Computers in the classroom: no surfin’

On the first day of class I announce that there are to be no computers open during class discussion or lectures. (Of course they are permitted or encouraged during group work or for some online exercises, but that is an entirely different issue.) My pronouncement generally elicits horrified looks from 20-25% of the class and a student or two may choose to drop my course at that point.

Some of the strongest reaction has come from colleagues or profs from other schools. “If I didn’t think I could compete with the internet, I would give up teaching” is a common refrain, often uttered by someone who has trouble communicating one-on-one. As if his fascinating talk on advanced auditing was more interesting than the beer pong pics just posted on FB! Never mind that current research on learning indicates that attention is the most important factor in learning and multitasking of any sort kills attention and learning. Multitasking

In the book, The Shallows, studies are cited showing that  hyperlinks to citations in the text of a paper impair learning: imagine having Facebook and YouTube in your control bar while you are trying to take lecture notes! As Aaron Herrington, founder of Modea, said in a recent lecture: “online you are always 1-click or 3 seconds away from cute kittens or porn.”

Even after a keynote speech on Brain research and learning that focused on attention and the risks of multitasking at a recent conference on pedagogy, I get the standard pushback from other faculty when I said that I banned open devices. “If I didn’t think…”

However two young women who had recently graduated from the well-known research university across the river from my school were there. They both said that they wished their professors had banned computers from their large lecture classes because of the third-party effects: even though they kept their own computers shut the noise from the student next to them playing WOW and the embarrassment at the guys in front of them viewing porn affected their concentration.

So profs be honest. Open computers, students communicating on FB and viewing YouTube movies and free porn, may help keep your class happier and more docile – especially in large lecture classes, but it does not aid learning by them or their neighbors!

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7 Responses to Computers in the classroom: no surfin’

  1. Patrick says:

    The two professional courses I generally teach are both capped at 20 students so I’ve never had a problem with this. If the class was large I would very likely do what you do. I think you are doing the students a big favor by setting high and clear expectations. My daughter is a college freshman and she has mentioned to me several times how insulting it seems both to the professor and other students in the class for others to be surfing etc.

    I generally like computers in the classroom because it makes small group work so productive. But there is a time and a place for everything. Research is pretty clear that no can really multitask.

    Good blog, interesting issue. I think you’re on to something.

  2. Former Student says:

    As I remember it, having my laptop in class to take notes always led to a lot of “multi tasking.” I would have a word doc up for notes, a tab for Facebook, a tab for online shopping, a tab for weather, a tab for my bank account, a tab up for googling answers, a tab up to download music, homework for other classes and solitaire, all while Facebook chatting with all the other students that were in class (only to make plans for the upcoming weekend not to discuss what was being taught.) I love the way you teach your classes, you actually hold the students’ attention. Don’t ever change your “no laptop” policy!

  3. gschirr says:

    So anonymous former student, are you going to keep me guessing??

  4. Nice article! I agree on all points, particularly the fact that one student fooling around on his computer is highly distracting to others around him.

  5. RL says:

    Education is a strange product: People pay huge amounts of money and then refuse delivery.

    Some observations from a recent class:
    Recently, I participated on a team teaching a technical topic to students were employees from a diverse group of firms. All were paying a fee for the course. Many had access to the internet so they could connect to their software licenses at their company sights. Thirty to forty percent of the participants were “multitasking” at everything from work to Facebook. When it came time to work on problems they were clueless.

    I would also suggest that they had a negative impact on the other students learning in that their questions sometimes covered questions already asked and did not break any “new ground”. In a sense they detract from the class and it might be helpful to the other students if the were not there.

    A note on disabilities:
    Some students benefit greatly from the use of laptops (e.g. students with “certified” learning disabilities) and have been granted legal rights to use them in class.

  6. Daniel Brennan says:

    Nice perspective!

    Mine is slightly different. First, if the kids don’t want to learn let them fail. Someone needs to be around to flip our burgers. Its your job to teach, not force participation. I had professors when I was an undergrad have all kinds of crazy ways to enforce participation. These are adults, give them a lesson in the real world and treat them as adults and not kids.

    Of course we can multi-task, unlike what recent studies show. It is just has diminishing returns the more we incorporate in the tasks.

    I understand that you may wants these kids to succeed to make the overall class GPA higher to make yourself or the school look good. Or you may have a genuine concern for their well-being. But I say it is survival of the fittest out there, let the weak get eaten at the side of the road (or fail your class)

    Nothing I hated worse than having a professor trying to parent. I have two of those, teach… that is all.

    As for the distraction to the other kids. I find this laughable. Not that I disagree that a kid sitting next to your playing WOW is not a distraction. But again, these are adults and you either move a row or two forward where you cannot see the guy playing or you show discipline and concentrate. What does life not present distractions? Do we not have distractions in our jobs? I say let those young adults refine their ability to concentrate and ignore the distractions, they will have to at some point in their life.

    I flourish or fail on my own merits, I do not need restrictions to baby me to the finish line 🙂

  7. gschirr says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I like my economics Laissez-faire and believe in allowing students to succeed or fail. But I also view my classes as communities of learners and want to foster a good environment for discussion and engagement.

    I experiment with easing my restrictions in one class per year, but so far am sticking with my policy…

    Thanks again for your perspective!!

    – Gary

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