Profs weigh in-class use of laptop computers
By Astrid Bradley, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, February 15, 2007
Editor's note: This article is the first in a two-part series examining the use of laptop computers in classrooms.
With wireless network access available to 100 percent of Dartmouth's campus, the technology has become an integral part of the teaching and learning experience. Recently, however, professors have become concerned that students have instead been using the privilege of ubiquitous wireless access to engage in non-class related activities during class time, such as checking BlitzMail and visiting websites.
The practice was getting so out of hand that during Fall term the issue of shutting off the wireless network in classrooms during hours of instruction became a subject of discussion, said Malcolm Brown, director of academic computing.
Brown said that while he has not received any requests to shut off the network, he has had professors ask him how costly such an endeavor would be. Such a project would require new equipment, research and probably money, he said.
Art history professor Adrian Randolph found a solution by disallowing students to bring laptops into his lectures or seminars. But he has lifted the policy in classes that include students with "invisible learning concerns" and are in need of the computer for note-taking.
Randolph said that he decided to ban laptops after team-teaching a class gave him the opportunity to observe students' behavior on their computers from the back of the classroom,
"Sometimes it's good, I happen to see students Googling something the professor mentioned," Randolph said. "Most of the time, though, its a USA Today crossword."
Randolph's syllabi include a clause banning cell phones and computers.
"I don't want to go around policing whether students are using it," Randolph said.
He also added that especially in disciplines such as art history and film and television studies, it would be difficult for a student to pay attention to two screens at once.
Classics professor Margaret Gardner said that while she allows -- and to some extent encourages -- laptops in her small Classics 3 class, she does not allow them in every class.
"If I were doing a large lecture class I probably wouldn't allow it," she said. "It's a different feel."
Ian Rorick '10 said that he believes computers are useful in class because they speed up the process of note-taking and allow students to pay more attention to lectures.
Gardner said she believes that such benefits do exist, as she, like many professors, posts her lecture slides online prior to the beginning of each class so that students may be able to pull down the file and take notes directly on the slides.
The problem with non-academic laptop use during class, Gardner said, is that not only does it interrupt the learning process of students using the computers, but it can also disrupt learning for those around the computers.
"If I were sitting in a class I would be very tempted to cut away to Blitz," she said. "Most people can manage that, but it distracts the students next to them. So I've asked my students to be considerate to others."
Gardner said that while there is not presently a clause in her syllabi regarding the misuse of technology, there will be in the future.
"There is no way to enforce it unless you say you can't use laptops at all and then we lose that resource," she said.
Gardner said that while she wishes classes would be interesting and absorbing enough for students not to feel the need to distract themselves, she doesn't think cutting off wireless access is the solution.
"The answer will have to be you allow them in your class," she said.
Rorick said that his writing seminar professor preferred computers not be present in the classroom and made his views clear at the beginning of the term. Students in the class agreed and respected that request, he said.
"I think if professors feel very strongly about it they should put it on the syllabus and most students would honor that," he said.
Rudy Chounoune Jr. '07 said that shutting off wireless would not solve the problems of distracting computers because computers provide ways to distract students that do not rely on internet.
"Only a small percentage of students spend the entire class on [BlitzMail]," Chounoune said. "In my experience the majority of students are legitimately taking notes."
It would be possible for computing services to install switches that turn wireless access on and off in specific classrooms. In order to be able to install one that could be accessed easily, such as by a professor from a lecturn, computing services would have to determine how each individual classroom receives its internet. If the access point also provides internet to other areas, the room might have to be rewired, Brown said.
Although some would consider this issue purely technological, Brown said that students who use other internet services would still be able to have online access.
"One concern that we have in computing is if a student had a broadband card from Verizon Wireless, it would be impossible to keep that signal from entering the room," Brown said. "I think that it is a discussion that students and faculty need to have in order to prevent the use of computers from getting out of hand."