Review: Teaching the Digital Caveman: Rethinking the Use of Classroom Technology in Law School

Home / Article Reviews / Review: Teaching the Digital Caveman: Rethinking the Use of Classroom Technology in Law School

Submitted by Gerry Hess
Gonzaga University School of Law

James B. Levy, Teaching the Digital Caveman: Rethinking the Use of Classroom Technology in Law School, 19 Chapman Law Review ___ (forthcoming 2015) [Read fulltext at SSRN (579 KB PDF)]

In this engaging, clever, and thoughtful article, Professor James Levy demolishes the myths and conventional wisdom on how best to teach “digital natives” in legal education. It is a must read for any law teacher with an open mind who wants to make informed decisions about how to use (and not use) technology to help law students learn critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The term “digital native” was coined by an educational consultant in 2001 to describe a generation of students who have never lived in a world without computers. Educators at all levels, including law professors, make a series of assumptions about how “digital natives” learn, and consequently, how we should teach them. Those assumptions include:

  • Constant exposure to digital technologies has changed the way “digital natives” think and learn;
  • “Digital natives” are primarily visual learners – more so than previous generations of students;
  • “Digital natives” are tech-savvy and adept at multi-tasking; and
  • Most “digital natives” learn best through screen-based technologies.

Through careful analysis of cognitive science and empirical research on learning, Professor Levy reveals the flaws in these assumptions. First, the research shows that vision is the brain’s most dominant sense for most people and that “digital natives” are no more visually oriented than anyone else. Second, empirical research fails to confirm the assumption that a person with a “visual learning style” will learn best if the teacher uses visual modalities. Third, cognitive science and empirical research confirm that “effective multi-tasking” is an oxymoron. Multi-taskers, including “digital natives,” do a poor job of focusing on relevant concepts, ignoring irrelevant information, and efficiently performing any of the tasks.

Well then, what’s a conscientious law teacher to do? Professor Levy asks us to view the question of technology in legal education through the lens of cognitive science and empirical research on learning, rather than stereotypes about “digital natives.”

For example, Professor Levy offers the following approach to the questions of whether and how to use digital visual technology in the classroom, such as pictures and slides. The starting point is to identify the learning objectives we want our students to achieve and then to ask whether digital technology will help our students learn better than other methods. If the learning goals focus on critical thinking, will a visual presentation effectively communicate the complexity and nuance of the concepts and skills? Will a visual modality promote effortful engagement, necessary for critical thinking and effective problem solving? If the answers to those questions are “yes,” maximize the effectiveness of the visuals by making them concise, memorable, and meaningful. Minimize distractions, such as the bells and whistles available in most presentation software.

What policies, if any, should you adopt regarding student use of electronic devices in class? Should reading material be primarily print-based or digital? Should you recommend that students take notes by hand rather than on a computer? Should your course include both face-to-face and online components?

Read the article. Professor Levy addresses each of these questions. Based on cognitive science and data. Not based on assumptions and stereotypes.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning