Jon Ippolito asks, “Laptops in class: menace or scapegoat?

I add: or no big deal?

Before I started teaching this year, a new colleague asked me whether I allow students to use laptops in the classroom. I replied that I hadn’t given the issue much thought: only one of my past students had used a laptop regularly, and that one had asked for permission based on medical reasons. No problem. Therefore, I said that I probably wouldn’t allow laptops, but I didn’t know whether we would need to address the issue at all.

A week later, when classes began, I had a group of 12 first-year students, and a third of them pulled out laptops on the first day of class.

Having no policy in mind, I told the students about my conversation with the colleague and said that I was willing to give laptops a chance: if I saw them interfering with conversation or distracting students, I explained, I would make a rule against them, and we’d move on.

As it happened, I never noticed the computers causing a problem in that class, or in my others, where they also began to sprout. The students used the laptops sometimes, left them aside other times; in small rooms housing discussion-based classes, the computers functioned as useful supplements to our conversations or simply as tools for reading class materials that would normally have been printed.

I anticipated more problems in part because I’ve seen students in other situations drift into email or solitaire, in part because I know my own weakness for checking email, even when I know I should resist. Perhaps students now have grown accustomed to constant access to the web (via smart phones) and therefore have developed more resistance. Perhaps I was just lucky last semester. I don’t know how this will go in the future.

I do know this, however: when I talk to friends, I increasingly find one or more members of the group pausing to check something on the web–a bit of historical information, a basketball player’s scoring average–to enrich the ongoing conversation. When I attend a meeting or a conference session in which the connecting to the web is unavailable or frowned upon, I feel that constraint as a limit on the conversation’s potential reach.

I do not claim that this feeling is good, only that it is real. For many of today’s 18-year-olds, the feeling must be stronger than it is for me. A lot of us now live an emotional life in which the lack, not the presence, of internet supplements to conversation feels like a needless artifice.

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