the Web can facilitate out-of-class discussions. We are familiar with how to use e-mail and listservs to communicate with our students. However, to promote a serious conversation out of class (as opposed to making brief announcements that will not generate a series of replies), I strongly recommend using a threaded discussion program. The virtues of these programs are that they organize postings by subject matter and archive them for easy access.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that because the discussion is online, its quality will somehow magically improve. In all likelihood, the truth will be just the opposite. Unless you create the proper incentives and environment, the breadth and depth of conversation will be disappointing. Most important, you must provide reasons for your students to participate. Students are short on time and are often quite good maximizers of self-interest. If they see no “value added” in spending time online reading threaded discussions, they will rationally not do so. One way to encourage student participation is to participate yourself. If you post interesting questions, comments, and explanations — which help students understand material that may appear on a final exam — students will eagerly visit your discussion site. Another way to encourage student postings is to consider online participation part of overall classroom participation, which affects the final grade.

Before spending any more time thinking about how to cajole students into participating, you must ask yourself the prior question: What is the pedagogical point? Of course, such discussions promote general technological literacy, which I believe law schools should more actively promote. More important, online discussions can be a form of cost-effective office hours. Instead of explaining a complicated idea to one student who comes into office hours, it is better to explain that idea to the entire class through exchanges on a threaded discussion. This helps not only the office-hour “regulars” but also those who are a tad shy and rarely make it in. Indeed, occasionally, you will find a student who is quiet in class but gregarious online. Out-of-class discussions also allow students to explore topics that are slightly off-point that do not warrant in-class time but nevertheless may be interesting, provocative, and worthy of exploration. Finally, I have had some success having outsiders join our class discussions: The most interesting exchanges occur when the author that we have read and discussed agrees to respond to student postings.

There is another side to all this: the amount of time it will eat up. It’s quite possible that you can spend all your waking hours responding to classroom posts. And for most faculty, that is not a wise use of their time. (For non-tenured faculty, it may be a big mistake notwithstanding an institution’s lip-service on how much it values teaching.) Moreover, you might want to encourage students to come to see you face-to-face during office hours, for pedagogical as well as other reasons. I wrote the above 2 paragraphs in 1998; as of 2002, I don’t make use of threaded discussion groups at all (even though the technology has gotten much better).

Conclusion

In this brief article, I have only skimmed the many ways that one might use Information Technologies to become a better teacher. There are plenty others. For example, I look forward to the development of sophisticated computer-assisted legal instruction (in the form of self-tests and other learning modules that go beyond simple multiple-choice questions-and-answers). Problem sets are used heavily in the math and sciences; I’ve always though it odd that we don’t do the same in the law.

I also fully recognize the costs of using IT in the classroom: the start up time, the possibility of technological failure, mistaking spoon-fed techno-entertainment as legal education. However, on balance, I believe that we can all become better, more effective law teachers through wise exploitation of information technologies.