Page 2 of 2   <      

Wide Web of diversions gets laptops evicted from lecture halls

David Cole of Georgetown Law was among the first professors in the Washington region to ban laptops for most of his students. A few are selected to use them to take notes, which others may then borrow.
David Cole of Georgetown Law was among the first professors in the Washington region to ban laptops for most of his students. A few are selected to use them to take notes, which others may then borrow. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo

Diane E. Sieber, an associate professor of humanities at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has debated her students on the collegiate conceit of multitasking, the notion that today's youths can fully attend to a lecture while intermittently toggling over to e-mail, ESPN and Facebook.

"It's really serialized interruption," Sieber said. "You start something, you stop it, you do something else, you stop it, which is something you're doing if you're switching back and forth between World of Warcraft and my class."

One recent semester, Siebert tracked the grades of 17 student laptop addicts. At the end of the term, their average grade was 71 percent, "almost the same as the average for the students who didn't come at all."

Sieber believes that those students, in turn, divert the attention of the students behind them, a parabolic effect she calls the "cone of distraction."

José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, is removing computers from lecture halls and urging his colleagues to "teach naked" -- without machines. Bowen says class time should be used for engaging discussion, something that reliance on technology discourages.

Cole surveyed one of his Georgetown classes anonymously after six weeks of laptop-free lectures. Four-fifths said they were more engaged in class discussion. Ninety-five percent admitted that they had used their laptops for "purposes other than taking notes."

Even when used as glorified typewriters, laptops can turn students into witless stenographers, typing a lecture verbatim without listening or understanding.

"The breaking point for me was when I asked a student to comment on an issue, and he said, 'Wait a minute, I want to open my computer,' " said David Goldfrank, a Georgetown history professor. "And I told him, 'I don't want to know what's in your computer. I want to know what's in your head.' "

Some early attempts to ban laptops met resistance. In 2006, a group of law students at the University of Memphis complained to the American Bar Association, in vain. These days, the restriction is so common that most students take it in stride.

"I think that a professor's well within reason to ban laptops," said Cristina Cardenal, a 20-year-old Georgetown junior. "Professors aren't stupid. They know what's going on." She also happens to believe that the rule benefits students, who should know better than to "pay as much money as we do to sit in a class and read a blog."

Flipping a switch

Perhaps no college has experienced the good and bad of laptops like Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. In 1985, Bentley was the first college in the nation to require students to own portable computers. By the late 1990s, professors complained of distracted students. In 2000, the college installed a custom-designed system to let professors switch off Internet and e-mail access in their classrooms. They've flipped the switch "thousands of times," said Bentley's Phillip G. Knutel.

Universities have stopped short of disabling Internet access entirely, which might create a raft of new complaints from professors who routinely ask students to go online in class.

Plenty of professors still allow laptops. Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies and law at U-Va., generally permits them in his classes. He remembers his own college diversion: reading newspapers surreptitiously on the floor beneath his desk. He believes that, ultimately, it is a professor's job to hold the class's attention.

"If students don't want to pay attention, the laptop is the least of your problems," he said.

Vaidhyanathan, an Internet scholar, senses a losing battle. In an era of iPhones and BlackBerrys, Internet-ready cellphones have become just as prevalent in classrooms as laptops, and equally capable of distraction. If professors had hoped to hermetically seal their teaching space by banning laptops, they might be about three years too late.

"The question 'Laptop or not?' isn't as big a question as the question of a screen or not," he said. "And, sitting in front of 200 students, I can't really enforce a ban on anything."

Please follow the Post's Education coverage on Facebook, Twitter or our Education and Higher Education pages. Bookmark them!


<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company