The amount of time that university students spend online during class is directly proportional to the quality of their teachers, argues an editorial writer for the Harvard Crimson, in part because the web has disrupted the traditional gatekeeper role that professors used to hold in education.

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By now, the idea that university students would spend much of their time in class on their laptops and tablets, browsing Facebook or the web, hardly seems surprising — and a recent editorial in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper confirms that this is the case. But the writer also makes an interesting argument, which is that the amount of time students spend online in class (which he calls the “Facebook Index”) is directly related to the quality of their professor. Since the web provides such easy access not just to social media but information of all kinds, he argues, teachers need to try harder than they have in the past to add value.

This might seem like a bit of a stretch for some, and in fact I got some substantial pushback from a number of people when I posted a link to the Crimson editorial on Twitter — including many who felt that it was unfair to expect even the most engaging professor to compete with Facebook or Twitter or text messaging. Surely most of these students are just wasting time on these social networks, or doing the modern equivalent of passing notes in class, rather than trying to educate themselves about important matters? After all, how much valuable insight could Facebook possibly have on things like the impact of Chinese trade policy during the Han dynasty?

It’s not just boredom — it’s competing sources of information

But Hemi Gandhi isn’t just talking about Facebook — although he calls it the “Facebook Index,” it’s about how much time students spend online in a variety of ways, including searching the web for information related to the course they are in. And since he was curious about why students at one of America’s most prestigious universities would waste their time online while in class, he asked some of them why they do it. Their answers were instructive, and more than a little frightening, at least if you happen to be a university professor; most said that they do this because:

  • The professor starts saying exactly the same things that appear in the textbook
  • Their instructor is confusing, and so they are looking for more information
  • The professor starts off on a random tangent that is not interesting or relevant
  • Students need a break from the topic to re-focus, or they are in a hurry and multitasking

Many of these responses will sound familiar to anyone who has been to a conference or a symposium where people are presenting PowerPoints, etc. There is no quicker way to lose your audience than to start reading from your slides, go off on a rambling tangent (unless it is amusing or insightful) or overwhelm your listeners with minutiae. In the past, people — including students — would have to sit silently while this happened, but thanks to laptops and mobile phones and ubiquitous Internet access, they no longer have to do so. In other words, you have to try a lot harder to hold a room.

But Gandhi makes a more interesting argument as well, which is that the web is disrupting higher education in more fundamental ways (something Harvard professor and author Clay Christensen also argues), because it is chipping away at the information-gatekeeper status that professors used to have. Just as the web is making it easier for people to compete with professional journalists, so it gives students the ability to find information themselves — and in some cases that information may be more valuable than what they are getting from their professors. Says Gandhi:

[T]he IT revolution has destroyed the traditional professor-student knowledge hierarchy. Access to knowledge has become easier. In the past, professors were knowledge gatekeepers when lecturing at the pulpit… but today, much of knowledge has become commoditized on the web.

Knowledge in any subject — semiconductor fabrication, Kantian logic, or exchange rate policy — can be accessed through a quick Google search. Online sources like Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, Wikipedia, and Google books are all freely and instantly available online.

Just like it has with media, the web is disrupting education

Gandhi argues that Facebook is just part of this much larger paradigm shift in the way that knowledge is transmitted in our digital society, and that Harvard and other universities have to respond to this and adapt if they want to remain relevant. Professors “need to realize that they are in constant competition for students’ time and attention,” the Crimson editorial writer says, and have to start thinking of themselves as “service providers who must constantly innovate to serve students better” by appealing to their students’ curiosity and their desire to learn outside of the traditional curriculum.

In some cases, adapting to a digital world can actually improve what happens in the classroom, as my GigaOM colleague Ryan Kim noted in a post about using social tools at school. He argued that using the web and social tools in particular can make it easier to appeal to some students who might not otherwise get involved in a classroom discussion (due to shyness or various other personal or cultural factors). Have any university professors thought about trying to do that, I wonder, or are they just assuming that most of their students are online because they are intellectually lazy?

I think Gandhi makes a pretty compelling argument that teachers of all kinds have to realize they aren’t the only ones competing for a student’s attention, and also that whatever information they impart can be fact-checked and assessed almost instantaneously. And if they are smart, they will try to find ways of incorporating the online world into their classes, rather than trying to outlaw it.

If the Crimson editorial writer was in my class, I would give him an A+ — regardless of whether he was surfing the Internet during my lectures or not. For more on disruption of education, media and other aspects of our digital society, please join us at GigaOM’s new RoadMap conference on November 10 in San Francisco.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Todd Clement and Jeremy Mates

  1. John E. Bredehoft Monday, October 24, 2011

    Disruption, or supplementation? It could be that the professor sparks something in the student’s mind, and the student is suddenly eager to explore the spark further.

    1. That’s a great point, John — I totally agree that could also explain a lot of internet use in class, to seek supporting information or clarify something or just to explore. Thanks for the comment.

    2. I’m a third year law student at a top-50 ranked law school and am constantly online digging deeper into case law and finding out the context of certain cases. Professors often assume that the background knowledge they possess is the same background knowledge their students possess, but as a non-californian studying at a California law school, I don’t remember or know a lot about Gray Davis, or Ronald Reagan as a Governnor, or Willie Brown as Speaker of the Assembly, yet all three of these political figures are extremely important to understanding the context of California law. The Internet is a great tool for education when used properly.

    3. I am a college student who almost constantly has the internet open during lectures, and you’re right on. I’m almost always using it to look up points from the lecture that interest me and to give greater depth and context to what I’m learning. It’s a great resource, and I feel that I get much more out of lectures.

  2. Students never just goof off in class? I’d suspect that some of your analysis is correct, but I’d also suspect that a lot of students simply are too used to the immediately interruptable life to stay focused for too long.

  3. As a college instructor, I can always tell when it’s Facebook or something related to class. When it’s the former, I call them out– it’s so distracting. But, I don’t fight the beast by banning laptops– I was the type of student who preferred to type instead of write my notes by hand, so I get it. But often when I teach I’ll have a question myself and will then ask a student to look something up for me, right then and there in the middle of my lecture. Other times, they’ll do the same and add to my lectures when they have questions. It’s the only way I can think to integrate and keep their attention. Though I admit that even *I* can be boring. Sigh.

    1. I think those are some great ideas for using the web as a way to keep students engaged, Allison — thanks for the comment.

  4. Mark Hamilton Monday, October 24, 2011

    I agree with a lot of what’s in this piece, but it’s also left me a little steamed. I have students who are never online during class, I have students who are online and augmenting whatever we’re talking about (through a quick research hit), and I have a small number of students who are online and totally disengaged with everything happening in the classroom. Attempts to involve them in discussion fall flat; mediocre grades don’t move them away from the screen. I’ll take the blame for my failings as a teacher, but conclusions based on students responses that don’t include any responsibility on their part for their own education, miss some of the realities of the classroom.

    1. I think that’s likely the case in lots of classrooms, Mark — there are some kids who will never engage or take part in their own education because they just don’t want to be there.

  5. Goverment Gripes Monday, October 24, 2011

    Fellow Citizen as we move into the rough and tumble of the campaign year ahead, politicians need to drop what we have lived by over the last 50 yrs and look at solutions creatively, without boundaries. Please take a min out of your Facebook, Twitter or Blog time and Post a Gripe or Solution real-time at https://www.governmentgripes.org

  6. Great points. I believe that professors who actually embrace the use of laptops and social media in the classroom, as opposed to fighting it, will see the most benefit.

    One example of an effective use of social media (Twitter) in the classroom is @2450fall2011. With a class size of over 200, discussion and conversation is generally thought of as impossible. However, with the help of GroupTweet this professor is allowing the entire class to consolidate the students’ discussions/reactions under a single Twitter account. Comments and discussion can take place in real-time during the class or even help to extend the conversation outside of the classroom.

    1. That’s interesting — thanks for pointing that out, Ryan.

  7. Rick Fletcher Monday, October 24, 2011

    I teach a 300 student class at a top 100 research state U. This year I encouraged use of laptops and smart phones as feedback devices for in-class polling. Exam scores have been 1.5 standard deviations below a 5000 student average. I make use of the devices 3-4 times per lecture but the devices provide too much distraction the rest of the time. I’ve also had numerous complaints from students this year specifically about their neighbor’s browsing distraction. I use texting, Facebook and Twitter for discussion and communication but I’ve been forced to discourage in-class use. FWIW, I’m stuck teaching this class because I’m among the most engaging teachers in my college-I’m up and down the aisles, questioning, discussing, encouraging and so on. The results of this expt were so severe, I’m convinced and ended things mid semester. It sounds like the student comments are rationalization.

    1. Thanks, Rick — did you try getting students to use the web for things other than just in-class polling?

    2. Rick – your experience matches one that my colleague discovered. She had had students tweeting comments about the information covered in the class – even making their contributions part of the points earned in class – but found that test grades dropped. She discontinued the practice. Another problem was some students used the tweets to say snarky comments about other students tweets or in-class comments. She was afraid these online instant reviews of what people said in class would have a further chilling effect on people speaking up.

    3. Interesting Rick. So do you prevent students from using laptops in your class? Or have you just stopped actively encouraging the use for in-class polling?

  8. Good article and comments, just I believe a notion about the difference between the quality of information would be appropriate. Google all you want but don’t expect the higher levels of understanding lectures and teaching can provide.

    I remember a simplified but useful hierarchy; data < information < knowledge < expertise. Google seldom gives you anything more than information, though, as I recall, lectures weren't a safe bet by any means :-)

  9. Agree with Mark on the need for a reality check here. Having taught for ten years, I second that students’ self-reports are not something we should treat as reliable factual information. And I’m all for doing away with gatekeepers, but there is also a need to recognize the poor information literacy most students bring into class with them.

    1. Thanks, Amanda — I agree that many students may not be telling the truth about why they go online in class, but undoubtedly some are. I think teachers could make use of the web to help their students learn, instead of only seeing it as a distraction or a time-waster.

  10. Thanks Matthew…great post as usual


    There are of course some good points to the “Crimson article” and your commentary on it; you hardly need me to point them out.  I do have some points that I think are worth considering:


    1) The Harvard Crimson’s writer might be correct; however, it largely hinges on the position: the primary criteria of being a good professor is engaging/entertaining.  If this is the case, then the greatest professor in my opinion is the Simpsons seasons 3-5.  Its kind of alarming that “being engaging” is not a criteria to judge your mechanic or doctor, but apparently completely justifiable when judging the person who trains them.  While there is something to be said about packaging your message and information competition due to the internet; hopefully, teachers add value beyond the stage show.


    2) We could equally put the focus on the learner; they have to try harder to hold their own attention given that the world is more intimately distracting.  Learning, especially at the university level (and perhaps more so at Harvard), can be hard; students might have to push themselves to find the value and to try to stay focused; is that too much to ask of students at an institution that denies access to about 1500 high school valedictorians a year?  Postman has argued that the most dangerous things on TV were shows like Sesame Street that taught learning is fun and easy, instead of its fun to learn.  Huxley warned against pleasure and distractions as a way we can be controlled.  It seems to be happening – how much harder will it be if/when gamification really takes hold of our society (I wrote some more about this here: http://bit.ly/loXDhZ )?


    3) The problem with doing the majority of learning through independent searches online is the difficulty of vetting the information.  Unless they make logical or internal factual errors, it is very hard to apply critical thinking in topics you know little about.  I forget who recently Tweeted (was it you?) to the effect: they agree with what they read online, unless its something they know about.  That is the part of my point on this post: http://bit.ly/sRawWp and it is the lesson we might learn from every site who talks about webpage design as a criteria to judge the soundness of websites. 


    This discussion puts me in mind of ratemyteacher.ca where one of the 3 criteria for being a good teacher is “easiness”…is that what teacher’s should judge themselves by?



    1. Thanks, Patrick — it may be unfortunate, but the reality is that teaching is to some extent a performance, and being engaging is going to be one of the criteria no matter how you slice it. Even Socrates knew that :-) And I agree that students have to face up to their responsibilities as well — and that we can’t necessarily depend on their abilities to find reliable information themselves. That’s why they need help from their teachers, and the web and social media are tools that can help with that.

    2. Speaking as a student (sophomore at Columbia University), the important thing is a professor’s ability to clearly impart the necessary information WHILE being engaging/ entertaining. Personally, I do not bring a laptop to class, as I prefer to take notes by hand, but the fact is that sometimes class is so dull that I cannot bring myself to pay attention, and instead end up zoning out or nearly falling asleep even without technological distractions. The fact is that some people may be incredibly intelligent, but just aren’t capable of teaching. I think that we need to reexamine the university system and try to find a way to better serve the students while still achieving the other goals of universities; perhaps hiring two sets of faculty, one to teach and one to do research, might fix the problem. My best professor at Columbia thus far has been Sunil Gulati, who is primarily the president of the US Soccer Federation and lectures in economics on the side; meanwhile, I’ve had many horrendous professors who have made outstanding research contributions to their field.


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