About those laptops

Some professors are fed up with a 'wall of laptops' and are banning them from the classroom. Other schools are seeking 'less Draconian' solutions.

It wasn't all that long ago that a laptop in the classroom was a bit of a novelty. But things have have almost come full circle as universities begin to pine for the good old days—pre-WiFi. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, professors are noticing that students aren't always paying attention in class as more alluring diversions on the internet interfere with classroom lectures.

"You'll say something, and you'll see these chuckles from a couple of people," says Norman A. Garrett, a professor of computer-information systems at Eastern Illinois University's business school. And that leaves him wondering. "Is what I said funny, or are they not even in the same universe as I'm in because they're looking at the Internet?"

Professors have implemented a variety of tactics to try and keep students focused in class. Some professors have completely banned laptops from the classroom. Others ask that students sit in the front row where teachers can more closely monitor their note-taking. And a few universities have set up WiFi and internet systems that can be switched off in the classrooms if need be.

Many students have negative reactions to professors taking restrictive measures. They argue that they need to learn how to juggle their online and offline worlds—a crucial skill to be cultivated for obtaining their future jobs.

An incident at the University of Memphis recently brought national attention to the practice of banning laptops.

June Entman, a law professor at the University of Memphis, sent an email message to her students forbidding them to bring their laptops to her civil proceedure class, saying that it got in the way of her making eye-contact with the students.

"The wall of vertical screens keeps me from seeing many of your faces, even those of some students who are only neighbors of a laptop," she wrote. "The wall hampers the flow of discussion between me and the class and among the students. Also, by giving students a sense of anonymity, many are encouraged to feel that they are present merely to listen in."

Her students objected and some signed a petition against the policy and even filed a complaint with the American Bar Association, arguing that they were being denied an up-to-date education. The ABA dismissed the complaint, but the issue caught the attention of the national media and bloggers.

"I'd say banning laptops or shutting off wireless on demand is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," says Brian D. Voss, chief information officer at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. "Both are draconian solutions to a problem that requires something a bit more diplomatic."

Voss' university has come to a middle ground when trying to rein in the use and abuse of laptops in the classroom. The university is encouraging professors to come up with their own policies for classroom computer use.

"I actually think taking notes on laptops is a great idea if you're a student because you have it in a form that's so easy to work with," says E. William Wischusen, a member of a committee drafting the IT strategy and an associate professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State. "This is something we need to work through. We need to think of policies that make sense."

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