When I started on my Master's degree program many moons ago, I sprung for a laptop. I was working full time during the week and then driving three hours to a university for classes that started on Friday nights and continued to Sunday mornings. Having a digital way to keep my life together was of great help. I can also honestly say that it helped pass the time during lectures. A game of solitaire or the ability to work on an essay while the prof droned on was an asset. I can't say that every prof was happy about this, but as long as I was meeting their requirements there wasn't much that could be said.
A recent article on Yahoo! about laptops in the classroom makes it seem as if many students are having the same experience that I did...and professors are still not too happy.
Every professor has tales about the downside of laptops in their classrooms. They say that kids turn off their thinking skills and turn it into a touch typing class. Or that the annoying tap-tap of the keyboard drives them to distraction as they try to frame their next thought. They complain about kids who doze behind their open laptop screens (some report looking out on a sea of open laptop cases with logos) and about kids who IM, shop, and eBay to wile away the class hours.
The article goes on to describe some of the tactics either individual professors or whole campuses are using in order to discourage laptops/cell phones/PDAs in the classroom, as well as some examples of profs who allow them. I see this as a two-way issue. As a teacher, I look to other teachers (including professors) to create engaging lessons for the classroom. If students are surfing the web, snoozing, and so on, then perhaps it's time to rethink what happens during class meetings. You can eliminate the technology, but students will still doodle, nap, or find other ways to fill their time if you don't create the need and interest for them to be there. Students are still not going to be entering into classroom conversations if it's you standing up in front doing all of the talking---laptop or no laptop. I also think that there is a responsibility on the part of the student to engage with what's happening in the classroom. Not everything can be fun or entertaining---sometimes you have to just buckle down. Look around you. Are others participating? Having dialogue with the prof and peers about the issue at hand? Then get off your computer and join in.
I don't think that student owned technology is going to go anywhere. I don't think that banning these kinds of items will really solve any student engagement issues. I do hope, however, that getting in on some digital action in the classroom finds a peaceful place to be.