Facebook in the Back of the Classroom

Thoughts on managing the surfing student.

April 22, 2014

How do you deal with the surfing student?

The folks paying more attention to Facebook or ESPN.com than the classroom discussion that you are trying to facilitate.

How many times have you wished for a classroom Web kill switch?  

Or a podium based electromagnetic pulse emitter that could temporarily knock out all of those smart phones, tablets, and laptops that are draining precious attention away from everyone’s learning.

First, let’s stipulate that surfing students are frustrating. They are both distracted and distracting to those students who happen to be sitting nearby.  And we all know the research on multitasking - so we are under no illusions that they can check Instagram while simultaneously paying much attention to what’s going on in class.

What to do?

Reasonable educators will, and do, disagree with how to manage the surfing student. Hopefully we can have a discussion about some approaches that have worked in your teaching.  

The advice that I give about surfing students boils down to 4 components:

1. Your Classroom, Your Rules:

If there is a way to effectively teach without having the authority to set classroom norms I have not found it. Teaching is really hard. You should have the right to define appropriate parameters of behavior and engagement.

So if you want laptop lids down then laptop lids should go down. If you want screens powered off then screens should be powered off.

The key is set the norms and expectations early, to talk about your teaching and learning reasons for your expectations, and to consistently enforce (and explain) your rules.

Some students may need technology in the classroom for a learning accommodation. That is fine. Early in any course those students that need technology accommodations should work with you to make sure that they have the latitude and support to succeed. 

You can mitigate the need for laptop/tablet note taking by providing your lecture notes, making a lecture recording available, and by structuring class time more around active learning and discussion and less around content delivery.

You can decide how and when technology, even personal student technology, comes into play in your classroom.  

2. A Teachable Moment:

Just because I think that you have the power to have your students turn off their technology (and I’m sure this will be debated) doesn’t mean that you should use that power. In fact, I find that a better approach is to turn the temptation to surf or connect on social media into a teachable moment.

Our students are now constantly connected. They have more or less grown up with the Web in their pocket. It is not reasonable to expect that they will turn off their connect life once they step into our classrooms. Nor can we expect them to know how to manage the consequences of an always connected life unless we address this issue in our teaching.

My advice is to bring the issue of attention and distraction into your teaching. Do this early and do this often. Have them talk about their need to constantly check-in online, and get them to think about the costs and possible benefits to the learning work in which you are all engaged. 

Acknowledge that what is going on on the virtual space is almost always more interesting and compelling than what is going on in our physical space. That we all are wired to get the dopamine rewards of a status update or Tweet, an e-mail or a news update, and that together we need to learn how to channel our digital urges into effective learning environments.   

3.  Incorporate Their Technology Into Your Teaching:

The beauty of all those distracting digital devices in your classroom is that you can turn them into technology for learning. Have them do stuff with their tech.  

Break them into groups and give them 10 minutes to make a 3 slide PowerPoint based on a question that you have asked. They will need to search, evaluate, source, design, and communicate - all very good skills for any workplace.

Have them come up with some questions about the material that you are studying.

Ask them who the thought leaders are in the material that you are teaching that week.

Get them to instantly research and share what sources they would use to find the current thinking in your discipline.

Charge them with finding a video that also teaches the point that you are trying to make.

These tasks will let them scratch their connectivity and technology itches, and turn you into a roving classroom coach and mentor as you run from group to group trying to help out.

4.  Try To Be A Bit Less Worried:

My last piece of advice is maybe to decide to stress a bit less about your surfing students.

Some learners may learn better if they have multiple inputs of information coming at them. The pace of information transfer from even the best classroom may simply not match how their brains take in information. They may be absorbing more than you think.

Worry less if some students want to hang out both in the world that you have constructed (your classroom) and the virtual world that they have made.   

Have you never been to a conference or a talk where you both simultaneously listened to the presenter and took in some other visual stream of information from your device?  

We are all in the process of renegotiating attention. Our personal interactions, even our face-to-face interactions, are now often mediated by technologies. And that may be more okay than we think.  

What is your approach to the surfing student?


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