RealTime IT News

Banned in Boston: Laptops at Harvard

Don't expect Harvard University Law School to slam its gavel and prohibit the use of wireless Internet access and laptops in classrooms.

But instructors at the elite school are deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to exile computers or pull the wireless plug after the bell rings.

"So far as I know, there is no proposal to ban laptops," Bruce Hay, a professor of law at Harvard, told InternetNews. "The current policy is that it's up to the individual professor whether to permit laptops in the class, and I'm quite sure that will remain the policy."

Hay is among a small group of instructors at Harvard Law who do ask their students to leave their laptops parked outside classrooms. Another teacher in the anti-laptop movement is law professor Elizabeth Warren. She said she nixes laptops because they interfere with class discussions and student participation.

"I personally think classes are better without them, so I ask students not to bring laptops," said Hay. "But, the faculty would never force a professor to keep laptops out of the classroom if he or she wanted to let the students use them."

Harvard is not alone in its struggle to control laptop and wireless Internet use in the classroom. Harvard's Business School already uses technology to block wireless access in some classrooms.

Plenty of colleges and universities across the country are also wrestling with how to deal with students using wired and wireless network access to illegally download and share music files, both in the classroom and in dorm rooms.

"I am seeing a huge pushback by the faculties of many schools about technology in the classroom," said Edmond Cooley, an assistant professor of engineering and head of new technology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "Laptops, Blackberries, cell phones, and so on are all being seen as distractions, not only for the students using them but for those around them as well."

Dartmouth has looked into blocking wireless access at specific times within classrooms, and professors often find themselves nudging students back to a lecture when they are caught Web surfing.

"My approach is always to give people the opportunity to do the right thing," said Cooley. "Failing that, the carrot and stick approach works well."

A far greater reason to ban laptops and wireless may be the potential top use them to cheat on exams, said Richard Ragin, assistant director of finance in Harvard's Department of Chemistry. "I think banning their use may become a growing effort. It can also be disruptive to hear the incessant clicking of keyboards."

The issue has galvanized many students at Harvard Law, who are concerned about a formal laptop ban at school, since many rely on wireless access during class time to access Lexis, Nexis and other data base resources. Many also oppose a general ban on laptop use. In an online survey conducted by Harvard’s Law School Council student group in April, 24.7 percent of the students polled supported a ban and 64.6 percent voted not to enact a general no-go policy.

"Students have a course scheduling program, so they know where they should be 24 hours a day, and whether they should be in class or not," said Michael Puglia, director of marketing at Bluesocket, which developed the wireless network and management system at Harvard Business School. The system can be used by instructors to limit or restrict wireless access during specific class times and individual areas.

"Professors can go into this system and grant or deny access for their classes," he noted. If a student logs in and finds Wi-Fi is restricted during a certain time, "we tell them they can't log in and should be in class now, and to please try again when class ends."