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Canada not following U.S. law school laptop bans

|Written By Matt Powell
Canada not following U.S. law school laptop bans

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.”

  • lawyer

    I cannot understand how the teachers are putting up with the use of laptops during their lectures. I am sure they are just as distracted as the students are facing all those laptops while trying to impart information.
  • mto
    From my perspective, as one who lectures in class, and as a member of the human race, it's a matter of respectful behaviour or, in this case, disrespectful behaviour. Paying to go to university does nto excuse one form being respectful.
    Woudl it be all rght for a student to be reading a newspaper in class?

    From the front of the class, it's easy to notice if a student is texting or not paying attention. A student can be told to stop and if s/he continues, to leave the class. The instructors have an obligation to the students to ensure that a level of respect is maintained in the class.

    We wouldn't ban newspapers from the classroom but we would insist that they aren't read during lecture time. Why can't we do the same with laptops. If you want to use them for notetaking or reviwing your ntoes duirng class, that's fine. Otherwise, leave.
  • MJ
    The problem is not with the technology per se, its the distraction factor - and I don't mean the distraction of those who are bothered by the tapping of keyboards.

    As a recent grad who used my laptop in class regularly, it got to the point where I was bored for 10 seconds, I'd surf to a newspaper or email someone. That would take a couple of minutes and by then, I would have missed something the prof. was saying or otherwise lost the plot - which made it that much harder to get back into the class, engage with the material, and, oh yeah, learn something.

    That, made me feel that classes weren't useful, which led me to read the paper or email whenever bored for a few seconds... and so the spiral went.

    Now, as an assistant to an adjunct, I can tell you that there is nothing more dispriting than watching a classroom full of students who are clearly lost to their computers. How interesting can you make a class when everyone refuses to engage?

    Sure, class isn't always thrilling, but "being interested" isn't something that just happens to you - it requires that you pay attention and engage with the material and the prof.

    Laptops and smartphones make it easy to mentally leave the classroom, but really hard to return to it - and that's the problem.

    By the way, we thought of banning computers - instead, we're opting to return to the "socratic method" - hoping that the fear of being called upon will keep everyone mentally present.
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    James Smith
    policy should not dictate our ability to use laptops, we pay for the laptops, and our school fees. If i want to type my notes, add hyperlinks to journals etc, i should have the right, i mean our tuition fees are what pays for the wireless capabilities on campus anyways. if other students get distracted by someone else in the class, that is their problem. No one is asking them to look at other people screens and get distracted, they have no one to blame but themselves. As for profs, deal with it, half of you are falling farther and farther behind in the technological gap anyways, if classrooms and virtual campus' were updated regularly or moderated to any sort of degree of the potential web based forms and discussion boards could achieve, maybe kids wouldn't be on social network sites or surfing the web. Perhaps the problem lies not with whats going on...but what isn't.