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High-Tech Doodling?

Law school professor battles digital distraction in the classroom


Dave, a student at Acadia University, chose Acadia because of its laptop program. The "Acadia Advantage" provides a laptop for every student, and it is fairly common for every student to bring his or her laptop to class to take notes. Dave explained, "Notes? Yeah right. Who uses their laptop for notes? We just use ICQ and Instant Messenger. Sometimes I play a little Minesweeper or Hearts. I admit it's a huge distraction and muting the volume is key. The last thing you want is the prof's evil eye when you get an incoming instant message." Is this kind of technology good for classroom use? Yale Law School Professor Ian Ayres seems to think that the use of laptops in class does more harm than good.


Last month in an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times that began "Something alarming happened in my contract law classÉ" Ayres expounded upon the problem of keeping his students' attention during class. Ayres told the Times "Solitaire and Minesweeper are everywhere now in university classes" and "the abusive use of laptops is getting to be increasingly prevalent." He says that surfing the Internet and playing computer games keeps a student from being "fully present to ask or answer questions" and is "demoralizing" to other students.

Ayres responded to these problems by banning the use of laptops in his classes for anything other than note taking. After its institution, students used class discussions and their class's virtual chat room to express their resistance to this ban. One student, Aaron Walker (LAW '02) claimed that the rule was "paternalistic" and said it reminded him of "teachers complaining about kids chewing gum or wearing Bart Simpson shirts."

Other students have spoken out against the ban, saying that they are using their laptops to look up legal briefs on Lexis. However, many students have no qualms about telling their professors that they are multi-tasking and making good use of their time during "dead or badly-taught portions of the class." Almost all students who protest the ban believe that it is their right to use the classroom time that they pay for in whatever way they see fit.

Ayres sees things differently, comparing the classroom to the opera hall, the jury box, or the church pew. He asks, "Will the lure of technological stimulation someday overwhelm current mores about paying attention in those places too?" He also says that he recognizes that there are other ways for the students to zone out in his class. Is there really any way he could hope to control all the students who are doodling or finishing the crossword puzzle? Ayres told the Times that he recognizes this, "But not all activities are equally addictive. I should know. I may be the only law professor to have asked for cybersitter filtering software to keep me from surfing the Web too much at my office."

Ayres is not without his support either. After an article appeared in the New Haven Register entitled "Laptop surfing ban irks Yalies," one reader, Jack Sheehan, responded with his opinion at the Register's web site. Sheehan asked that Ayres continue his efforts "to restore decorum" and went on to say, "Continuing to accommodate the capricious behavior of today's students can only lead to the decline in society we see today. A lawyer filling the office of President of the United States lying, under oath, in a court of Law, and no one is outraged. Baseball players spitting in the faces of umpires and nothing happens. How can we expect young people to act in a manner befitting their place in our community if all they have are these examples." The following commenter, a member of the Class of 2002 who was directly affected by the ban, responded by saying he did not "understand the correlation between lying while under oath and surfing the Internet during class" and saying that he too was offended by the ban's paternalism.

New Haven community members also had the opportunity to respond to the article about Ayres's ban online on a message board called "Soundoff: Is the Yale professor right to limit the use of laptops in his classroom?" Community response ranged from "If they want to play games on their laptops and pay $30,000 and waste their education, that's their prerogative" to "Professor Ayres is absolutely right. The world must be coming to an end when clueless, undisciplined punks have infiltrated a place like Yale. Is it too much to ask to listen to the professor?" The majority of the remarks left on the message board supported Professor Ayres ban.

Sara, another student at Acadia University who uses her university-provided laptop to instant message his friends in class daily says that she feels in-class internet use will only become more common. "With wireless Internet appearing everywhere, I am sure that this is going to be the wave of the future. I can't imagine any professor banning it. They provide the service for us. Our school even hands out the computers. Why would a school install online capabilities in classrooms if they did not want students to have the option of going online during class?"

Ayres is nevertheless holding firm, continuing his ban up until he took a leave of absence for this semester. He told the Register that he is considering allowing surfing in the last row something like "a smoking section." A memo he passed around to other faculty has also convinced "one or two of them to adopt the same rule."


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