More colleges, professors shutting down laptops and other digital distractions

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By Laura Mortkowitz
Sunday, April 25, 2010

As a culture, we're at an odd crossroads regarding personal computers. For years, educators have been clamoring to put technology in the hands of young students through partnerships with big tech companies, best symbolized by the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

But by the time those kids grow up, they might well find university authorities waging a war on laptops in the classroom. In 2008, the University of Chicago Law School turned off Internet access in classrooms. At the University of Oklahoma, professor Kieran Mullen became an Internet sensation when a student recorded him freezing a laptop in liquid nitrogen and shattering it.

It turns out that one child's educational tool is another child's distraction -- particularly when bored. There are Facebook and Twitter for the social-media enthusiasts. There's ESPN for sports fans. There's a Web site for any store you can think of for savvy shoppers, along with countless other avenues: eBay, YouTube, blogs of every flavor. No Internet? No problem. Solitaire, FreeCell and Minesweeper are calling your name.

Those distractions have led to a mini-war on laptops in the classroom. On his home page, Mullen cited distracted students using their laptops for reasons other than taking notes as the cause for his demonstration. Afterward, he said, their attention in class improved. But then, whose wouldn't? Although Mullen never claimed that he would take students' laptops and destroy them if they were caught goofing off, the implication was clear: He had no tolerance for students surfing the Web or playing games in class, and he knew that's what they were doing.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, professor Diane Sieber also knew her students weren't all paying attention in class. She carried out a very unscientific study simply by comparing the grades of students who used laptops in class with those of the students who didn't. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sieber privately informed the students after their first exam that they scored 11 percent lower than their counterparts without laptops.

At Rutgers University, J.P. Krahel is in the rare position of being both teacher and student. While studying for his doctorate in accounting, he also taught a class in fall 2009 and will teach one class each semester starting this summer until 2012. In one of his doctoral classes, laptops weren't allowed, and as a teacher last semester, Krahel understood the reasoning behind that ban when one of his students brought a laptop.

"Eventually his performance dipped a little, and I think he realized it," he said. "With the younger undergrads, it's not an easy temptation to resist. And the problem with the intro courses is you need to pay attention to everything."

Krahel plans to ban laptops from his classrooms, despite using his as an undergrad -- or perhaps because of it. He admits to getting caught up with distractions on his laptop and realizing what a waste it was, either because of a poor grade, "having to do a lot of catching up on my own time, or asking for other people's help."

The trend of laptop-banning seems strongest at law schools, where discussions and understanding the material are vital to getting past the dreaded first year. Georgetown University Law Center professor David Cole bans laptops, as does University of Memphis law school professor June Entman. George Mason University law professor Michael Krauss has banned laptops for five or six years now.

The way his first-year law-school classes are taught, Krauss said, is by asking questions for students to answer in discussion. Distractions and the Internet aren't Krauss's concern in banning laptops; the reason for the ban is that laptops have "become a substitute for thinking." The material in a law class requires a lot of thought to help understand concepts, and students who type verbatim what is said in class into their notes aren't giving themselves any time to absorb and analyze.

Two years ago, Carrie B. Fried, a psychology professor at Winona State University in Minnesota, studied the effect of laptops on learning. She discovered that computers were a significant distraction in class and that using laptops negatively affected students. The students admitted that they learned less and performed poorly compared with those who didn't use them during class.

Tablets such as the iPad will only make it harder for students to pay attention in class and for schools to ban devices. Because the iPad can be used to read textbooks, professors might be unsure which students are goofing off and which are studying. Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania doesn't seem to mind. In the fall, the school is going to give each incoming student a MacBook and an iPad. How distracted will those students be?

And students just don't understand why professors care. In the University of Denver student newspaper, one student argued that it's the student's problem if he or she isn't paying attention and not the "responsibility of professors to babysit the young adults in the class." The parents who pay thousands of dollars to universities probably disagree with that sentiment, as does Krahel.

"The thing is, I'm responsible for these kids' grades," he said. "So it reflects badly on me if they fail. And I'm not going to pull punches; I'm not going to deliberately inflate their grades. But I'm not going to give them the opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot."

-- The Big Money

Laura Mortkowitz is an intern at The Big Money.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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