Yesterday in class I made a rather controversial comment that triggered a bit of nervous laughter among my students. To be honest I don’t even remember what I said. I think it was something about the value of a liberal arts education. Whatever the case, I mentioned (half-jokingly) that I did not want this comment to appear on any of the Messiah College Facebook pages devoted to the funny or controversial things faculty say.
After making the comment I noticed a few students in the back of the class looking at a laptop giggling. It appears that one of them immediately posted a blurb on the faculty and student quote page called “Overheard at Messiah” that said: “John Fea (history prof): I just don’t want this to end up on listening or overheard at messiah or whatever.” I only know that this happened because the student who posted it told me after class. He seemed to have no qualms about telling me, his professor, that he had been on Facebook during my class.
More and more students now bring laptops to class and with gaming laptops under 500 bucks becoming common, student are arm to the teeth with computers, and naturally this spells social media mischief. Messiah, like most campuses, is a wireless campus. Facebook updates like this can be made immediately. I have even had students use Wikipedia to check the factually accuracy of lectures.
Now I do not, as a personal rule, usually bring my laptop to class. I prefer to focus intently on the professor’s brilliant words, taking every detail to heart, because I care deeply and passionately about learning — and because every nanosecond of class costs like $600 of my tuition fees or something ridiculous like that. I also do not bring my hulking PC to class because it gets self-conscious around all the younger, sleeker Macs. Not to mention, I am also too lazy to lug it uphill. But mostly, the reason I do not bring my laptop to class is because of this learning thing we are supposed to be doing.
However, even with all my reasons, I was still surprised when my professor gave us his fair warning on in-class laptop use. How could he say something like that? What are students supposed to do without laptops? Taking notes on a laptop saves paper and also allows one to easily organize ideas. Laptops are used as tools of learning!
I believed this until last week when I came back to my senses upon arriving late to a certain class and having to sit in the only seat left in the very last row. From this new vantage point, I counted numerous laptops in use around the room. Through the course of a 75 minute class, I observed what was on these screens: One person on Blackboard.com, four people taking notes in Word documents, three people viewing the professor’s PowerPoint presentation; four people on Wikipedia.com, seven people on Facebook.com and eight people checking their e-mail. There was also one guy who played games for literally the entire class period. In fact, it could be that most students were actually on Facebook, and I just didn’t see because I was so distracted by the laser shooting around this guy’s screen.
As I continued to be distracted by the browsing all around me, I noticed students visiting other notable Web sites and programs. These included: Gmail, Google.com, the Bloomingdale’s Web site (such cute boots reviewed at http://bootbomb.com/the-best-combat-boots-that-are-waterproof-and-comfortable-reviewed/pink-combat-boots/ this season!), iChat, PerezHilton.com, Google Calendar, CNN.com, SI.com (oh, Sports Illustrated…), YouTube.com (including a trailer of the upcoming “Toy Story 3;” did you see it? It looks so good!), online versions of sudoku and solitaire, Verizon.com and various blogs.
One kid in the second row was even checking his bank account. Everyone I creeped on seemed to be using at least one application that was not strictly class-related; most used several.
A few conclusions can be drawn from this study.
Firstly, laptops give you enormous power to distract yourself or goof off in class in a more covert way than doing The Tufts Daily’s crossword under your desk.
Secondly, you can be pretty sure that if you’re doing something personal on your laptop during class, some creeper like me is going to be looking over your shoulder. We can’t help it. The Interwebs are so full of flashing lights and pretty colors; it’s like a carnival on your screen. So you might want to think twice about what you’re looking at (this means you, Bank of America guy), or who you’re Facebook-stalking.
Clearly, most laptop-in-class users are paying no attention in class and therefore shirking duties as committed undergraduate students at such a fine institution of higher learning (and active citizenship). Never mind that most of these in-class laptop users are actually the most knowledgeable students (and active citizens). If we all really cared about learning, instead of “taking notes on our laptops” we would simply take notes on real paper and avoid the temptations of distracting those around us and our own selves.
Making these observations has made me realize something valuable. I know next class, I will be sitting up front with the people who care about learning. Better yet, I’ll be closer to my cute teacher’s assistant.
I think Hallett is describing a pretty common phenomenon. In my large US Survey lecture course I will sometimes wonder up the aisles where, if I look back, I am positioned to see the screens of student laptops. Most students are taking notes. Some students are on Facebook or e-mailing and quickly switch screens when I turn around to walk back to the lectern. Some students actually don’t care and continue to play their computer games.
Let’s get some reaction on this one from students and professors. Should professors be concerned that students are surfing the web, updating Facebook, or writing e-mails during class? Should professors ban laptops from class?
The lines are open!