April 16, 2000


The Laptop Ate My Attention Span

Issue in Depth
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    The latest issue on business school campuses? It's not whether to start your own dot-com before graduation, but whether you should be allowed to use your laptop in the classroom as you please.

    While more and more schools -- especially business schools -- provide Internet access in class and require students to lug their laptops with them, some are imposing rules on what their students can and cannot do with them in class.

    But why, in the sedate hallways of graduate schools, is there need for debate on rules of discipline? It seems that some students, although smart enough to earn MBAs, have not figured out how the old, generally unwritten rules of conduct apply to the wired classroom. More and more students are sending instant messages to one another (chatting and note-passing, 21st century-style), day trading (as opposed to daydreaming) and even starting their own companies, all in class.

    The resulting commotion has annoyed many students. Jen McEnry, 28, a second-year MBA student at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, recalled that a classmate once downloaded an e-mail attachment during a finance lecture. The attachment automatically turned on the sound on the student's computer, which then delivered a booming message: "Oh my God, I'm watching porn!" Everyone roared at the practical joke, but the problem was clear.

    "It's distracting when people are day trading, checking their e-mails or surfing the Web," McEnry said. All the more distracting because Darden relies heavily on classroom participation.

    At Columbia University, the business school's newspaper reported that a student-run "chat room" ended up on the overhead projector in the middle of class. University officials denied the report. But by January, cyberspace had so intruded on classroom space at Columbia that a committee of professors and students came up with a code of professional conduct.

    "We're trying to find ways professors and students can use technology effectively and appropriately to create leaders," said Jeff Derman, a second-year MBA student who heads the panel.

    Yet how can MBA students, whose average age is about 28 nationally, not know that it's rude to click away in class? After all, they presumably know not to walk out in the middle of a lecture, however boring. The rules of etiquette shouldn't change just because of technology.

    Still, some business schools have gone beyond issuing rules. Two years ago, Darden officials installed a switch in each classroom; a professor can program it to shut down the students' Net-surfing at fixed times. The students, however, found that they could override the teacher's decision by sneaking over before class and flicking the switch back on. It became a kind of game, the Battle of the Button.

    The students spent hours arguing the broader issues. Should computers be banned from class? (No, we're adults! We pay to be here!). Should networks be shut off? (Of course not! Web access is an inalienable right!) Should professors be able to turn off the systems? (That's, like, so 1984!)

    Blood started to boil: Students got mad at professors, professors got mad at students, students got mad at each other and everyone cursed technology. Why should they have to deal with all this when all they really wanted to do was learn how to be a millionaire?

    McEnry proposes a standard of reasonable necessity. "If I'm expecting something important, like news about a job or something, then it's OK to go online," she said. "There are really pressing issues in people's lives, and they need to have access."

    She's not kidding. McEnry found out that she had been elected president of the Student Association after her friends found the news on the school's Web site and told her. In class.

    At the Columbia business school, Safwan Masri, vice dean of students and the MBA program, takes a temperate tone. "These kids have grown up with computers; they can multitask," he said, explaining why Columbia decided against a Web shutdown switch. "We don't want to act as police. They're adults. We'd like to think they can control themselves."

    I agree. Let them control themselves. And if they can't, here's my suggestion to them: Take a computer to the Metropolitan Opera. Log on. Write e-mail. Check your portfolio. At the end of the night, you'll be lucky to still have a computer.

    Abby Ellin is a Manhattan writer. Her column on starting out in the world of money appears the third Sunday of each month. E-mail:

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