On-campus internet access: educational or distracting?

Sean Irwin

Instructors have long had to fight to keep the attention of their students, and with the proliferation of wireless Internet hotspots and laptops capable of using them, the fight has escalated. Surreptitious pleasure reading, cell phone texting, and completing homework for other classes are all popular distractions for students in class, but never before has there been a device with as many attention-diverting capabilities as a laptop computer with wireless accessibility. Many instructors across America have banned laptops, regardless of their note-taking capabilities, so great is their fear of the Web’s distraction. But the potential profit of classroom Internet access should outweigh this fear. As long as students aren’t distracting others from their academics, instructors should not interfere, especially in a college setting.

It’s true, students can use the Internet to shop, check e-mail, play streaming video games, watch videos, and browse Facebook or MySpace. On the other hand, the Web can provide countless Web sites that provide academic aids on the fly, such as dictionaries, foreign-language text translation, scientific journals, and newspaper articles. Search engines such as Google can offer plenty of relevant information sources. Articles on the peer-edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia can be a quick primer in the middle of a fast-paced lecture.

The Internet can be a great resource for background or tangential information, or even to fact-check for an in-class project. This same immediacy that instructors fear fuels the fire of student distraction is what makes internet access on portable computers so useful in the classroom.

Instructors who attempt to win the attention of their students by banning technology will always be fighting a losing battle, and college instructors in particular need to recognize that they should not take student distraction personally. If they do, there’s a simple way to combat this tendency towards distraction: be more engaging. The fact that instructors have to compete with the Internet could be a good thing. When those who teach must refine their teaching habits and make a bigger effort to engage students, everybody benefits. And makes lectures more interesting.

Instructors must give students a reason to pay more attention, because in the end, it’s the student who must make this choice. This isn’t the real world yet, but it’s not high school either.

Banning laptops or cutting off wireless access in attempts to enforce greater attention is demeaning. College students are adults. If students want to wager their grades against the ability to monitor their auction bids on eBay, this is their prerogative. It is up to the individual, not the instructor, to decide whether he or she is going to pay attention in class.