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Is Surfing and Texting During a Lecture Acceptable? No....but why not?

September 05, 2016

As the fall session descends and we return to class with our beloved devices in hand, the vexing question strikes: what, if any, restrictions should there be regarding cell phones and laptops in class?

For help, I draw upon last spring, my online survey of a class (110 students) and my conversation afterwards with a group of volunteers (8 students).

50 responded, a decent representative sample of my university’s students.  The course was one that a variety of programs “force” their students to take and so the sample was most likely a cross section of the student population.

Part of the survey gathered information as to what students think about their use of technology in the actual classroom.   Here are some of the results.

  • 61% still take notes solely via pen and paper.
  • 25% solely used laptops and the rest used some combination thereof.

I was surprised since my memory (erroneously) tells me that nearly all of them used laptops.  Several students commented that they would like to go traditional, but cannot bring themselves to forgo the laptop since they like it for non-educational purposes during class and especially during the breaks.

For those with laptops and cell phones:

  • 34% said that they never look up class-related material during the lecture.
  • 64% said that they looked up class-related words or ideas that they didn’t know or simply wanted supplemental information.
  • 10% said that they constantly look up non-class related material!!!
  • 46% said that they look up non-class material from time to time. 
  • 27% said that they don’t look around online at all.

Regarding texting and emailing:

  • 57% thought that it is okay, as long as one does so quietly and infrequently. 
  • 27% tried to provide an alternative answer, but essentially thought that it was okay, as long as one does not disturb anyone else. 
  • 14% thought that this behaviour was totally unacceptable. 
  • Only 2% regarded it as a student’s right.

Regarding Facebook and Twitter:

  • About 2% thought it was a right.
  • 41% thought that it was totally unreasonable.
  • Around 53% thought that it was okay provided that you don’t disturb others.

Regarding watching videos:

  •  77% said that it was completely unreasonable.  Those that thought that it was okay were quick to qualify it as only acceptable provided that it does not disturb anyone else.

I also asked whether, in general, one could use a device in class and not distract others: 

  • 40% believed that it is indeed possible to use devices in the classroom and not disturb others. 
  • 30% said much the same and said that those with large screens should sit at the back of the room so others aren’t distracted by their screens. 
  • 30% asserted that devices in the classroom are distracting for others—full stop.

I then asked them if it were possible to use a device and not distract the professor.  The class was largely split on this one.

  • About 38% thought that it was possible to use devices and not distract the professor.
  • 36% said that devices do distract professors. 
  • Of the remaining 25%, the answers offered were split; half said that it was possible but one needed to be very discreet and the others, in the end, figured that even trying to be discreet would show. 
  • A number of students admitted that they had never thought about whether or not it would distract the professor.

Finally, I asked them whether there should be general rules regarding their use of devices.

  • 32% said that there should not be any rules and that students should decide individually.
  • Overall, 68% thought there should be some kind of rules in place. 
  • Of that 68%, 28% said that the students should decide, 14% favoured the professor.  
  • Many of the others opted for some kind of dialogue between students and professors.

Some Reflections—

Overall, students are a courteous group.  The survey results and the focus group’s comments show that students are very concerned that their behaviour does not disturb the learning environment of others.

Hence, the first question, before thinking about policies or rights regarding devices, is this: is it possible to use devices in the classroom without distracting anyone? 

I doubt it.

But first consider the following.

If you have a question about something in class, chances are that 20% to 30% of the class has the same question. 

Posing the question in class allows you to “pause the lecture” and hear another explanation of the term without having the lecture race off without you.

Posing and pausing the lecture forces the professor to provide another explanation of a term and test it out with the students; the students can then react to it.  The result: you get a broader response than had you just looked it up alone and online. 

Think of the general axiom of communication:  “know your audience”.  Posing questions in class enables the professor to better know the audience, to have a better insight into the makeup of the classroom.  Every group of students is different.  The more questions that you pose to the professor, the more that you inform the professor of the class’s needs.

In sum: posing + pausing = better lectures.  (Or, more and better education for your $$.)

Using devices for non-class related materials is, in my view, inherently distracting for everyone.

Check email or Facebook or anything else during class, then you’re not concentrating on the material at hand.  Ideas and concepts are like living creatures, you have to swim with them to get to know them—and this means giving them your full attention.

Repeatedly diving in and crawling out of a lecture splits your attention and robs you of at least part of your rightful educational experience.

I adore Plato, but he finds it pretty difficult to compete with big news or shocking emails or a hilarious picture that you have just seen while surfing.  Even when you dive back into the class, those news items and pictures are still floating about your mind and will crowd out the ideas that your professor is trying to deliver to you.  Again, this is self-imposed robbery.

Think that you can look at non-class material and not show it via your body language?  Well, that is doubtful.  In my experience, facial expressions of students change quite dramatically when they shift from scholarly concentrating on note taking to checking email or Facebooking.  This is a huge distraction for professors.  (I have also often seen when students find something online that is just “too good” not to share with a neighbour and end up disturbing two or three other students in the process.)

The discussion group students admitted to disliking it when friends would interrupt a conversation in order to check email.  It is the same for professors.

Imagine trying to lecture on philosophy when someone is sitting in the front row, clearly not paying any attention to what you are saying. 

Imagine trying to lecture on a difficult concept when someone holds a cell phone up and flicks their fingers across the screen. 

Even trying to hold a cell phone under a desk is a very visible behaviour.  I have spoken to a number of professors and all are distracted and irritated by this kind of behaviour. 

At the end of it all, keep in mind that this certainly negatively affects our lecturing and that affects the quality of your education as well as the education of everyone else in the room.

Distracted and irritated professors are not going to function at their best.

In the end, no, it is not acceptable to surf, text or even to even look things up during a lecture.

Is taking notes on a laptop better than pen and paper?  Well, that is a topic for another time.

But it is clearly time, at the beginning of a session, to lay down some rules for creating the best learning environments that we can, given the presence of so much technology.


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Anne-Marie      September 07, 2016 at 11:00
This is certainly pertinent and timely blogue.

When I first went to university, no one had cell phones, nor laptops in classes. When I went back to university lately, I had to adjust. To be honest, what disturbs me the most, personally, is laptops! The noise of the keys on the keyboard is very distracting! While I completely agree with ground rules and etiquette, and could be considered old school, I think there a balance to reach.

During my degree at USP, I have used an ipad to
1) look up information the professor was talking about as I had no clue what he was referring to. Now I do get the point that I should have asked the professor to clarify for the benefit of the class, but as I did not necessarily have the appropriate background and I did not want to put myself in that position. It is part of my personality, I try to figure things out for myself. It allowed me to follow discussions in which I was lost.
2) Similarly, I looked up words. English is my 2nd language, and I followed half my courses in English. Sometimes, looking up a word was enough for me to follow the lecture or participate in the conversation.
3) The most interesting use was a personal one. During a session, I was dealing with a newborn refusing the bottle. The technology helped me discretely step out of class when the baby was hungry. I had notified my professor and fellow classmates, and my stepping out was often the cue that it was break time! Your blogue made me think what we would have done 20 years ago? Let the baby cry it out (no)? Leave each class at a specific time to meet (maybe)? The reality is I would have leaned towards skipping a session and dropping out of the program. The technology helped me big time that session!

That being said, I understand your irritation as I have lived it too. I agree there should be a discussion about the appropriate use of these devices, and that anything non related, such as emails and facebooking, are not acceptable and distracting. However, I will have to disagree with a complete ban as the ipad has helped me more that it has distracted me. At some point, I expect students to impose self discipline.
Marcel Roy      September 06, 2016 at 14:08
Usually I turn my phone to mute,to avoid disturbing the classmates