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Laptops in the classroom: Mend it, don't end it

Teachers: Step down as the sage on the stage and learn to be the guide on the side.

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As they cross the academic finish line this month, college students might be groaning more than usual. That's because many of them have prepared for their exams with handwritten notes – the result of enduring a year of classes without their laptops.

The reason? More and more professors are banning them from the classroom. Laptops, they say, turn students into stenographers instead of critical thinkers, or, more often, distract them with online shopping or e-mail. These are the same laptops, mind you, that many schools required students to buy in the first place, and they connect wirelessly to a network that universities have spent millions to install. Technology fees and tuition hikes are hard to swallow for students taking notes with a pencil.

After a decade of infusing technology into university facilities with gusto, the bandwagon is crashing into the classroom door. Provosts and presidents can rewire facilities and require laptop purchases, but these innovations are for naught if professors use the same old lecture notes. Computers can transform the way students learn only if instructors change the way they teach.

As a teacher, I can confirm that most of us love to be the center of attention, and laptops threaten our fiefdoms. For years, we have pointed the desks toward us and shut the window blinds to maintain our monopolies. When we punish the class clown, it's not for being funny; it's for being funnier than we are. Admitting laptops into the classroom means facing the reality that in the competition for attention, our best lectures can't even beat solitaire.

To productively use laptops in the classroom, teachers need to be willing to surrender their supremacy. Students no longer need us for the facts because facts are instantly available on the Internet. Instead, they need us to help them figure out what to do with all that data. It's ironic that law school professors are leading the laptop backlash, since their discipline saw this trend coming decades ago when they stopped trying to teach the law and focused instead on teaching legal reasoning.

Teachers must step down from being the sage on the stage and learn to be the guide on the side. That change hurts for those of us who love the limelight, but it hurts less than losing out to Minesweeper. So what does a classroom look like when laptops have been successfully integrated?

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