Can Your Professor Force You to Pay Attention?

Sep 21, 2011

Laptop use in college classrooms has been a contentious issue for over a decade. While some teachers feel that the devices are necessary learning tools, others chalk them up as mere distractions. How have professors taken to commanding students' attention in the classroom, and have some gone too far?

by Eric Garneau

laptop notes classroom distraction

Make Up Your Mind

Perhaps students would have an easier time deciding whether classroom laptop use was appropriate if schools held a unified opinion. As it stands, rules regarding laptops in colleges across the U.S. are schizophrenic, to say the least. Some schools, like Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Salem State College in Massachusetts, require their students to own the devices, while others, like the University of Memphis and George Washington University, are banning them. Many institutions, of course, take up the middle ground of laptop-optional, but it's clearly a divisive topic.

The arguments, both for and against, are myriad. On the one hand, laptops are a fantastic piece of technology that grant students access to almost any knowledge they could need. Using them, professors could guide students through Internet research projects or various other explorations, not limited by the content of any textbook or PowerPoint presentation. They're also handy note-taking devices, replacing the pen-and-paper method of previous generations. On the other hand, laptops seem almost tailor-made to distract students - what's to ensure their continued attention when there's a portal on their desk waiting to take them to Facebook, fantasy sports websites, instant messaging clients and more? Unfortunately, many professors feel that those distractions are the chief reasons students bring laptops to class, and as a result have taken to removing them from their courses.

An Extreme Response?

One educator's patience with classroom laptops was recently tested in a serious way. In March 2011 Dr. Frank J. Rybicki, assistant mass media professor at Georgia's Valdosta State University (VSU), was charged with assault for closing a student's laptop in the middle of one of his classes; Rybicki thought the student was wasting time on social media websites. The student alleged that Dr. Rybicki closed the screen on her fingers, thereby hurting her hand. As a result, she sued the professor, essentially removing him from class for the remainder of the semester.

In August 2011, Dr. Rybicki was acquitted of assault charges by a Georgia jury, primarily because no one could prove any intent to harm this student, a necessary factor for assault. Dr. Rybicki is now free to return to his work. However, VSU told him that this upcoming year would be his last teaching there.

What To Do?

It seems that Dr. Rybicki paid a serious price for attempting to control his classroom. Many believe that the sanctions imposed on him - both the initial assault charges and his dismissal from VSU - have been far too extreme. But that certainly doesn't equate to any easy consensus about how to handle distracting laptop use in the classroom.

Perhaps schools should look to the example set by Massachusetts' Bentley College. In 1985, they were the first school to require students to own laptops (merely four years after their introduction!). By 2000, those laptops were becoming a classroom distraction, so administrators there came up with a unique solution: 5-way switches in each classroom that let professors customize the level of Web access available to their students. In seconds, professors can give their students access to e-mail but no Internet, Internet but no e-mail, campus Web pages only, no access at all or full Web access. From an IT standpoint, it's not a simple system, but that customizability allows professors to make use of laptops while cutting back on potential distractions.

It's probably not likely that all schools would install systems like Bentley's; it may be easier for some to ban laptops altogether, especially depending on their specific curricula and instruction style. Still, even without laptops, classroom distraction problems will persist. University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan told The Washington Post that other devices, notably smartphones, have made the battle for students' attention more difficult than ever. Says The Post: 'if professors had hoped to hermetically seal their teaching space by banning laptops, they might be about three years too late.'

Having problems with your laptop? Learn how to fix it with these handy blogs.

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