FRAMINGHAM -- Arriving at his Tuesday morning English class at Framingham State College, Joe LaFauci consulted his syllabus for the day's assignment. But instead of digging through his backpack for a crumpled course outline, he logged onto the class Web page on his wireless laptop.
There, he found a few announcements and writing suggestions from the teacher. In a class billed as "virtually paperless," there are no handouts, only postings. LaFauci called up an edited assignment, with revisions written in digital blue bubbles instead of red ink. Students fixed their gaze not on a teacher behind a lectern, but on their softly glowing monitors.
No professorial pronouncements or pencil scratchings could be heard, only the steady tapping of keyboards, as students reworked their papers, researched topics on the Internet, and sent instant messages to friends across the classroom. There were no textbooks or spiral notebooks in sight.
This is the future of higher education, say many educators, who see classrooms in which droning lectures and dry textbooks give way to a lively blend of multimedia presentations and instant, independent research.
Framingham State has been one of the main testing grounds for this vision since two years ago, when it became the first public college in New England to require incoming students to own portable computers. Now, about 80 percent of the courses at the college use wireless laptops to connect to the Internet and conduct classes online.
Framingham State's use of computers in the classroom has drawn nationwide attention to the modestly priced liberal arts college and its largely working class student body. College administrators, researchers, and technology advocates want to see whether portable computers improve education quality.
"We're among the first, so I think a lot of eyes are on us," said Helen L. Heineman, the college's president.
Laptops have made it easier for students to communicate with teachers via e-mail outside the classroom and to receive quick answers as questions arise. E-mail makes the most intimidating professor immediately accessible, many teachers and students agree.
Yet some critics worry that relying on virtual communication has depersonalized the student-teacher relationship, and teachers complain that laptops distract their students, who sometimes secretly surf the Web during class.
Only 3 percent of US colleges, predominantly private institutions, require students to own computers, and a handful of schools integrate technology into the classroom.
With seven of its public colleges slated to mandate laptop use within the next two years, Massachusetts is at the forefront of a national movement to bring computers into college classrooms. Bridgewater State College and Worcester State College started the requirement this fall. They will be joined by Salem State College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts next fall, and by Westfield State and Fitchburg State in 2006.
Reluctant to overhaul courses without solid evidence that the laptops will appreciably help students learn, many colleges are closely monitoring the Massachusetts experience.
Christopher Dede, a professor of learning technology at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, said laptops democratize the classroom and get students to learn actively. With e-mail and the Internet at students' fingertips, teachers are forced to invigorate their classes to keep students engaged.
"I think it's good teachers have to compete for their students' attention," he said. "All the research says getting students involved is the way they learn best."
Critics of online classrooms counter that colleges are putting their faith in an unproven educational tool.
"High-tech is high fashion," said Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. "But there's no research that the use of computers increases student learning."
Kenneth Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, a California-based group that studies information technology in higher education, said most colleges have reservations over laptops in classrooms because of the cost to students and the work involved in merging technology and academics. "It can't be just about giving every kid a box," Green said. "To do this well, you need a compelling curricular reason."
David Carhart, a mathematics professor at Bentley College, which has required students to own personal computers since 1985, said portable computers help translate theory into practice. For instance, he teaches students about radioactive decay by visiting a website devoted to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
"Today's students want to see the applications," he said. "Let the software do the grunt work. We want to go to the real world."
At Framingham State, there is wide consensus that laptops have improved the way courses are organized and students learn. In English instructor Halcyon Mancuso's writing class, laptops help students work independently but also allow greater interaction.
Her students evaluate their peers' work through the course Web page and discuss topics on message boards. Such interaction shows how portable computers can make classrooms more democratic and dynamic, according to teachers and students.
"It takes you away from the traditional role of professor, the 'sage on the stage,' as they say," said Chris Mauriello, an associate professor at Salem State College, which will require new students to own laptops next fall. "It turns you into a facilitator. It's a completely different dynamic."
Framingham State students, many of whom are working their way through school, appear to relish the school's status as a technology pioneer. "I guess we're ahead of the curve," said LaFauci, a sophomore who transferred from Southern New Hampshire University.
The state Board of Higher Education backs the state's laptop initiative but allows individual campuses to decide whether to adopt it. Community colleges and the five campuses in the University of Massachusetts system have no current laptop requirement.
Students who buy laptops through their college receive a steep discount, and schools calculate the cost into financial aid packages.
Internet access in the classroom can be a double-edged sword. Some Framingham State teachers forbid laptops in class, saying students are too likely to e-mail or surf the Web. When her students start spending too much class time staring at their screens, Mancuso occasionally instructs the class to put "tops down" and raise their heads. LaFauci, as he checked on his fantasy football team, acknowledged that it is tough to keep on task with so many easy distractions. "It does take some willpower," he said.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that almost half of college students use e-mail to express ideas to a professor they would not have expressed in class.
Framingham State freshman Shaina Conrad said she valued the extra help and personal attention e-mail affords, even if it is not face-to-face.
"If you e-mail a question, the professor will usually respond right back," she said. "This way you don't have to make their office hours."
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.