The use of laptops in university classrooms is not a new phenomenon, and today, wireless Internet is nothing new either. While students may love using them, laptops in the classroom aren’t always welcome.
Following laptop and wireless bans from a number of American law schools, will Canadian schools follow suit and get students involved in the classroom again?
The University of Chicago made the first move in April 2008, cancelling wireless Internet services to its classrooms. More recently, Villanova University’s School of Law has allowed its professors to start banning laptops in class.
Despite these actions, Canada’s law faculties have yet to officially take a stance on the issue.
The University of Victoria leaves it to the discretion of its professors, according to Thomas Winterhoff, communications officer at the university’s law faculty.
“There is no formal laptop policy at the University of Victoria,” says Winterhoff. “It is up to the professors to determine whether or not laptops are appropriate for the class.”
University of Manitoba Faculty of Law professor Anne McGillivray says the number of students in higher years using laptops is generally lower than that of students in first and second year.
She says she was surprised by the amount of laptop use for non-academic purposes after sitting in the back of a first-year lecture in September.
“I was shocked by the amount of students using Facebook, and playing poker,” she says. “I was sitting with a group of graduate students in the back of a lecture, and couldn’t believe the number of students surfing the net instead of taking notes.”
McGillivray says the law faculty has not cancelled Wi-Fi service, but says she generally expects laptop users to sit in the back of the class to avoid distracting non-users.
She says the use of laptops has been encouraged by the university’s administration. Now, as some non-users get more and more distracted in class, they are speaking up about the issue.
She once caught a student searching for a recipe for venison as he had shot one the weekend before. “I gave him a good recipe,” she says.
On the other hand, McGillivray admits to making use of the Internet in class, by assigning students online readings and links to information regarding the courses she teaches. She says that it’s been an experimental process, but that the students have generally accepted it.
At the University of Ottawa, Ellen Zweibel, a vice dean and professor of the common law section, says smartphones are becoming an issue too. Like other Canadian schools, Ottawa does not have a formal laptop policy.
“There has been a lot of discussion in the hallways about laptops, and how people are becoming increasingly frustrated with the level of distraction they cause to students who choose not to use them,” she says.
“I have asked students to put their laptops away in the past, but when I do, students tend to get out their BlackBerry and start texting.”
Like a lot of professors who have had to adapt to students using technology, Zweibel admits to posting her class notes online on course web sites.
The issue, she notes, is about more than just using laptops in class.
“It is this electronic addiction that is hard to deal with,” she says. “Everyone has laptops, we all have cellphones.
“It is two-sided: laptops and the Internet are useful for academic resources, but a lot of students don’t take advantage of that. Cellphones are the alternative now because of their wireless abilities. There is no way to truly police it.”