Should laptops be allowed in class?

Click, click, click! Walk into any classroom at my high school, Shalhevet — and probably most high schools around the city — and you may very well hear clicking. A new trend has erupted, as more and more students bring their laptops to class.

Laptop use involves a lot of controversy, from students who believe they should be used to their maximum potential to those who don’t want to see laptops at all.

“It’s a distraction to people next to them and to themselves when they are playing games or checking e-mail when they should be taking notes,” Shalhevet sophomore Tannis Presser said.

“I am pro using laptops in class,” sophomore Dana Silver said. “I’m a slow writer and a fast typer, so it’s easier for me to keep up in class when I use a laptop.”

A 2004 study reported in USA Today claims that laptops and hand-held computers help with schoolwork and improve grades. Scientists gave laptops to 25 students from Yankton High School in South Dakota during the first quarter of the year, and found that test averages of students with laptops increased, on average, by 5.7 percent.

Test scores rose 3.2 percentage points for students without laptops, although a teacher at Yankton High School said, “Those with laptops may have simply been better students.”

The 24 students with laptops had higher grade-point averages than the students who didn’t use laptops — a 3.26 GPA, compared to 2.82 among 21 students without laptops.

Results like these have people wondering if students without laptops are at a disadvantage.

“I don’t think it puts me at a disadvantage [not using a laptop] because I memorize everything, so a laptop wouldn’t help me,” Shalhevet junior Roee Raviv said.

At Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school with a dual Judaic and general studies curriculum, laptops are used more frequently in classes like history and English, perhaps because it’s more important to take notes there.

“Its really helpful for me [to use a laptop] in AP U.S. [history] because I can take notes really fast, but in certain classes it’s not really helpful,” junior Adira Vinograd said.

“You shouldn’t use a laptop in math or science classes because of all the diagrams and calculations you need to do with a pen and paper,” senior Guy Harel said.

Some students feel that laptops enhance the academic atmosphere.

“It doesn’t take away from the atmosphere because we live in a modern time, our technology should be as modern as our time,” freshman Shmulek Sabo said.

A one-day undercover investigation at Shalhevet found that more than half the students with laptops open in class were not taking notes, but instead using them to check e-mail, Facebook or Fantasy Basketball rankings.

Many classes didn’t have anyone using laptops, and out of an average of 17 students per class, about one to five were using laptops in classes that allowed it.

What do the teachers have to say about using laptops?

“I’ve banned it, because I didn’t like it from the beginning, after giving it a semester,” Shalhevet social studies teacher Keith Nadel said. “It’s a distraction and I won’t stand for it. If anyone truly is at a disadvantage for whatever reason, then it’s fine.”

Jewish history teacher Miriam Stern agreed.

“There’s a couple reasons for laptops being a hindrance to learn,” Stern said. “They contain many distractions — Internet, IM, Facebook and games, just to name a few. It’s hard for a teacher to monitor what they are doing.

“A lot of students think that they can multitask,” she added, “but some people aren’t as good at is as they think.”

Some teachers are ready to accommodate and keep a closer watch on students with laptops.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Judaic studies teacher Rabbi Naftali Richler said. “Since computers are a way of life, you can’t take them away.”

Math and chemistry teacher Christopher Buckley has a policy for the students using laptops in his class. At any moment, he may yell out, “E-mail me your notes now!” and students with laptops open need to e-mail what they’ve presumably been working on.

Shalhevet does not have a uniform regulation about laptop use in class, leaving it up to the discretion of teachers.

Incoming head of school Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach is generally in favor of laptops, saying he personally loves technology and views it as a useful learning tool, while recognizing that it can be a distraction. If the administration were to institute a policy on laptops in class, he said, it would be made with “all shareholders in mind.”

No matter what the school says, there will probably always be students tapping away on laptops scattered throughout the hallways. Whether they will remain in the classrooms as well is yet to be seen.

Emma Lipner is a sophomore at Shalhevet High School and features editor of The Boiling Point, where this article first appeared.

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Have laptop, will prosper

Last Shabbat at Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe stood at the bimah to deliver his sermon — and whipped out his laptop.

I wasn’t there, but I was told not a few of the congregants at the mainstream Conservative shul balked — what was coming out next, his cell phone? Observant Jews don’t use such devices on the holy day of rest; he might as well have whipped out a broiled lobster and drawn butter.

“I expect this to be the first and last time I open a laptop on the bimah,” Wolpe said.

Wolpe didn’t actually start checking e-mail and, say, He brought out the small, colorful laptop to push his congregants to participate in a remarkable, world-changing program called One Laptop per Child.

One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is the name of a USA-based nonprofit launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte and faculty members of the MIT Media Lab, with the goal of bringing computer technology to the children of the developing world.

Over the past two years it has created a brilliant piece of machinery, the XO-1, a water-, dust- and shock-proof, web-ready hi-tech wonder that uses open source (i.e., free) software and miniscule amounts of energy, energy that can be suplied via a hand crank or solar panel. One Sinai congregant suggested the XO-1 is the ideal computer to have around for when “The Big One” strikes.

The original idea was to create a “$100 laptop” that governments in developing countries could buy en masse and distribute to their children. “It’s an education project, not a laptop project,” Negroponte has said. Some 15 countries have committed to the program, including Rwanda and Libya — the latter signed an agreement to supply laptops to all of its 1.2 million schoolchildren, according to The New York Times.

But even committed countries wouldn’t buy a quarter million XO-1s until the product was proven, and the price couldn’t drop to $100 without selling more laptops. So Negroponte and company devised Plan B: the Give One, Get One program. For a limited time — until Nov. 26 — they are offering American and Canadian consumers the opportunity to purchase an XO for a child in your life, while donating another to a child in a developing nation. The cost with shipping works out to about $400, which includes a year of free T-mobile wireless Internet access. Because one of those laptops is headed to Cambodia or Chad, $200 of the price is a tax-deductible contribution.

Earlier this month, Wolpe met Negroponte at the home of Internet entrepreneur Dan Adler, a local project booster, and the rabbi was sold. Shortly thereafter he sent an e-mail out to the thousands of people on the Sinai list.

“This program,” he wrote, “which involves all faiths and nations, is an attempt to bring computers, curricula, and education to the very poorest parts of the world. By purchasing one remarkably inexpensive — yet remarkably effective — computer, you will enable a poor child to receive a computer as well…. Let us join people from all over the world seeking to help those who crave knowledge, information, and connection. These computers work without electricity and are specially designed to enable the poorest children to benefit. The Talmud teaches that Jews are rachamim b’nei rachamim — merciful people and the children of merciful people. Please show your mercy to children all over the world.”

But it’s not just about mercy; what makes this project resonate from a Jewish pulpit is how it provides children not with sustenance, but with the tools to sustain and enrich themselves.

Last month The Templeton Foundation asked a range of experts a simple question, “Can money solve Africa’s development problem?”

The experts agreed that Africa’s poverty comes not from lack of money or resources, but from the inability to unleash the best entrepreneurial spirit of the African people.

“The problem in Africa has never been lack of money, but rather the inability to exploit the African mind,” wrote James Shikwati, CEO of The African Executive business magazine.

Critics of Negroponte have pointed out that children in poor countries need clean water and malaria pills, not laptops. Building libraries is more cost effective than supplying machines, they say. Of course, none of these needs are mutually exclusive. But even so, there is something noble and brilliant in Negroponte’s idea that giving children the tools of a 21st century education will enable their societies to leap, rather than crawl, forward. In the computer age, one entrepreneur with a laptop can change the world — ask the 23-year-old who created Facebook — but first that brilliant kid needs a laptop.

There are a lot of things I could have written about this week — a certain conclave in Annapolis comes to mind — but here before us is this concrete chance to demonstrate our gratitude for all we have by sharing our gifts with others, and we have just until Nov. 26 to do it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Visit the Give One, Get One program @