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December 04, 2007

UM Law Professors to Compete with Internet

By Austin Rice-Stitt

UM Law’s experiment with blocking students from accessing the wireless network during class time came to an abrupt halt with a Nov. 20 email from Assistant Dean for Student Affairs David Baum. The email to all law students said that the internet blocking system, which was discontinued on Nov. 26, had grown “less and less effective” and that the costs of keeping the system in place “outweigh the benefits.” Professors will now be responsible for establishing and enforcing an internet policy in their classes, according to Dean Baum.

Dean Baum said that the decision to stop using the system was made by the Administration and then “brought to the faculty for discussion.” The faculty “did not object” to restoring access.

The wireless access blocking system was put in the fall of 2005 in response to professor concerns that students were becoming less engaged during classes, according to Dean Baum. Prior to the installation of the blocking system, Prof. Don Herzog reported that he observed a class at UM Law where “literally 85 to 90 percent of the students” were engaged in various online endeavors including “shopping for clothes at Eddie Bauer.” Prof. Herzog was “just stunned.”

Dean Baum confirmed that there were some students who disagreed with the initial decision to restrict access, but he said that there were also students who appreciated the Administration’s efforts to “save them from themselves.”

But more and more students were finding ways to get on the web in spite of the blocking system, according to Dean Baum. Roaming internet access from cellular providers is becoming cheaper and easier, and Dean Baum was concerned by reports that students were also beating the system by trading passwords. Trading passwords, according to Dean Baum, “runs counter to the University’s recommendations for appropriate and responsible use of technology resources,” and is a security concern because passwords also give “access to grades and financial information,” among other things. Dean Baum said that the administration saw that “enough people were finding ways around [the blocking system] . . . that we felt like it was creating a double standard.”

Additionally, the inability of the blocking system to adjust to class cancellations had become a headache for the Administration. Access is supposed to be restored when class is cancelled, but Dean Baum confirmed that restoration “often wasn’t happening” and that the Registrar’s Office staff was spending too much time trying to restore access to frustrated students.

Dean Baum said that he wasn’t sure if UM Law would choose to block the internet if the practical costs were less substantial, but he feels that it may be counter-productive for the school to compete in a virtual “arms race” with tech-savvy students.