Laptops in Class: A Professional Virus

Allowing students to surf the internet unrelated to class work hamstrings their ability to learn both substantive information and professional behavior.
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Every teacher has a personal horror story about student laptop misuse during class. My favorite is that of an east coast friend who telephoned me in an indignant rant: "I was trying to engage my class, moving about the room, and I saw a student watching a graphic porn video on his laptop. Really? And this guy hopes to be a practicing lawyer in nine months? God help the profession!"

Welcome to the perfect storm of WiFi university classrooms, an insatiable appetite for digital media, shortened attention spans, and a prevailing expectation that everyone can multitask well.

A new book released this past week by organizational guru and former Google CIO Douglas C. Merrill, Getting Organized in the Google Era: How to Get Stuff out of Your Head, Find It When You Need It, and Get It Done Right, may finally - and ironically, considering his high-tech pedigree --swing votes against classroom web-surfing. It turns out that we humans are pretty darned awful at multitasking. Our brains just aren't designed to do multiple tasks simultaneously and do them well. This conclusion is supported by teachers like Professor Diane Sieber at University of Colorado who found that laptop "addicts" in class performed no better than students who didn't attend class at all!

The debate about laptop use in class was revisited this month by the Washington Post in "Wide Web of Diversions Gets Laptops Evicted from Lecture Halls." Although empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest internet use during class interferes with learning, student consensus is that it is merely a modern incarnation of classroom distractions of old: playing solitaire (with real cards), reading the newspaper, or passing notes. Nevertheless, more teachers--and schools--are adopting a "no laptop" policy. A former student told me his first semester professors at Harvard Law School unanimously agreed this year to ban laptops, and that John Zittrain, leading internet law scholar, imposed a laptop ban despite his strong endorsement of technological teaching tools.

Retorts to concerns of professors like Ian Ayres at Yale is that it is we professors who are to blame for not grabbing and keeping the attention of 21st Century students. This view was humorously endorsed by NYU law students (#5 U.S. law school per U.S. News& World Report) in a music video acknowledging widespread internet surfing during NYU law school classes. The not-so-implicit message is that professors are responsible for student frolic and detour during class because we are boring.


But much of day-to-day post-graduation life in law--or in any other profession--can be pretty darned boring. And it is career suicide, if not professional malpractice, to "zone out" or surf the web during a meeting/presentation/deposition/trial/surgery/real estate closing because the work isn't as entertaining as a television reality show. Professor Mariana Hogan at New York Law School acknowledged this multitasking behavior can be risky for law students post-graduation, noting "we've added material to our Professional Development curriculum to alert our students that partners in law firms might not see these work habits the same way." Professor Hogan observes that students are surprised to learn that such multitasking might be frowned upon in practice. And why wouldn't they be surprised, considering it is generally tolerated in classrooms all over the country?

Our role as post-graduate educators should include mentoring students about post-graduate professional expectations and professional behaviors. Allowing students to surf the internet unrelated to class work hamstrings their ability to learn both substantive information and professional behavior needed for a smooth and successful transition into the post-graduation workforce. How well-received would a recently-graduated, newly-hired entry-level management trainee be if she started surfing eBay for Prada shoes in the middle of a monthly department meeting, no matter how boring the meeting? We are failing students if we tolerate mindless election of disposable entertainment over legitimate education in the classroom--because the behavior will not be tolerated after the diploma is awarded and the student is no longer paying the freight, but pulling in a paycheck.

Although the NYU video is quite clever--a parody of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" entitled "We Didn't Hear the Question" --I would not be amused to discover that the surgeon cutting into my child spent her days at Johns Hopkins catching up with American Idol countdown during anatomy class, or that the engineer who designed my Boeing jet had whiled away the oh-so-boring hours of aerospace engineering class surfing In fact, that exact type of unprofessional multi-tasking is what fueled the inexplicable aero-snafu last October when Northwest Airlines pilots were so engrossed in their non-work-related laptop use they overshot the airplane 150 miles past their Minneapolis destination.

I imagine the passengers on flight 1549--last year's 'Miracle on the Hudson'--were grateful that Captain Chelsey 'Sully' Sullenberger not only paid attention to his instructors back in flight school, but that he didn't elect to download a Kim Kardashian video during the flight because he tired of the aerial view of New Jersey.

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