what’s wrong with a little backchannel?

In what may be seen a a blow to laptops in classrooms, at least by people who read something in a newspaper and think, "See! There's the proof! End of discussion…," the Washington Post published an article titled "Wide Web of diversions get laptops evicted from lecture halls." Somehow, in the discussion of what is appropriate for law school students to be doing during their lessons, the article manages to bring up digital natives, ubiquitous computing, and World of Warcraft. 

But they're probably not overreacting, right?

I'm looking at this from two perspectives. 

First off, as someone teaching students about using online tools and trying to shift his entire school to live in that world, it's completely unrealistic to expect students to not be distracted by the web… wait for it… unless you're giving them something interesting to concentrate on. It seems that the folks that would be quick to eliminate laptops from classrooms (much like the faculty members I'm talking to who are interested in turning wireless access on and off in particular classrooms during the day) are the same people who think that they can ignore the internet, that it has its place and time but that place and time aren't necessarily during the hours that they're teaching because they'd rather conduct business as usual. 

Secondly, as someone who sits at a conference and pops his laptop open to take notes, Tweet, etc., I can barely imagine participating in professional discourse anymore without connecting with people online. Sure, there's a time and a place for everything, but if I'm listening to speaker with a room full of attendees, I want to know what the room is saying and participate in the discussion. A couple years ago at a NYSAIS Education and Information Technology (NEIT) conference, there was an active backchannel that ended up bashing a speaker while he was delivering his talk — and, because he was speaking with so much "business as usual," he didn't even realize it. I remember feeling bad for him but, at the same time, wondering why he didn't notice that everyone was furiously typing away and what that second projection screen was displaying during his talk.

Forgetting any talk of things like Individualized Educational Programs (IEP) or special needs accommodations, why wouldn't we want to encourage students — K-12, higher ed, postgraduate, doesn't matter — to be active participants in what they're engaging in. Why do we assume that being online has to be a bad thing, that students aren't just taking notes on a Google Doc or Etherpad? 

Why do we start with the assumption that it must be a bad thing until proven otherwise?