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Professors Vie With Web for Class's Attention


Universities are rushing toward a wireless future, installing networks that let students and the faculty surf the Internet from laptop computers in the classroom, in the library or by those ponds that always seem to show up on the cover of the campus brochure.

But professors say the technology poses a growing challenge for them: retaining their students' attention.


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In a classroom at American University in Washington on a recent afternoon, the benefits and drawbacks of the new wireless world were on display. From the back row of an amphitheater classroom, more than a dozen laptop screens were visible. As Prof. Jay Mallek lectured graduate students on the finer points of creating and reading an office budget, many students went online to, a Web site that stores course materials, and grabbed the day's handouts from the ether.

But just as many students were off surfing. A young man looked at sports photos while a woman checked out baby photos that just arrived in her e-mailbox.

The screens provide a silent commentary on the teacher's attention-grabbing skills. The moment he loses the thread, or fumbles with his own laptop to use its calculator, screens flip from classroom business to leisure. Students dash off e-mail notes and send instant messages. A young man who is chewing gum shows an amusing e-mail message to the woman next to him, and then switches over to read the online edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Distraction is nothing new. As long as there have been schools, students have whispered, passed notes and even gazed out the window and daydreamed. The arrival of laptop computers, however, introduced new opportunities for diversion, and wireless introduces an even broader range of distraction, said Dylan Brooks, a senior broadband and wireless analyst at Jupiter Communications.

"They could have played solitaire or Minesweeper before," Mr. Brooks said. "Now they can do that or seven million other games, or watch a full-length feature film."

This is especially galling to law professors, many of whom still live in the world depicted in "The Paper Chase," the 1973 film in which an imperious Prof. Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. held his students in terrified thrall.

"This is an addictive thing that hurts the students themselves," said Ian Ayres, a professor at the Yale Law School who opposes much of the Internet's entry into the classroom, saying that computer use is rude and that other students are "demoralized" by seeing their peers' attention wander.

"When you see 25 percent of the screens playing solitaire, besides its being distracting, you feel like a sucker for paying attention," Professor Ayres said.

Unless law students are fully engaged in the class, he said, they miss out on the give and take of ideas in class discussion and do not develop the critical thinking skills that emerge from "deeply tearing apart a case."

Professor Ayres tried to prohibit all Internet use in his classroom. The students "went ballistic," he said, and insisted that their multitasking ways made them more productive and even more alert in class.

Lately, he said, he has loosened the restrictions, telling students they could surf from the back rows, so others would not be distracted.

One professor at a law school in Texas became so upset by the level of student distraction in 2001 that he took a ladder to school, climbed up to reach the wireless transmitter in his classroom ó and disconnected it. The students protested. The administration told him to plug it back in. But the point was made, he said, and he regained the attention of the class.

In 2002, he told his students that they could not use laptops in his class at all, even for taking notes.

"It has made an enormously positive difference to shut those computers off," he said.

Today's college students are a truly wired generation. A study in 2002 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington found that 86 percent of students have gone online, compared with 59 percent of the general population. Although the study did not focus on wireless technology, the authors did delicately predict that "issues readily apparent with the spread of cellphones, such as etiquette and distraction, are likely to emerge as students are able to access the Internet anywhere, including in classrooms."

Dozens of colleges are going wireless, including Dartmouth, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, the University of California at San Diego and the University of Minnesota.

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Professors vs. Computers
Professors must fight with technology for students' attention. Prof. Jay Mallek and a student, Brian Betz, exchanging data on wireless laptops at American University.

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