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“The student next to me was watching Jurassic Park on his laptop.”

A student dropped by this week to complain about other students watching movies or playing video games on laptops in class. It’s distracting, he claimed, when you’re trying to focus on a difficult concept while a screen in the seat next to you shows a t-rex eviscerating Jeff Goldblum.

I had to concede the point.

He praised a few of his professors who had taken hard lines against gadgets in classrooms. One of them compels students to put their gadgets in pouches that block cell signals at the beginning of class. Another marks a student late if he catches the student texting or looking at something irrelevant in class time once; if he catches the student a second time that day, he marks the student absent, on the theory that if the student’s attention was that badly divided, he was effectively absent.

In talking it through, though, the gadget question is tricky.

Certainly, some uses of laptops in class are inappropriate.  He mentioned a student who had been caught by the professor viewing porn in class; I can’t even imagine trying to maintain dignity after that.  For students who struggle with attention deficit issues, or who may have certain psychological triggers, being bombarded with inappropriate or out-of-place material can really get in the way of focusing.  To the extent that college is supposed to prepare students for successful job performance, learning to go an hour or two without screens is a crucial skill.  

But it’s too easy to assume that all distractions are electronic, or that all electronics are distractions.  

I drew on the benefit of advancing age to assure him that before laptops, students found other ways to not pay attention. Some of them involved crossword puzzles, some involved doodling, and some involved staring into space. My own high school and undergraduate notes feature fairly prolific doodles as monuments to boredom or distraction. But my own aimless doodling affected only me; if I’d had the option of watching a movie on a laptop screen, it could easily have distracted other people. That’s a key difference.

The campus has surprisingly good wifi, which is a mixed blessing. It enables access to all manner of online resources, which is great. And it enables streaming all sorts of things in class, which may or may not be.

It can be tempting to try some sort of blanket ban, or to recommend that professors do, but that would put a crimp in legitimate research.  If a student is doing a paper on, say, the ways that LGBTQ prisoners are treated, some of the material might be a little raw. A blanket ban on YouTube would get in the way of some really useful instructional videos for math classes. Back when I did interlibrary loan duty as a work-study student, I chuckled when I saw a request for an early 1960’s article from Playboy. But when I saw that the article itself was an interview with Malcolm X, I really couldn’t argue with it.

Policies written around particular gadgets tend to get leapfrogged by technology. Ban laptops and people will bring phones. Ban phones and they’ll have smartwatches. Better to focus on the action -- unauthorized recording, say -- than on the device with which they do it.

And banning tech assumes that its only uses are nefarious, which simply isn’t true. I’ve seen professors ask students to use their phones as clickers to answer multiple-choice questions in class, which strikes me as a brilliant, if limited, application.  In classes with Open Educational Resources, the textbooks themselves may be electronic, and therefore require gadgets to read. As a fan of OER, I can’t very well be against the gadgets they require.  And of course, some gadgets are there to allow students with visual or auditory disabilities to participate more fully; in those cases, objection would miss the point entirely.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a gadget policy done well? Should a college simply leave policies like that to the discretion of individual professors, or is there something reasonably useful across the board that wouldn’t unduly restrict academic freedom?  Is there a way to protect access to Khan Academy without also allowing the blaring of scenes of dinosaurs chomping on movie stars?

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