The New York Times recently published an article by a professor who was shocked at the outcry of his students when he requested that laptop computers only be used for purposes directly related to the class. This guy apparently had the nerve to ask his students to pay attention to him during the lecture instead of playing Minesweeper or surfing the net. The students apparently felt that, as long as their behavior was not causing a disturbance, these activities were a perfectly legitimate way to amuse themselves during parts of the lecture they found boring or irrelevant. Besides, they argued, before computers, people would doodle or daydream when they got bored.

This started me thinking about the growing number of K-12 schools that either allow or require students to use laptop computers or personal digital assistants (PDAs) in class. As these numbers grow, teachers almost certainly will find themselves addressing similar issues of classroom management and student attention. Adolescents often lack the mental discipline to pay attention to something they find difficult or that doesn’t come prepackaged as entertainment. Many teachers now have to compete with the distractions of the web, which are only a click away from the assigned lesson.

Some people would agree with the students in the Times article that bored students will always find ways to amuse themselves. Now, however, instead of passing notes in class, a student has the ability to exchange instant messages with his girlfriend in another class, or go online to chat with teens from across town. As far as the teacher can tell, he looks like he is furiously taking down notes from the lesson.

A critical question is whether frivolous classroom computer use is just a substitute for the daydreaming of a student who already has tuned out of a lesson, or whether it is something that is actually drawing an otherwise attentive student’s interest away from the task at hand. It seems clear to me that internet sites based in pop culture—whose sole revenue stream is dependent on capturing and holding the easily distracted adolescent’s interests—offer a very real threat to the decidedly less glitzy, more challenging, but intellectually grounded material being presented by the instructor. If this is, indeed, the case, then how can we help our easily distracted students stay on task?

One school of thought would be that personal computing devices have no place at all in a classroom unless the lesson explicitly calls for them. People in this camp would suggest that we not allow students to bring in their own laptops or PDAs, and that all note taking and class work be done the old-fashioned way—with pen and paper.

While most technology champions balk at this idea, I think it’s one that schools must consider unless all teachers are prepared to make fundamental changes to the way they run their classrooms. The traditional 45-minute lecture and discussion, which is invariably teacher-led, is no match for the allure of or a teen chat room. While most schools would argue that this is a methodology they would like to move away from, the reality is that old habits die hard, and there will always be some need for lecture and discussion. Schools should at least craft open-ended policies that give the classroom teacher the final say on whether or not students can use computing devices in their classrooms.

Just shy of this all-or-nothing approach is a technical solution that restricts access to student machines in various classrooms. At St. Benedict’s Prep, we have set up reservations on our Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server for the machines in labs that don’t always have an adult present. These reservations force all the machines in those labs to lease an address from a specified range of internet protocol (IP) addresses. We can then restrict access to that IP range at non-approved times of the day with our proxy server. Of course, for schools that can afford it, a layer 3 switch would accomplish the same thing and would be much easier to reconfigure on the fly.

Another technical way to address the problem would be to install some sort of lab management software on each student’s machine. Students who bring their own machine would be allowed to use it in class only if they agree to install the management software on their computers. There are a number of good products available. We evaluated several and decided to use LANSchool, from Utah-based Lan Fan Technologies. LANSchool allows the teacher or lab moderator to view and control any student machine in the lab or classroom remotely. The teacher can broadcast his own, or any student’s, screen to all the students in the class.

I’ve been using LANSchool in my Visual Basic class for a couple of weeks, and it works great. It’s easier for the students to see what I’m doing if it’s right in front of them on their own computer, rather than up on the screen at the front of the room. Students also take a great deal of pride in being chosen to demonstrate their solution to a problem to the rest of the students in the class. The fact that I can call on them without warning and bring up their screen for the entire class to see is terrifying enough to keep even the most distracted student from straying off into the wilds of the internet.

Of course, all the technology in the world is no substitute for a dynamic teacher. Teachers who vary their activities, engage reluctant learners with good questions, hold their classes immediately accountable for presented material, and design hands-on, engaging activities invariably will have fewer distracted students, regardless of how many laptops are in the classroom. A skilled classroom manager will position students and computers so she can see what they are doing. She will involve herself in the activity and create an atmosphere of personal accountability, in which class time is precious and not to be wasted.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that the information glut society throws at our students is a difficult temptation to resist. We need conversations about media literacy, in which we talk openly with our students about why these distractions are so tempting and why it’s important to practice paying attention, especially when things seem difficult or boring. Reviewing strategies for active listening also can help students become more disciplined listeners and better equipped to resist the temptation to wander.

The reality is that in the next three to five years, a good number of students will have access to the internet in classrooms—regardless of what policies the school implements. Just look at the number of students who have pagers and cell phones today, despite many schools’ rules against them. As the mobile internet grows, all of these devices have the potential to become useful sources of information or tempting distractions for the students sitting in our classrooms. It won’t be long before wireless broadband makes streaming video to handheld devices possible. Are the teachers in your school ready to compete with the “Ricki Lake Show”?