Put Away That Laptop: Professors Pull The Plug

It was only a few years after colleges started requiring students to have laptops that some professors started banning them in their classrooms. Many professors say they don't want to compete with surfing the Internet, shopping for shoes, checking e-mail and Facebook. But it may be impossible to put that genie back in the bottle; kids are finding their way around even the cleverest efforts by campus IT departments to keep them off-line.

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While high school teachers fight for their jobs, some college professors are fighting for their students' attention. The competition is the ubiquitous laptop computer. University students say they're essential. To many professors laptops are instruments of mass distraction.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: This is one of those cases of be careful what you wish for. Bentley College in Massachusetts was the first in the nation to require all its students to have a laptop, but it wasn't long at all before professors started to complain they couldn't live with 'em as much as they couldn't live without 'em.

PHILLIP KNUTEL: Well, we what we would see is essentially the class would get hijacked by students on their laptops doing everything but what the faculty member intended.

SMITH: Professor Phillip Knutel says even from the front of the class he can easily tell which students are tapping out emails, making new friends on Facebook, or shopping on Amazon. He says it's both obvious and infuriating.

KNUTEL: It's the equivalent of a student 20 years ago coming into your class and putting their feet up on the desk, putting their baseball cap down over their eyes and taking a nap during your class. It's that offensive, and I think if that's what you want to do, do it somewhere else.

SMITH: One particularly incensed professor made his point in class and later on YouTube by grabbing a laptop...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG)

SMITH: ...and smashing it to bits.

SMITH: Don't bring laptops to work on them in class. Have I made my point clear?

SMITH: Other angry professors have banned laptops from their classrooms. But students have complained they need their computers to take notes. So recently schools have become a little more refined in their strategy.

KNUTEL: This screen comes up and let's me select what level of access I want the students to have...

SMITH: Back at Bentley, Professor Knutel can execute a sophisticated surgical strike against the enemy email, Internet, or both.

KNUTEL: For today's class I'm going to disable all access so that basically they can't get anywhere.

SMITH: With one click of a mouse, it's bye-bye Web.

KNUTEL: They can't get go shopping. No eBay. No Craigslist. No Facebook. Exactly.

SMITH: Suddenly, it's life as they never knew it. Some students say it's a relief to no longer have to fight temptation or to be distracted by classmates browsing. But most do not like being kicked offline.

TONY RIONIS: It's like high school. I mean we're college students. I mean we're paying tuition to come here, a lot of tuition to come here. We shouldn't be treated like we're elementary school students.

SMITH: Senior Tony Rionis says if students are paying more attention to their laptops than their professors, the problem is not necessarily the laptops.

RIONIS: I went through a history class that was just every single day death by PowerPoint. And it just, it was awful.

FREDRICK LAWRENCE: I think if no one in your lecture hall or your classroom is paying attention to you and you complain about that, that is like the baker complaining about the bread.

SMITH: Fredrick Lawrence, dean of George Washington University Law School, says professors are wrong to think they can solve the problem of students' wandering attention by banning laptops.

LAWRENCE: Daydreaming did not start with laptops and passing notes did not start with instant messaging. Students have failed to pay attention in class probably going back to Socrates and the first Socratic classroom, and our job is to keep them interested.

SMITH: A lively, engaging lecture will always beat out an online shoe sale, Lawrence says. And trying to limit technology is a losing battle anyway. Students still have their iPhones, for example. Lawrence says the best way to fight high tech is to go low tech. A simple stroll to the back of the classroom does wonders, he says, as does a well-timed question - for example, to a kid who's just hit send on an instant message.

LAWRENCE: If you do it just right, you bust them in a way that there are only three people in the whole room who know it. That's you, the recipient and the sender. You get all the deterrent effect you needed.

SMITH: The other secret weapon professors have, of course, is report cards. Students tend to think they are master multi-taskers. But one professor who actually tracked the grades of her chronic browsers found their scores were just about the same as kids who skipped class altogether.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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