UMD Officials Resist Edicts on Laptops in Classrooms

By ZETTLER CLAY IV, Capital News Service/Maryland Newsline

COLLEGE PARK (March 19, 2010)—While a number of professors at area universities have banned laptops from their classrooms, officials at the University System of Maryland are staying outside the fray.

"We're more focused about the budget and the legislative session right now," said Theresa Hollander, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Yet some students are quietly lobbying—electronically, of course—to keep laptops on desktops.

Two days after The Washington Post ran a story about units or professors at Georgetown University, George Washington University, American University and the University of Virginia banning laptops, a teaching assistant and students in an Information 3.0 course at the University of Maryland College Park created the Facebook group, "Students For Laptops In Classrooms."

Professors "should not punish all students because of the few who just sit in class and play Farmville," sophomore Gabrielle Liverpool wrote in an e-mail about her support for the Facebook site. She added students learn better with laptops, because some professors rush through their material. Typing notes allows students to keep up, she said.

The pro-laptop group appears to share sentiments with a key member of the administration. Mahlon Straszheim, associate provost for academic affairs at the University of Maryland College Park, said that although the right to enforce a laptop ban is left to each department and to individual faculty members, banning laptops from the classroom would run counter to innovations the University of Maryland has made.

"The university has invested a lot in providing laptop access," he said.

And, he added, "It would be an enormous outcry if we were to enforce a ban (on laptops in class). Students have adapted to that way of life, and we have to as well."

But not all in academia share those views.

W. Joseph Campbell, a professor in the School of Communication at American University, said he began banning laptops in his discussion-based classrooms five years ago. He said too many students were e-mailing or instant messaging while he was talking.

"Discussions tend to be richer, and I think class is best facilitated, when there is no laptop," said Campbell. "I have never gotten any pushback from students on this issue."

Meanwhile, conversations on the College Park campus show divisions between those who think the laptops are a distraction and a nuisance and those who think they're a welcome classroom tool.

Associate Professor Cynthia Stevens, who teaches in the School of Business at the University of Maryland, enacted a laptop policy a year ago that fits somewhere in between. Frustrated by students sitting in the back of the classroom not paying attention and using their laptops, Stevens insisted that those students start sitting in the front.

At first, they were surprised. But now, they comply.

"I've definitely had better classroom discussions since," she said. "People who do use their laptops now are more apt to pay attention because they're more conscious of people behind them reading their screens."

UMCP Assistant Professor Christina Walter lets students bring laptops to her class, uses technological aids in her lectures, and has even received e-mails from students while class was taking place.

"It'll be hypocritical of me to say that students shouldn't use them," said Walter, who teaches in the Department of English. But, she said, she's conflicted about their use.

"It can be a mode of disrespect," she said. "It's hard to detect technology abuse."

Sarah Kim, a 20-year-old junior studying early childhood education, also sees both sides of the issue.

That doesn't mean she agrees laptops should be banned.

"Computers in classrooms have allowed us to take notes faster, as well as organize them," Kim said. "That's going to be real hard to go back from."

University of Maryland graphic design student Tait Woodward doesn't use her laptop in class often. She tried it before, but realized that it's more beneficial for her to take notes the old-fashioned way: by pen and paper.

That still doesn't stop Woodward from being distracted by other people's laptop use.

"When I see my classmates on their computers, I find myself wanting to see what's going on on Facebook, too," she said.

Dave Contino, a 20-year-old sophomore studying English, said students do spend a considerable amount of class time doodling around on their laptops.

"You want to make the argument that they should trust us, but if you look around the class, everybody is on Facebook," he said. "And quite frankly, it does come off as rude."

Ellen Park, a 20-year-old sophomore studying hearing and speech, sees a solution. If professors are to retain students' attention, they have to make class more engaging, she said.

"If teachers were prone to walk around the classroom, give pop quizzes and call on students to participate at random, then that would reduce laptop usage," she said.

Straszheim echoed Park's sentiments, stating that the university has to upgrade expectations in class, making class more intense to the point where students won't have time to "waste time on their laptops" and do things that take away from class.

"Ultimately, it's up to professors to keep their students' attention," Straszheim said.

And that is a constant battle, said University of Maryland doctoral student Eric Voorhies. Voorhies admits to using a laptop in class for pure escapism while an undergrad at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

"The only way to keep students' attention is to be more interesting than the distraction," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's a book or paper in front of them," or a computer.

"A bad lecturer is a bad lecturer, whether the student has a laptop or not.'

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