Should the web be allowed in class?

There’s a fantastic discussion on metafilter about whether college students should be able to use the web during class time.

The original question by quodlibet was this:

How do I keep my students off the internet during lecture? Today, in the class I TA – I had about 5 students on facebook, another 2 texting, a bunch checking their email, 1 playing tetris, 1 reading the sports, and another reading the nytimes. It drove me mad. One on facebook was even looking at pictures of girls in their bras.

After class, one student had the nerve to tell me he should be allowed to be on the internet in class because he takes good notes and has an A in the class (if he was in my section, trust me – he would no longer have an A).

All of this frustration (and I teach at an Ivy League school) – got me thinking, when I’m the head instructor – what can I do? Our university doesn’t have the option to turn off the internet. Do I just ban laptops? Is there anything else I can do?

A fascinating thread ensued (about 120 comments), where various professors and former college students chime in with a wide array of opinions, tactics and philosophies.  It’s some thoroughly interesting reading if you have any opinion on this at all.

I offered the following as a post in the thread:

First, there is a strong academic argument that lectures are an inappropriate teaching method much of the time – it’s just that it’s the only method many professors know or are willing to try. Bligh’s What’s The Use of Lectures? clearly documents the research supporting this claim, and it’s bizarre so few people have ever heard of this book. It is a must-read for any TA or Professor or Academic department head, as it swiftly summarizes the limitations of lecturing and explores the alternatives, all based on well documented studies and research. It’s a well written but academic summation of lectures and their alternatives.

Second, most people who lecture are awful – the bar is low – and in the case of professors, they are lecturing to people who are captives. The feedback loop in most universities is weak regarding presentation skills, and sometimes regarding teaching skills altogether. Many professors in many universities have never been trained to teach, yet have an arrogance about how good they are, and faith in untested theories about how it is supposed to be done. Theories based heavily on their own experiences as students. People who lecture professionally are nowhere near as good at lecturing as they think they are, and never put themselves in a situation where it’s possible to discover that gap.

Third, before anyone makes claims about “this generation” the question remains: among the teachers in any school, in any era, some will do a better job of keeping students attention than others – how do these teachers do it? And can they teach those skills / attitudes / behaviors to the other teachers? Even if students have brain implants straight into the Matrix, some teachers will do better than others and that’s the framework any teacher should be starting from.

Fundamentally this problem is ageless. The web is not going away in the same way, despite teachers wishes, daydreamable windows, chewing gum, and passing notes, persisted. It has always been very hard to keep the attention of any group of people, at any age, at any time. And the people who have tended to be successful in overcoming these challenges are the ones who either 1) develop true teaching and persuasive skills, or 2) partner with their students in finding a mutually beneficial solution, rather than stumbling backwards into inflicting a fantasy of obedience on them.

19 Responses to “Should the web be allowed in class?”

  1. goofydg1

    I’ve generally disappointed in the lack of innovation or choice in “formal” educational offerings. Too many follow the curriculum blindly

  2. paurullan

    The funny thing is I use a laptop to take notes at class and only find myself surfing in borings and dull classes. Give me a compilers lesson and I will happily listen to.

    The greatest part comes when I use the web to correct something the professor just said. The goal is not to be pedantic but make the professors realize they have to check the facts they put on the material: copy-pasting from a blog it is not enough for a college level course.

  3. Douglas Hahn

    It was my knee-jerk reaction to say “NO,” mostly because I strongly disagree with the parallel you draw between childhood distractions and web surfing

  4. Scott Berkun

    Class size is a factor, but teacher training is just as important. Many teachers will use the same exact methods in classes of 15 students as they do with 100 – so changing the size only matters if the teachers take advantage of it.

  5. Michał Paluchowski

    You pointed out the exact issue here – it’s not what the students do other than listening to the lecturer, it’s why they do it in the first place. I was studying still in the pre-wifi era and much of the time instead of concentrating on what was being told during lecture I resorted to reading newspapers/books/whatever simply because the lecture itself was indigestible.

    I’d say 9 out of 10 academic lecturers here in Poland are dreadfully bad in performing public presentations. It becomes funny however, when these same people teach public speaking to students in obligatory classes right before thesis defenses.

  6. Sean Crawford

    I was surprised when a TA replied, “There’s no time” when I asked if TA’a practice their “laboratory” lectures on each other. In contrast the bar is high in secondary school Junior ROTC (the States) or in cadets (Canada) where they both practice on other leaders and are evaluated before they ever lecture to the troops for real.

    In my university toastmaster club, as a speech, I first apologized to the two education students in the club for teaching “see Spot run” and then I proceeded to explain, using a flip chart, how to do a Lesson Plan, complete with integrating the lab to last week’s lab and the total semester. A man only months away from his Ph.D came up to me floating on air because he had never been taught a lesson plan and he was feeling very inspired.

  7. Mike Nitabach

    As a professor, my attitude is that if students are uninterested enough in what I am saying to surf the Web in class, then it is my fault, and my responsibility to be more interesting.

  8. Scott Berkun

    Micha?: It’s a universal problem. There is really no feedback loop for professors on their lecturing ability, much less their teaching ability.

    Despite the fact that in college students are paying to be there, and in some sense, are paying the professors’ salaries, they have almost no say in the process. They can’t fire a teacher. There is no easy way to give feedback into the system, and other than warn other students, there’s not much that happens.

    I’m not advocating a tyranny via student feedback – that’d be just as bad. The burden is on department heads – they hire/fire/assign professors and if they don’t make teaching ability part of the reward cycle, then they get what they deserve and should hear about it from students.

    And the sad thing is the bar is so low, and department head who stood up and said “this is a priority” and trained his/her professors, would easily score points with everyone involved. It’d be a great story for whoever has the courage to do it first.

  9. Ian

    Taken one way, the answer is pretty trivial. Blocking wireless doesn’t stop people from browsing the internet on their phone. Taken another though, if you’re leaving students with the time to browse, then you can’t complain. Whether it’s the internet, reading a book, gazing out the window of day-dreaming, it’s all the same. It says you aren’t engaging the students.

    There are times when I wish everyone had laptops in class. The you could make them go look up things, you could put the onus on them to come up with data, with new facts to contribute to the discussion.

  10. Phil

    I’ve sat through some pretty boring lectures. In fact, I’ve slept (complete with loud snoring) through several. I’ve had a professor wake me during their lectures to tell me that I should give up and go back to the farm, as I would never pass their course. I’ve never been on a farm, and my frequent naps in that course earned me an A- for my lack of effort.

    As to the comment by “quodlibet” that he would deliberately fail students for using the Internet during a lecture, I can only say that if a student can pass a test while ignoring the lecture, then either the lecture or the test is faulty, and the student is not to blame. Further, deliberately altering someone’s grade based on anything other than their academic performance (measured by tests/projects assigned to them) is academically dishonest, and any TA/professor engaging in such conduct should be sacked without delay.

  11. Zeke

    I sometimes wonder how much better an education I’d have gotten if I had access to the web during lectures or even the amount of web that exists now. I graduated in 2000 and there was no Wikipedia and Google wasn’t even close to what it is now.

    Grad school (completing my part-time master’s this year) was a different story. Difficult concepts, half-explained lectures, and impossible homework are more easily bridged when resources other than the textbook exist. As far as I’m concerned, the internet is a far greater help than distraction.

    I do get distracted by it sometimes, but it’s up to the students to make the most of their studies. For the teacher, flexibility is key. Use the internet to help your students interact with your lecture. If your students aren’t paying attention it’s their loss, but try to get feedback from them when you implement your new ideas.

  12. Berthold

    Whether you consider a lecture a good way of communicating knowledge (I do, if done correctly) or not, if you’re doing something you might as well do in the privacy of your own home and not paying attention, you should not be there.

    As a professor, I would make this crystal clear to any student who was paying attention to something other than what I was presenting. I’m holding nobody prisoner who would rather be somewhere else, just so they can hear me speak.

    That aside, I totally agree with the comments about the general ineptitude of a great many porfessors to actually hold a lecture that is offering any kind of insight. Whether it is because they themselves would rather be somewhere else (their bed, their golf club, their other job) or because they are simply too lazy to update their materials to past-1980s topics, they have as little reason to be standing in front as the students have of sitting opposite them.

    It’s hard to say who is actually responsible for pointing out these flaws in our universities and schools. Students generally are considered to be out of line when criticising the authorities that be. Then again, they are responsible for their education (though, unfortunately, few reaslise this fact and just follow along with anything they are presented) and one right they should be able to exercise is to speak freely of what can be called neglecting their duty.

    In Germany, since the introduction of university fees (it used to be free until fairly recently to study in Germany), there has been a big debate about the quality of education. Allegedly, the fees go toward improving said quality (although in reality, they only fill a gap created by recent budget cuts). It is a shame then, that there is no one on campus tasked with checking that process and making adjustments along the way.

    I’ll say it outright: any school or university that does not take quality assurance and management seriously is not worth the money it gets. If their employees can’t be trusted with constantly striving toward a high quality of teaching, there should definitely be somebody who made sure they will (and who also listens to students’ complaints).

    Solve the boring lecture problem, and the laptop problem solves itself (except for the kids sitting in the wrong lecture. Send those to a reorientation seminar ASAP).

  13. Fred

    Banning laptops? Asking questions? There is no need to be so insecure about your teaching skills.

    It seems that many of your students does not know how to focus their attention and the value of their time and money.

    Allow them to fail fast and fail often. Becoming responsible adults may be painful, sometimes, but it’s simply invaluable.



  1. […] Should the Web Be Allowed in Class? Thanks to Florian Thiel for bringing this one to my attention, very relevant for someone in my position as a young(ish), new lecturer in IT-related subjects. It concerns the age old problem (incidentally one of the first discussions I got into as a graduate student), discussed by lecturers for a long time, about how to deliver course content. I happen to think there’s scope to be quite radical with lectures, but that would deserve a post of its own. […]

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