In the Chronicle today there is an article about a Law professor who has banned laptops from his classroom. The article notes that in this day and age, doing so is a very bold move by a professor. Some students claim that they can't receive a good education without their laptops. While some students need to take notes on a computer due to some learning difficulty, most students in my experience just surf the net, play games, do some online shopping, and IM their friends (who also may be in the class). When I TA, I often now sit up front so that I don't have to see the sea of computers with everything on their screen except their note sheet. Is banning them the solution? One could argue that, with laptops or not, students will be distracted. They will just stare listlessly out the window, or, uh, do what I did when I was bored in class--doodle.
But doodling is NOT as much a temptation as whatever games you have on your computer, checking your email, and IMing your friends. After a few minutes of doodling, you get bored with that too, so you might as well listen to the lecture. With the laptops a greater number of students seem to be distracted than without them. The biggest problem here is the internet. With more and more campuses going wireless, laptop distraction is much worse than when having a laptop meant the only distractions would be minesweeper.
Proponents of keeping laptops in classrooms claim, however, that they can enrich the discussion. I have seen this happen perhaps once or twice in the past few years...the professor forgot something very specific like a date or the result of a particular court ruling and a student found it within seconds on the internet and we could discuss a document that was on the internet easily because it was on everyone's screen.
This law professor says that by banning the laptops, there was a marked increase in class participation.
In a discussion-based classroom, the laptop, I think, should be banned. 1) In a discussion-based class, you probably aren't taking very many notes to begin with, because you are supposed to be engaged with your classmates and the discussion leader. 2) laptops, in addition to the distractions on the internet, create psychological distance between the speaker and everyone else--in discussion, we need to see your face and the laptop creates a barrier. A discussion-based class has a different advantage, however...I have heard of professors who walk around during discussions, and, by doing so, they can monitor students' screens.
For a lecture-based class, I am not sure... On the one hand, students will probably be taking LOTS of notes, and therefore the laptop seems to be the way to go. But those classes are also more likely to use tests (midterm and final) more than a discussion-based class, and oftentimes students who are now used to typing on their laptops get pretty bad hand cramps when writing out their in-class finals. Although I never used a laptop in college and I still got hand cramps on final exams. During my orientation for teaching Lit Hum next year, we were told that it might be a good idea to give some in-class writing assignments throughout the semester just so that we can get the students used to writing out a lot to prepare them for the handwritten final.
One final problem here is pedagogy: most college professors have terrible pedagogy. They have not been taught how to teach and, although this is changing at the moment, usually professors are rewarded far more for research than for their teaching abilities--so, guess where they spend most of their time? Because so many professors lack pedagogical training, they can be dreadfully boring in class. In such cases, people will be doodling or surfing the net.
Overall, with the advance of technology, there always seem to be drawbacks!