Here is an abbreviated article about this issue. Full article can be found at http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i39/39a02701.htm
The Fight for Classroom Attention: Professor vs. Laptop
Professors worry that as wireless networks and laptops become ubiquitous, students will direct about as much attention to the front of the room as airline passengers do to a flight attendant reviewing safety information.
To keep students focused on class, some professors now ban laptops from their classrooms, arguing that the devices are just too much of a temptation. Other professors ask laptop users to sit in the front row, in part so the professors can glance down occasionally to see what is on the students' screens. And a few colleges, Bentley among them, have set up systems that let professors switch off classroom Internet access during some sessions.
Such measures come after colleges nationwide have spent millions of dollars equipping classrooms with Internet access — and most recently with wireless-Internet nodes.
Many students dislike the restrictions, arguing that people raised in the era of multitasking can balance Internet use and classroom participation. Even some professors feel that banning laptops is wrong, and that students need to learn for themselves how to juggle online and offline worlds, since students are likely to carry those same laptops into corporate environments in the future.
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, forbade students from bringing their computers to her civil-procedure class this spring, arguing that the devices were literally getting in the way of learning. In an e-mail message she sent to the students explaining the ban, she said that when students in the auditorium had their laptop lids open, she could not make eye contact with them.
"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."
The law students objected. Some of them 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. Although the association dismissed the complaint, the quirky classroom battle caught the attention of the national media and bloggers.
In a statement to The Chronicle, Ms. Entman expressed frustration over the level of attention her move sparked, noting that many professors ban laptops. "During [the] brouhaha about the matter, I heard from law professors at Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, Widener, and Pace who have also banned laptops for much the same reasons. One had done so three years ago," Ms. Entman wrote. She said that newspaper accounts "blew the events all out of proportion." She declined to comment further.
Ms. Entman is hardly alone in wishing that students would stop using laptops in class, or in trying to make such a wish come true.
Attempting to use technology to help find a middle ground, officials at Bentley College set up an on/off switch for Internet access in each classroom. Called the "classroom network control system," it allows professors in many classrooms to choose one of five settings: turn off Internet access but allow e-mail access, turn off e-mail access but allow Internet access, disable Internet and e-mail access but allow computers to reach campus Web pages, shut off all access, or allow all access. A computer at the front of the classroom lets the professor change the settings at any time.
Students say that many professors use the system, and that it generally does work. But they would rather that Internet access be left on as much as possible.
"It shows they trust the students," says Nusrat Mahmud, a sophomore. "It's the students' responsibility" to keep up with the course material, she adds.
"I do like to have the option" of surfing the Internet in class, says Jenna Arnold, a sophomore. But she does admit that "if they turn it off, it does make more people pay attention."
Even Ms. Entman, the professor at the University of Memphis who gained publicity for banning laptops, says she initially asked campus technology officials to give her some way to shut off Internet access. "Before reaching my decision to eliminate laptops entirely, I tried to get the WiFi turned off on the third floor of the law building," she wrote in explaining her policy to students. "I was unsuccessful in securing the cooperation of those on campus who control the system."