Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | April 18, 2008

Restricting internet access in classrooms

I’m a bit late to this story, but I still want to talk about it. Last month at the University of Chicago Law School, administrators turned off internet access to classrooms. The dean of the law school first wrote in his email to students, “I therefore ask, respectfully but emphatically, that you use computers in class only for class-related purposes.” Then he told them the university shut off internet access in classrooms, just to be sure.

I feel the need to take a stand on this issue. I teach college courses at the University of Texas at Austin (and at North Carolina State University before that), and yes, there are students in my classroom who use their laptops. And I am sure many of them are on Facebook and Gmail or shoe shopping or IMing friends or whatever. But I’m also sure that some of them are doing productive things related to classwork.

I can’t count the number of times we’ve been talking about something and I can’t remember an exact date or statistic and one of my students has quickly looked it up. When all students can connect to the internet, our classrooms become interactive spaces for learning, where we can pull in information from that wonderful world wide web to help us delve more deeply into an issue. It’s a great feeling, knowing that we can find anything we want to help us learn more about a topic, knowing that we don’t have to depend solely on the textbook and my knowledge of a topic.

And so what if some students are using Facebook in class? I’ve been a student myself and there are days when class was boring or redundant or just not on the top of my list. Why can’t I use my time in a way I prefer? It can be disrespectful or rude, but it also is just part of life in the classroom. Students are going to do it, no matter how many rules and suggestions we make to the contrary.

As an instructor, I’ve learned there are a few things I can do to address this issue:

  1. I can ignore it, just like we ignore so many things students do in the classroom.
  2. I can call out students who are doing it; I’ve found that embarrassing them a little works well.
  3. I can make my classroom a more interesting place where students are engaged and don’t want to be on Facebook.

If students have a choice in terms of what they pay attention to, of course they’re going to choose the thing that’s more interesting and useful. If I’m just droning on about material that’s covered in their textbook, why do they need to listen to me? I need to go beyond textbooks and boring lectures, and create an interactive and valuable learning environment. When I do that, students are actively involved in class and not doing other things.

With internet access, students can upload notes to their wikis and webspaces, look up definitions for new terms, IM each other to clarify questions. There are myriad practical, productive uses for the internet in the classroom, and simply shutting off access because of the potential distractions seems like the wrong way to address these issues.

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