By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
On a windy morning in downtown Washington, a hundred Georgetown Law students gathered in a hall for David Cole's lecture on democracy and coercion. The desks were cluttered with books, Thermoses and half-eaten muffins.
Another item was noticeable in its absence: laptop computers. They were packed away under chairs, tucked into backpacks, powered down and forgotten.
Cole has banned laptops from his classes, compelling students to take notes the way their parents did: on paper.
A generation ago, academia embraced the laptop as the most welcome classroom innovation since the ballpoint pen. But during the past decade, it has evolved into a powerful distraction. Wireless Internet connections tempt students away from note-typing to e-mail, blogs, YouTube videos, sports scores, even online gaming -- all the diversions of a home computer beamed into the classroom to compete with the professor for the student's attention.
"This is like putting on every student's desk, when you walk into class, five different magazines, several television shows, some shopping opportunities and a phone, and saying, 'Look, if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it,' " Cole said.
Professors have banned laptops from their classrooms at George Washington University, American University, the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia, among many others. Last month, a physics professor at the University of Oklahoma poured liquid nitrogen (watch "Professor destroys laptop" on YouTube) onto a laptop and then shattered it on the floor, a warning to the digitally distracted. A student -- of course -- managed to capture the staged theatrics on video and drew a million hits on YouTube.
Cole was among the first professors in the Washington region to ban laptops, in the 2006-07 academic year. He found them an "attractive nuisance." It was a bold decree: Georgetown had only recently begun requiring that first-year law students own laptops, after painstakingly upgrading the campus for wireless Internet access.
Just last week, a colleague of Cole's unwittingly demonstrated how thoroughly the Internet has colonized the classroom. When Professor Peter Tague told students a canard about Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stepping down, students promptly spread the news into the blogosphere. Later in class, Tague revealed that the tip was false, part of a lesson on credibility, according to the blog Above the Law.
The laptop computer, introduced in 1981, has become nearly obligatory on campus; some colleges require them. They are as essential to today's student as a working stereo system was to their parents.
"My laptop lives with me. I'm always on it," said Madeline Twomey, 20, a George Washington junior.
Twomey has used a computer since age 6 and had her first laptop at 15. She senses a widening generation gap. "Most professors, even at their youngest, they're in their 30s," she said. "They don't understand how much it's become a part of our lives."