Nabbing the note-passers in a wired classroom

Two colleges on the cutting edge of Internet technology are pioneering solutions to a growing problem: students paying more attention to computers than to professors.

Bentley and Babson colleges, both in the Boston area, were among the first in the nation to wire their classrooms for the Internet. And now they're spending tens of thousands of dollars on software and hardware that lets professors block some Internet access in classrooms with network connections.

"Faculty members were finding students surfing the Net, sending instant messages, even looking at porn in some of the freshman intro classes," says Phillip Knutel, Bentley's director of academic technology.

As another deterrent, some classrooms at Bentley have technology that allows teachers to capture a student's e-mails or instant messages and display them on a large screen for the whole class to see.

The schools don't censor which sites students can visit on the Internet. Instead, a professor can choose whether classes have access to the entire Internet or just the school's internal network. Professors can also block e-mail and instant messaging.

Babson math professor Joe Aieta says his students have told him the temptation to use the Internet during class is too great when it is at their fingertips. That's why Mr. Aieta occasionally limits their access. "They think they can keep up with the classwork while sending and receiving messages," Aieta says. "But they acknowledged that it didn't always work so well."

Babson freshman Patrick Lehner says the network-blocking software doesn't bother him that much. "Are students here happy or proud about it? Probably not," he says. "But there's a good lesson to be learned from it. It might help rebuild people's habits so that they focus more."

Bentley, which in 1985 became one of the first US colleges to require undergraduates to have computers, first implemented the blocking technology last year. Babson had a primitive version of the software installed three years ago.

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