Banning Laptops From the Classroom is the Wrong Battle

“Academics finding hope in blocking technology had better think again, it’s a battle that can’t win, and it’s not the battle they should be fighting.” – From the digg.com post linking to this article: The question of banning laptops in class: it’s academic, silly by Ken Fisher. Ken is writing about an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which describes how colleges are giving instructors the ability to shut off WiFi in their classrooms, so students can’t access the web. Ken’s endnote is the best part, in my opinion:

The Chronicle article misses one very important detail in this: the foolhardiness of controlling access to the Internet. The days of controlling Internet access via your college’s or university’s WiFi infrastructure are coming to an end shortly after they started. Telecommunications companies such as Verizon already offer high-speed wireless EVDO to laptop users in major metropolitan cities, and short of violating federal law, schools cannot block those signals. In just a few short years, most laptops will likely come with support for commercial networks much in the way that they now come with support for WiFi. Laptops already ship with EVDO support, and WiMax support is around the corner. As prices drop (and they will), students will be as connected to the Internet as they are to their friends via mobile phones.

As both a technologist and an educator myself, I see both sides of the debate, but stopping the Internet from getting into the classroom is a waste of time. Students are not going to tolerate laptop bans in the classroom, especially in undergraduate education (graduate education is slightly different because of the change in interpersonal dynamics that come along with it). Professors are going to have to deal with the frustration of seeing their students giggling about “Snakes on a Plane!” during their lectures on Stoic passions. (Unless I happen to be teaching, at which point I’ll work the “Snakes on a Plane!” into the talk about the Stoic passions, just to keep everyone alert.)”

In short, professors who fight this battle will lose. Students want access, and they will get it, whether through EVDO, WiMax, or whatever else is commercially available. The bottom line is that we live in a society where people want to be connected, and going into a “dark zone” where access is not available or not allowed is simply not sustainable. Places where access isn’t available will get it sooner or later, because of  the demand, and spaces where access isn’t allowed just won’t be used. Students want to be able to check MySpace, Facebook, email, blogs, etc. and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not learning. Some need the brief break while listening to a lecture, which may actually help by breaking a long block into shorter, more digestible segments. An even better option is for instructors to embrace technology, show students they’re with it, and earn students’ respect – that’s likely to get them a lot more willing participants than raising ire and resentment by banning technology. Ken has it right when he says that he’d work something students are giggling about into his lecture (on a totally unrelated topic) –  this will show students he gets it, and more importantly it will be an incredible lesson for them in how to think in the networked, interconnected way of the web, and make new connections where none previously existed.

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