I got quite a few emails about the "Laptops in Classrooms!" screed.
Thought I'd post two of the emails I got from people who thought I got it wrong. Here is one. It is a bit long, but quite thoughtful, and from someone who has seen how things work.
Person 1: I appreciated your post, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that poor teaching deserves 90% of the blame for extended periods of student distraction.
But my anti-laptop views began to take shape during my first semester as a TA at [redacted] University. The professor was a phenomenal teacher, one of the best in our top-ten department. (I don't think I've ever seen a longer or heartier standing ovation for an instructor than the one s/he received at the end of his/her intro course.) There was a significant amount of student-teacher interaction (course enrollment was 80). And yet, a ridiculously high number of students had Facebook and other non-course-related sites up on the screen for ridiculously long portions of the class. From my perch at the back of her classroom, I could see most student laptops. Of course I knew students sometimes check email or Facebook or ESPN.com, but the sheer magnitude of the thing struck me (and I admit, scandalized me). I don't have any way of quantifying this in retrospect, but I can only say that I would bet a small fortune on the proposition that they spent more time more profoundly distracted with laptops than they would have spent distracted without them.
(Of course, I TA-ed for other classes with less talented professors, and level of web-wandering was astronomically high in these cases--approaching 90% of screen time spent on non-class-related pages. As you suggest, those professors were asking for it in some measure.)
This is my case study evidence, but I would make three further random points on this topic.
First, while I appreciate your point about web-based distraction as a mere substitute for daydreaming or doodling, I think there are important distinctions to be made here. This is probably a task for real social scientists, but my hunch is that web content is far more engrossing and tends to account for far lengthier bouts of distraction than daydreaming or doodling. Daydreaming can be fun, but checking Facebook updates is just so much easier on the imagination. I can't remember the last time I've daydreamed or doodled for, say, two hours. But two hours wasting time online? No problem. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone here.
Second-- and this is an explanation that I often give to students in small seminars (20 or under)-- laptops constitute not only source of distraction but also a physical barrier. It is hard to imagine having an excellent dinner conversation with little ten-inch plastic walls sitting in front of each guest. I think these little walls somehow denature or degrade the conversation. I'm here, but not completely. I would also add that they introduce seemingly endless voices and minds into the room whereas (inky view) the high-octane seminar is about the 10 minds in the room engaging one another and a text.
Third, I think laptops encourage stenography as opposed to listening and real note-taking. The pen and paper forces the student to digest material then and there, to discern what is most important, and to get it down. This requires listening, and it even leaves little time for critically evaluating what you're hearing and asking questions about it. Stenography not only doesn't require listening, I think it suppresses listening and critical thinking. (The court reporter is the last person I'd ask to tell me the highlights of the day's testimony. I'll talk to the journalist with the Steno pad.) So in this light, it seems that even the best students--those with Word open rather than Facebook-- are bad laptop users.
Fourth, and most intangibly, I think there is something freeing about removing the web as an option for students. (Here's dangerous claim about positive freedom.) They spend every minute of every day with the web as an option. For one blessed hour, three days a week, my students are free, absolutely free, from the alluring glow of the iPhone and the MacBook. Believe it or not, I think this makes them happy. I think they like to pay attention. But of course, they won't admit it...