April 16, 2000
The Laptop Ate My Attention Span
Issue in Depth
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By ABBY ELLIN
he 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
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
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: