A little bird sent me this memo announcing the U. of C. law school’s ban on wireless Internet in classrooms. It’s an entertaining experiment in regulation, and I’m in favor of it, because it will force students to be creative about their end-runs (IR connections to phones, computer-to-computer networking), and maybe the truly decadent will learn something about computers. But what of their 21st century education? After all, while Jenner & Block is de-equitizing partners, their new media practice is growing, and how will future legal minds defend Viacom from the digital hordes if they don’t fully understand the extent of the damage to society?

“Dear Students and Faculty Colleagues,

“I write to announce and explain a new Law School policy. It is presently experimental, and will make its way into our Handbook after some experience and opportunity for feedback. I am tempted to begin with news aimed at those of you who miss the Law School while on Spring Break. We have, after all, hired some terrific new faculty, and the crews are busy in our front yard. But I do not wish to avoid my subject, which is Internet usage in our classrooms.

“A great many conversations and classroom visits have generated the perception, and I think reality, that we have a growing problem in the form of the distractions presented by Internet surfing in the classroom. You know better than I that for many students class has come to consist of some listening but also plenty of e-mailing, shopping, news browsing, and gossip-site visiting. Many students say that the visual images on classmates’ screens are diverting, and they too eventually go off track and check e-mail, sometimes to return to the class discussion and sometimes barely so. Our faculty (and I, as well as many of your classmates with whom I have spoken) believe strongly that we need to do everything we can to make Chicago’s classroom experiences all they can be. I therefore ask, respectfully but emphatically, that you use computers in class only for class-related purposes. Games and Internet usage in class should be like cell-phone usage or the ostentatious reading of newspapers – inappropriate, a breach of etiquette, and an insult to teacher, classmate, and self.

“If it had proved impossible to turn off Internet access in our classrooms, I was prepared to write this letter to you and assert our new classroom norm. (This is a step that some law schools have taken, though I do not know enough about enforcement or effectiveness.) In our case, the wireless and wired connections in our classroom wing can, and have been, disabled. The shutdown will be imperfect. There will be leakage; some computers are radio-cellular enabled; and in one classroom we will leave the wired connections alive to facilitate occasional computer training. But it should now be considered a breach of our norms to plug in, or to use available wireless, during class time. Some law schools or professors have banned computers from class. A school-wide ban strikes me as a last resort because many students convincingly assert that their educational experiences are enhanced by note-taking on their computers. Other schools have invested in software that disables one’s ability to log in when that person has a scheduled class. I like to think that such steps will be unnecessary here. If we are serious about our classrooms as places where we try to teach and learn, and if we take our professional responsibilities seriously, then surely we know that class time is not for shopping and e-mailing.

“There will be modest costs. On occasion it is nice to download from Chalk or other sites to get class or case materials. These will need to be accessed before class. We will also be unable to e-mail completed exams and course evaluations from the classrooms. I hope that something resembling on-off switches can be developed before we get to the end of the quarter but, if not, we will simply need to adjust. At quarter’s end, we will reassess the technology as well as our experiences, and we will survey faculty and students before deciding on a policy for the next academic year.

“Few things should be as important to our community as regaining and establishing our common sense that the classroom should be a place for learning and interaction. Visitors to classes, as well as many of our students, report that the rate of distracting Internet usage during class is astounding. Remarkably, usage appears to be contagious, if not epidemic. Several observers have reported that one student will visit a gossip site or shop for shoes, and within twenty minutes an entire row is shoe shopping. Half the time a student is called on, the question needs to be repeated. I confess that as I have researched this subject, I have been made aware how offensive it often is when phone calls are taken in public and when Blackberry and other e-mail devices are consulted during meetings. I have promised myself that I will no longer check my Blackberry under the table at University meetings. Opportunities for human interaction and for classroom learning will soon become rarer in your lives, and I hope that you too can make the most of the opportunities that you have here.”