Thanks to Adam Bramwell for sending this on.
I've had my laptop (aka: my first born) for exactly one year now. And I've gotta say: I have no idea how I lived without it. Not only because the OS is constantly making my drool and everything mac is just so purdy! and all that stuff, but also for "having a laptop" academic reasons.
In my classes where a handful of people always have a laptop open, there's a subculture of wired (well, I guess "wireless") students who are busy engaging in their own academic experience. The laptop-enabled students all grin simultaneously as they glance down at their screens. One raises his hand and brings up a point from a webpage he has on his monitor. This goes far beyond just taking class notes in Notepad and saving them to one's Desktop.
If you're standing in the front of a classroom, you're likely to notice that the Mac users are all doing the one-mind borgish thing. They all grin, then they all type, then they all listen. Chances are very high that they're all using SubEthaEdit to collaboratively take notes. One student types in the main content of what is being said. Another follows behind and corrects spelling mistakes while a third adds a few extra points. Perhaps another is ahead of the rest, creating structure for the rest of the document -- preparing HTML lists and section headings. Collaborative note taking doesn't just happen in the classroom. It's become a new fad for everything from conferences to meeting minutes to collaborative email composition and more.
One of the coolest uses of SubEthaEdit in the classroom that I've seen though is by a prof. While lecturing, SubEthaEdit was running in the background on the same document that the students were collaboratively taking notes in. Once the class was over, the prof was able to go over the students' notes to see what they got out of the class. What concepts did they interpret as being important? What concepts did they miss entirely? If several students collaboratively didn't understand a concept, chances are high that the whole class missed it. It's a brilliant and easy way to get a bit more feedback between students and lecturers.
Thus far, these collaborative notes haven't entered the sponsored course webspace in any courses that I've taken so far. But I can imagine taking a course where a notes wiki is available and the course notes can be published so that those without laptops can continue to engage in the collaboration by annotating the notes or adding other bits of information. Nothing for credit. Everything just because it makes everyone's life easier.
Aside from collaborative note taking, laptops in classes seem to spend a lot of time hanging around Google. The prof says, "Those of you familiar with Kruskal's algorithm will recognize a similarity in Prim's algorithm, which we'll be discussing today." And from my seat I can see two independent people Googling for Kruskal's algorithm. One lands on wikipedia and begins scanning through the definition. The other saves the search result to some bookmarks folder on his browser. I find that I exhibit a similar behaviour now when watching movies. I make mental notes of things that I want to Google later. "Is that true? Wow, I wanna learn more 'bout that." It's only natural that the desire to go into more detail extends to the classroom.
I know several profs who worry about laptops in the classroom; specifically about how distracting they can be to the students who are using them. Some students will spend the whole class reading their e-mail or chatting about random shit on IM. Rochelle's blog entry Distracted or Bored to Distraction? addresses this beautifully. Students will always find ways to deal with boredom in the classroom. If they have laptops, they'll check e-mail. If they don't, they'll throw paper airplanes at each other (coughSeancough), pass notes, read a book, etc. It doesn't require a laptop to be distracted or distracting.
Of course, until such a day where every student has a laptop the way every student carries a pencil, there are limits as to what kind of cool stuff can be done. But those who do have wireless access in the classroom can still benefit those who don't. For example, by asking questions enlightened by the wealth of googleable information. Or by posting collaborative course notes to a course wiki. Or (and I think this one is especially cool) lecture podcasting. Students are already recording lectures on little tape recorders. How much cooler would it be if they podcasted it for the rest of the class? C'mon, that'd rock. Though some lectures will always require a whiteboard to understand what's going on, the prof who just stands by his podium will be just as understandable via podcast. Especially if you already attended the class. Or have the slides available for download from home.
As I procrastinate from studying by writing up a few paragraphs about laptop and internet use in the classroom, I've gotta say: studying for exams would be a hell of a lot cooler if I had a course notes wiki to read through, lecture podcasts to listen to, and a set of course del.icio.us bookmarks to supplement everything else. It'd just totally rock. And, at least I feel, teach the students something useful in the process.