You would think we were talking about contraband or something. You can't carry them on UK aircraft, coffee shops are starting to discourage them, and college campuses more or less require their use but their faculty show little more than contempt for them. Laptops and other wireless devices are great tools for students to retain information and recover information for just-in-time use in the classroom, or an avenue to express opinion when that expression is not possible or discouraged in the classroom. Why are many faculty against their use in the classroom?
Ask them and they'll usually give you a one-word answer: abuse. They caught an unsuspecting soul on GMail or Facebook or eBay and feel the urge to save students from themselves. For the most part, I suspect that these students are saving themselves from Death by Formal Pedagogy, but that is a subject for another post. Please do us all a favor, take some Latin and infuse this maxim into your souls: Ex abusu non arguitur in usum...Students have virtual lives, it is infused into everything they do, and universities actually encourage it...don't think for a second that they will happily leave their virtual lives at the door of your classroom just because you have a problem with it.
More nuanced, tolerant yet concerned faculty at least have legitimate concerns of distraction and engagement. They'll tell you stories (is that not what anecdotes are?) of their personal encounters with distraction and engagement...the most recent tale I've been regaled with was about how maintaining eye contact is vital to good relationships in a class, and how this enables you to have effective discussions with others. This line of reasoning suggests that effective discussions and good relationships are not easily had without eye contact, and insinuates that laptops, by stealing your gaze, actually make you a less effective discussant.
Being an on-again, off-again adherent to the idea that the plural of anecdote is not spelled d-a-t-a, I decided to do some very cursory digging. Turns out that data might suggest that "laptop students" demonstrate higher participation,learning interest, motivation and pressure to perform than their laptop-challenged counterparts. (Trimmel & Bachmann, 2004) Furthermore, their creativity, social intelligence and mental stress were no better or worse than the pen-and-paper set. And while I've yet to find anything directly salient to the concept of gaze and communication, I did find some information that suggests that this view of communication might be...for lack of a better term...sexist.
There is a growing body of work that looks at the persistence of nonverbal social norms on virtual worlds. Nick Yee's "The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital" discusses gaze and interpersonal distance (IPD) in both physical and virtual worlds. The literature review suggests that previous research has demonstrated gender differences in mutual gaze in the physical world. In particular, female/female dyads are more likely to exhibit mutual gaze than male-male dyads and mixed dyads. And males seem to have larger IPDs than females, with male-male dyads having the largest IPD, and female-female dyads having the smallest IPD. This is all superfluous until you get 5-10 students and 1 professor around a seminar discussion table. In comes the Equilibrium Theory, where research has shown that there is a harmony between gaze and IPD. The closer we are put to each other, the more we avert our gaze to return to that equilibrium state. Given that the average IPD is 12 feet, with males trending larger and females trending smaller, taking away laptops is likely to have no effect on male students (and generally annoy them if they're IT Ph.D. students)
However, being ever-at-the-ready to extend the hand of compromise, I am toying with the idea of doing my part of breaking the "wall of laptops" by stowing mine away...and pulling out my iPad... >:-)