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More professors ban laptops in class

Professors complain about computer distractions preventing real interaction in class, but bans have led some students to rebel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the professor lectured on the law, the student wore a poker face.  But that was probably because, under the guise of taking notes on his laptop, the student actually was playing poker — online, using the school's wireless Internet connection. 

The scenario is not uncommon in today's college classrooms, and some instructors want it stopped.  So they have done the unthinkable — banned laptops.

The move caused an uproar at the University of Memphis, where law professor June Entman nixed the computers in March because she felt they were turning her students into stenographers and inhibiting classroom debate.

Students rebelled by filing a complaint with the American Bar Association, although the organization dismissed it.

At the University of Pennsylvania, law professor Charles Mooney banned laptops from his classes two years ago for similar reasons.

Around that time, said Mooney, he was serving as an expert witness in a lawsuit.  During a break in his deposition, he recalled asking the stenographer if she found the case interesting.  She replied that she didn't remember anything she had taken down, Mooney said.  "I thought, 'That's what my students are doing,'" he said.

The ban led to "a lot of grumbling," Mooney said.  Some students even dropped the class.

But as an experiment, the professor permitted laptops this past year to compare the difference in students' performance.  His conclusion: Don't allow laptops.

Penn law student Karen Yeh, 23, said a laptop prohibition in one of her classes this past year was unnecessary.  The embarrassing possibility of being unable to answer a question posed by the professor was reason enough for students to pay attention.  "Nobody would've been surfing the Net," Yeh said.  "You're just too scared to get called on."

But some students said online distractions are really no different from pre-laptop days, when they might do a crossword puzzle in class.

Ryan McKenzie, a third-year Penn law student, said so much of students' knowledge is gleaned outside the classroom that in-class distractions don't detract from learning.  "The class is only a small part of the whole experience," said McKenzie, 29. "It's much more independent study."

Paul Engelking, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, said he was disturbed to find students gambling online while they were purportedly working on an in-class assignment.

Yet even students who are diligently taking notes with their laptops are missing out on social interaction and jokes the teachers make, he said.  "There isn't even eye contact going on in the classroom," said Engelking.

One remedy instructors have, he said, is to establish penalties for Web surfing, codify them in a course syllabus, and then enforce them.

But even that leaves a lot to be desired, Engelking said.  "I'm not completely thrilled about being a policeman in my own lecture hall," he said. "I've got enough things to do."