Students using Facebook in your class? Better try a bit harder

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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

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