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Some colleges crack down on laptop use in classroom

Teachers say it distracts from class participation

William Kilgannon, a student at Bentley College in Waltham, said he uses his laptop to make detailed outlines of his professor's lectures while in class.
William Kilgannon, a student at Bentley College in Waltham, said he uses his laptop to make detailed outlines of his professor's lectures while in class. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

Fed up with students surfing the Web and hiding behind laptop screens, more professors in Boston-area universities, as well as nationally, are banning the use of the Internet or laptops in class.

The move to ban laptops and Internet use has sparked a growing debate in academia about how far universities should go to restrict the use of technology in classrooms. Students, professors say, cannot learn as well if they are checking e-mail and instant messaging pals in class during lectures.

At Harvard Law School, professors are considering taking a faculty vote to ban laptops or Internet use in classrooms this fall. Bentley College in Waltham installed software last year that allows professors to block wireless Internet access during class time. Babson College in Wellesley has had software that allows professors to ban broadband Internet access in class since 1999, and professors are now trying to figure out how and if they should block wireless access to the Web.

In Massachusetts, most schools said they have no policy on Internet or laptop use in class, though individual professors at Harvard, Suffolk, and Northeastern said they began cracking down on laptop use in the past two years.

``They are such distractions," said Harvard Law School professor Carol Steiker, who banned laptops for the first time in a class this spring. ``The students end up looking at their screens, and they are not looking at each other."

Steiker decided to institute the ban because her class, Capital Punishment in America, had grown from a seminar of about 20 students to a lecture of 90, and she didn't want to walk into a room full of computer screens. She received few complaints, Steiker said, and debate in class was so lively that she is now considering banning laptops in her other classes.

At Bentley, about half of the professors use the software that allows them to disable Internet access in class, said Phillip G. Knutel, director of academic technology and a professor of business information at Bentley.

Administrators first installed a program to block Internet use in 2001, after professors began complaining that students were goofing off in class by shopping online, searching for airfares, and updating websites. The school expanded the software to block wireless Internet use last summer, Knutel said.

``The faculty love it," he said. ``It is just like a professor being able to say, `Close your books, we are about to have a test,' but they are shutting off the Internet."

Students, however, are not so keen on the attempts to control computer and Internet use in class.

William Kilgannon, who will be a senior this fall at Bentley, said he uses his laptop to make detailed outlines of his professor's lectures while in class. He also checks his e-mail from time to time and does his homework for his other courses.

``When you get bored in class, you zone out," said Kilgannon, 21. ``So, if anything, my laptop helps me do better, because I pay attention more to make sure I don't miss anything."

At Harvard, in a recent survey of 1,000 students by the Harvard Law School student council, nearly a third said they did not support a laptop ban. About 1 in 4 said they would attend class less if there was a ban.

Michael Sevi, 26, council president and a third-year law student at Harvard, said he uses his laptop in class so he can easily take organized notes. A laptop ban would be too extreme, he said.

``People in this school, they are not high school kids who need to be reminded what is right and what is wrong," he said.

Many administrators and professors said the constantly evolving nature of technology can make it difficult to uphold bans against Internet and laptop use.

Steve Jones, a senior research fellow for the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the author of a study on college students and Internet use, said an increase of wireless Internet providers has made it difficult to block wireless access on campus. If colleges attempt to shut down their own Internet network, students can log on through another provider, he said.

Jones said it would be easier if professors embraced technology and opted to help students become more technologically savvy.

``Students will ignore instruction, whether they have technology in front of them or not," he said. ``They need to realize there are really all sorts of good uses for this stuff."

Cristina Silva can be reached at

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