W. Joseph Campbell

On laptops in the classroom, and technology-driven myths

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on March 9, 2010 at 10:17 am

The front page of today’s Washington Post offers an interesting look at banning laptops in college classrooms.

The Post reporter spoke with me in researching the story, as I generally do not allow laptop use in my classes, a policy that dates at least five years. Typically, I mention my preference on the first day of class and thereafter rarely receive pushback from students.

And laptops in the classroom have never been mentioned in student evaluations of my teaching.

The Post article notes that wireless Internet connections in the classroom tend to “tempt students away from note-typing to e-mail, blogs, YouTube videos, sports scores, even online gaming–all the diversions of a home computer beamed into the classroom to compete with the professor for the student’s attention.”

True enough: Laptops can be a serious distraction, which is a principal reason I prefer not to see them open in the classroom.

But another factor, one the Post article doesn’t mention, is that of classroom etiquette.

It’s undeniably discourteous to be IM’ing or texting or sending email, especially in discussion-based classes.  It’s rude: Rude to the instructor, and rude to fellow students to be so dismissive of their contributions.

Laptops in classroom also can contribute, on occasion, to the frenzied circulation of technology-driven myths.

The Post article recalled an episode last week in the classroom of Professor Peter W. Tague at Georgetown Law School.

As part of an exercise on the importance of challenging sources who seem authoritative, Tague told the class that the Supreme Court chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., was retiring.


Students, the Post article noted, “promptly spread the news into the blogosphere. Later in class, Tague revealed that the tip was false, part of a lesson” on ascertaining source credibility. By then, however, the Roberts story had spread from students’ laptops to sources throughout the Internet.

The bogus report was posted at RadarOnline, which said Roberts (who is 55) was “seriously considering stepping down.” The DrudgeReport linked to the Radar post and, from there, it went viral–as recounted in delicious detail by the blog Above the Law.

The Radar report soon was knocked down–demonstrating anew how the Internet can rapidly disseminate media-driven rumors, and thoroughly debunk them as well.

The episode certainly confirmed the importance of Tague’s lesson about verifying the credibility of sources. It’s a lesson useful for journalists, too.

As I write in my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Getting It Wrong, the flawed and exaggerated reporting that characterized the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was driven, in part, by reliance on official sources.

“Usually,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the imprimatur of officialdom translates to adequate sourcing for journalists.” But in Katrina’s aftermath, the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin and the city’s police commissioner, Eddie Compass, “became the very public sources of alarming but false and exaggerated reports about their city and its inhabitants. And they offered their erroneous reports seemingly in all confidence, without equivocation or qualification.”

Nagin and Compass offered some of the most shocking reports about death and depravity in the disaster’s aftermath. Nagin, for example, estimated that the hurricane’s death toll in New Orleans would reach 10,000. And Compass went on the Oprah Winfrey show to tell of “little babies getting raped” at the Superdome, where thousands of evacuees had gathered.

None of it was true.

Journalists covering disaster must rely on public officials for critical details about casualties and relief efforts. But in doing so they can’t afford to shed the skepticism they’re encouraged to develop about the officials and personalities they cover.


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