Actually I found this article amusing. The short version is that a law school professor has banned laptop computers in her classroom because "The computers interfere with making eye contact. You've got this picket fence between you and the students." Now more high school computer science teachers I know are very familiar with that problem. So are a lot of university faculty of course. They all teach in rooms where the students sit in front of computers. I doubt if may of us would object if taking notes was what students were doing but of course many of them are doing other things. What we have here is a classroom management issue.
I used to have a classroom adjacent to my computer lab where I could and did take my classes when I particularly needed them to pay attention. But to be honest that was as much a band aid as this professor's ban. There are several better solutions.
One is Tablet PCs. There really isn't much difference between a student taking notes using a Tablet PC and using paper and pencil. Well except that the Tablet PC can run OneNote which means that the notes can be searched (yes even hand written notes), shared, printed and edited later with the addition of all sort of graphics and links. I could go on an on about OneNote but I think it fair to say that it is an outstanding piece of software for taking notes.
Another way to solve the problem of the distracting laptop is to put something on the student's screen that is useful to the teaching process. Kevin Schofield talks about this on his education blog at On10.net and names ConferenceXP as a useful tool. Conference XP allows an instructor to send their PowerPoint slides to student laptops or Tablet PCs where the students can annotate them with their own notes. This software also lets instructors ask questions and display student answers. In short you can take advantage of the power of networks and computers to make the whole learning process more interactive. Talk about breaking down the fence between student and instructor!
I’ve heard a couple of people make one other interesting observation. If people in your classroom (or meeting room) are not paying attention to the speaker whose fault is it really? Is it the person at the computer or is it the fault of the people speaking? Are they really saying something interesting and worthwhile or are they boring and uninteresting? Now I’m sure the gut answer is “the teacher is saying things the student needs to know and they should be paying attention regardless of how bad the presentation is.” Well sure. Nice theory. But in today’s world were kids are growing up in a multi-media environment teachers (and meeting presenters) are going to have to do a bit more work on their presentation skills. They are going to have to seriously think about adopting modern tools as well.
One last thought. When was the last time you as a teacher took a course in presentation skills? Oh sure you are a teaching professional and know how to keep a class enthralled with your presentations. Kids never fall asleep during your lectures and they always absorb all that you present. If so can you teach others how to do it because I guarantee you that there are some teachers in your building who could use some help.
On the other hand maybe you could use a tune up? I took a day long workshop a couple of weeks ago and found it very useful. I'd last taken a workship of public speaking about 2 years ago. I think it is a good idea to brush up and learn new techniques on a regular basis. After all isn’t that what being a professional is all about?