Surfing the Class

Several years ago I watched a particularly memorable “Law Revue” skit night at Yale. One of the skits had a group of students sitting at desks, facing the audience, listening to a professor drone on.

Distraction
Distraction
Distraction

All of the students were looking at laptops except for one, who had a deck of cards and was playing solitaire. The professor was outraged and demanded that the student explain why she was playing cards. When she answered “My laptop is broken,” I remember there was simultaneously a roar of laughter from the student body and a gasp from the professors around me. In this one moment, we learned that something new was happening in class.

Shortly after seeing that skit, I wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times describing the surprisingly strong student reaction when I asked students to use their laptops during class only for taking notes.

I predicted that we would soon hear of surfing at the opera (and maybe even in church).

But I also called on schools to flip the default code of conduct. Currently most students believe that it is fine to play games, surf the net, check their email etc. unless their professor expressly tells them that they can’t. (Some may think it’s okay, even if the professor tells them they can’t.)

I wanted schools to announce that laptops, by default, should be used during class only for class-related activities unless the professor says otherwise. I’m not the only one calling for action in this area.

I’m happy to report that Saul Levmore, the dean at the University of Chicago Law School has recently announced an end to classroom surfing. It is a little unclear from his announcement whether his policy is merely a default or a mandatory rule. It’s also left (I imagine, intentionally) unclear what the repercussions are of violating the policy.

In praising Levmore, I should be clear that there is no good a priori argument against multitasking. The case is at best an empirically-informed hunch about what is the best way to teach. I see some power to a parentalism argument that teachers should ban surfing because it impedes students’ ability to learn.

Law students are adults who generally can decide for themselves what is in their best interest — but I still don’t think it would be a good idea to have beer or magazines available in class. As someone who has played way too much Minesweeper in my day, I think some activities are just a bit too tempting.

Still, I’m worried that my own weakness is leading me to take away the rights of others. My sainted father brought me up short when, after reading my original oped, he said, “I thought you were a liberal?”

The “negative externalities” of surfing provide a stronger basis for switching the default:

The laptop screen is a billboard that is very visible to other students sitting behind the gamer. Surfing and game playing in particular can be very distracting — both visually and in the signal they send to others that you don’t care about class. Multitasking also makes students less present as participants in class discussion. Surfing doesn’t stop students from taking notes, but it degrades the quality of their attention.

Doonesbury has a great strip on just this point. In bouncing back and forth between his notes window, the surfing student is less likely to be following the discussion and to be able to ask or answer a question.

In recent years, I’ve tried to balance student liberty with my negative externality concern by allowing surfing, but only in the back row of class. In the back row, at least, it isn’t a visual distraction. And I view these back-benchers as virtually a step away from non-attendance.

But what’s still missing is basic information on how much surfing is going on. (Levmore claims, “Every teacher underestimates the amount of Internet surfing going on,” in his or her classroom.) The content of the laptop screen is visible to the class, but remains a mystery to the professoriate. I still hear colleagues tell me that surfing is not a problem in their class because they walk around the room.

In a world where alt -tab quickly shifts between windows, it is a fantasy to think that walking around is a sufficient deterrent.

I am tempted to ask students to collect data on how much surfing is actually going on (even when it is banned). I bet some readers will be upset with the idea of such monitoring. There is a growing sense of entitlement not just to surf but to keep your professor in the dark about whether you are surfing or not.

If the admission application simply asked students to check a box if they were willing to forgo classroom surfing, I imagine virtually all applicants would forgo their God-given right to play solitaire.

But even here, students push back that the implicit contract was also that professors would not teach badly. Some students see surfing as a medication to reduce the annoyance of poor pedagogy. Indeed, some clever students have even argued that surfing has a positive externality — Ayres and Levitt and Wolfers will have better incentives to teach well if they have to compete for students’ attention.


Patrick

I graduated from law school in 2007. I didn't surf in classes that where the prof. was engaging and did not allow a few idiots to dominate the discussion. Where the prof. was dull or allowed a few of the less bright students to continually run their mouths, surfing the internet was a far better use of my time.

MikeFM

I'm paying the school that is paying the professor. That makes the professor my employee and they need to do what I want so long as I'm not actively bothering other students (other paying customers). If I want to use my laptop it's none of the professors business unless I have blaring music or inappropriate content visible to others. If the school wouldn't let me use my own property in class or cut off the Internet access to stop me then I'd probably fire them and go to a different school.

poetgrrl

Doodling, playing solitaire, crocheting, & other mindless tasks help me to focus better on other people speaking; when I don't have outlets like those in a class, I tend to talk more, & to some degree, take over the class with my questions & comments. This is true for me in business meetings & other small group interactions . . . . .

The assumption that the appearance of 100% attention is necessary for the listener to 'get' what is being discussed is a problematic assumption . . . . . . .

EddieH

I just finished my first year of law school. I brought my laptop to class once all year, and found it to be a complete distraction. However, I would say 90% of the students in my class did bring their laptops everyday to class. As I sat and looked around me everyday, I saw people checking email, playing cards, reading the news, and worst of all-reading the newest gossip!! I think it is a total distraction and should be banned. But for people like me, it helps me on the curve, becuase while I have no laptop, I am present everyday, getting notes, learning, and in the end hopfully destroying the law school curve.

Channing

I've only read about half of these comments but I think people really ought to be able to do what they want - within reason. If it disrupts class because people are having a fit of giggles, well, that's no good. If other people can't pay attention because someone is playing solitare, well, that's no good either.
Have everyone who wants to mess around move to the back row. As long as they don't make noise to bother the lecturer or other students, I don't see the problem with it.

Is it because the professor's ego is hurt? It seems almost childish to me if that's the case.

agoodspellr

i don't normally comment, let alone after so many others, but i guess it seems to me that i have something to add and would appreciate any responses...

1. the representation of law students in these comments seems really high. would be interesting for freakonomics to survey this. wondering how much it is due to demographics of this blog vs. law students' tendency to mention their major because law students like to do that vs. law happens to be a very boring major vs. bandwagoning.

2. i've tested turning off the internet in a course where all the students had computers/internet. i had it off at first, then allowed it, and the test and quiz averages dropped about 10%. denied access again, and the average went back up 10%. next year, same course: opened access, and the average was 10% below the previous year, except for the period corresponding to that where the previous year was allowed access. anecdotal to one course, but a very controlled experiment with very consistent results. the deviation from 10% was less than 2% at almost every stage. i should think that this could be easily replicated as a research project.

3. students at the average college age are not necessarily the best judge of what's best for them in the long run. they tend to have quite short time horizons, and lack experience of the long term consequences of their actions (i.e. beyond a year or two). also, one of the most important things one must learn in college is how to learn, even under relatively adverse circumstances.

4. some material is just plain boring. to make it interesting would require dumbing it down or reducing the amount of content, or some other problematic solution. teachers only have so much time and resources to devote to preparing lectures. this is a matter of efficiency from the college's point of view - to have fascinating one-on-one tutoring with new lectures, linked material, etc., every year, you would probably have to pay ten times the tuition required now.

5. externalities go beyond distracting other students. one reality of teaching at the college level, where teachers are usually responsible for creating courses themselves, is that many teachers set the difficulty of the material based on the class average. i.e. if the class is doing badly on early tests, the teacher makes the rest of the course easier, assuming that they had misjudged the capabilities of the students. this is often college policy - e.g. in undergrad a C may be expected to be given to average students, and averages that deviate too far from this norm may be overruled and 'curved'. it can also reflect badly on a teacher that their average is excessively low. when masses of students migrate to the internet, the class average appears to goes down (see 2.), effectively forcing the teacher to reduce the quantity/depth of material for all students, to keep the average up. this becomes an externality because the value of the degree goes down as employers see poorer quality students coming out, affecting all past/current/future students of the college (not just the surfers).

6. another externality: class participation during lectures drops when a significant number aren't paying attention. this has positive and negative effects, but probably makes class more boring, increasing surfing somewhat further.

7. as mentioned above, yet another externality: like being in a band, profs often feed off the students' energy level. if you are talking to a bunch of brick walls it can be very hard to keep your energy level up. (see last phrase of 6.)

8. the quality of teachers is in many (but not all) ways relative. consider the entertainment level of movies - action movies from the 60's can be considered boring by today's action standards, but many won academy awards nonetheless. do people enjoy movies more today than they used to? hard to judge. however, complaining that some teachers are below average is illogical, on boredom or any other criteria. of course some teachers are below average.

9. as pointed out above, many teachers aren't hired for their teaching quality, but for other benefits they may bring to the college. the criteria of an optimal choice are quite complicated and differ for the many interest groups in (and out of) a college. of course, often enough, teachers do not live up to expectations over time and may survive due to union protection, lack of oversight, etc.

10. the studies i've seen on multitasking are pretty clear and consistent with what is mentioned in most of the comments: multitasking is very inefficient if attention is required, but can increase efficiency in situations where there is substantial 'downtime' between periods requiring attention. lectures may fall into either category depending on the individual student's background, the teacher's style, and the material to be taught.

11. it is unclear to me if students can effectively determine when they should pay attention, when they are not paying attention to what is being said. i.e. studies are pretty clear that the brain cannot effectively process two 'verbal' content streams at once (e.g. hearing and reading). it thus seems unlikely that a student can read freakonomics and determine the importance of what is being said by the professor, at the exact same time. the optimal amount of attention switching required to do this effectively seems unclear, though is likely content dependent. in any case, few people know that multitasking is usually inefficient, and expecting students to perform controlled experiments in their own learning to see what works and what doesn't is probably unrealistic, and in any case inefficient itself. on the other hand, there is a valid ethical and practical question regarding whether or not teachers should impose learning styles on students (e.g. what if it brings up the overall average but hurts a few students, and e.g. what rights do students have in the classroom).

11. it's possible, but unclear at this time, that it will not be practical to ban surfing in the future. in cases where it is not possible to effectively enforce it, a ban seems likely to create negative externalities in regards to the students' respect of the teachers/institution/rules.

12. as background info, i usually just impose a single rule of "no bothering other students", but at times have gone stricter for various reasons.

sorry for the length. trying to be precise in my language.

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andrew

As a current college student at one of the Ivies, my opinion on the surfing-in-class deal is this: it really shouldn't be the concern of a professor what I'm doing on my computer. Professors are paid to stand up there and teach, so do it. I am not paid to do anything. I have a specific interest in going to class, but really myself and everyone I know only really go to class to satisfy attendance requirements. I really just don't care what the professor is talking about.

Sue-Sarah

Here's the "logic" I see being expressed here:

Students can do whatever they want in a classroom because a) all professors are boring, and b) someone is paying tuition for the student.

Students and parents, please get over the idea that your tuition is paying the professors. Most professors in the humanities are not paid six-figure salaries; most of us are paid far less. Only a very small fraction of tuition goes to professor salaries. For those of you whose parents pay your tuition, your parents are probably making much more than we are. The arguments about my financial obligation to you are meaningless to me.

If you must insist on the student-as-consumer model, then it is the student-consumer's responsibility to decide how to spend his/her money. People read reviews and listen to word-of-mouth opinions, for example, before deciding to spend money on a movie. Would you fork out $10 or whatever to see a movie you heard was boring? No. So why not find out if others think a class is boring or try out the class a few times during the add/drop period and then make an informed decision about whether or not to attend that class? (I realize choices are more limited at the graduate level--these comments are directed more to undergraduates.)

When I was in college and grad school, there weren't laptops yet (and this wasn't that long ago--I'm not ancient). Did I have boring professors? Of course. Did I doodle during lectures? Of course. But I went to class, I listened, I took notes, and even when I had boring classes, I still learned something because I was at least half-listening and usually fully listening. I know from my own experience of taking laptops to meetings that when a computer is front of me, I don't attend to the business of the meeting. I stopped taking laptops to meetings for this very reason.

Students, take responsibility for yourselves. If you don't like a class, get out of it. But don't waste your time and the professor's time by showing up but checking out. When you do that you come across as not only rude but stupid. You deserve the low grades that you get.

Stop blaming everyone but yourselves. Your utter lack of self-awareness betrays you.

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Mike Symons

If your lectures help to prepare your students for exams, then they already have a strong incentive to listen to you instead of surfing the web. If on the other hand, your lectures are rambling or frequently veer off topic, well then, they may as well entertain themselves. They can always stop surfing and pay attention again if you get back on course.

Greg

How about a class where the students are sufficiently engaged so that they do not have the time or inclination to surf (or doodle)?

Dan V

Re comment 145:

Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the real world as a teaching supervisor.

Would you mind writing up a few paragraphs on how I can achieve your level of success? I've dreamed of being like you for years, but have never had the opportunity to speak with such a eminent individual before.

sophiem

I'm sorry what were we talking about? I was "researching" solitaire.

Anoher current law student

I'm a second year in law school who has about 10 years of work experience in a corporation. I've found that studying for law school was very different from studying for my undergrad classes, or in doing the boring part of a corporate job. Even the "lazy" people here work much harder then almost anyone I encountered in undergrad or at work. Most of us spend 30 - 60 hours a week outside of the lecture studying.

At least for law school, I find lectures fulfill a different role from undergrad, or a any number of meetings in a business setting. Unlike undergrad, most of the work for laws school is done before I get to class. Generally 5 hours of work before each class session is reading, highlighting, then taking notes on the assigned text. By the time I get to class, unless something is really confusing their is very little a professor will add content wise.

Ideally what the professor does in class is go over any challenging concepts, and hopefully gets us to think about the material in different ways then the text did. About 1 in 4 of my professors do this right now. About half of my first year professors did.

If all a professor does is summarize the material he assigned us to read, and I've already taken notes that are needed from the book, lecture isn't going to help all that much. Even on a light studying day, I'm putting in 8-10 hours reading and note taking outside of class. If there is no value being added, then I'm going to do something with my time that is more valuable, like reading online (the Economist online is my favorite).

If a professor offers value, I will pay attention, otherwise I'm surfing, because I need a break before I get back to studying.

Most law schools have an attendance policy, so even if you know the material, you can't skip the class.

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Rafael

Nobody goes surfing in a good class. It's a form of torture to deny people from surfing in a bad class. Students should be able to optimize the utility from their time.

Patrik Hirvinen

Laptops are pure wonder for searching for additional and related information(especially when the pace is slow), taking notes(an order of magnitude faster than paper for writing) and discussing the lecture with the other attendants without bothering those who aren't interested in those conversations. We've found Jaiku(http://jaiku.com) to be a very handy tool for combined collaborative notes taking and discussing the lecture, even with those who aren't physically present.

anonymous giver

When I was in a computer lab class we sat behind terminals everyday, all day. The teacher had a master switch where he could see what was on any given terminal at anytime. One screen could be broadcast to all the other screens, too. Besides that, the professor and his assistant liked to communicate about some class problems I had through emails which he seemed to send whenever I appeared at school to practice in the lab (with the very expensive programs they had and I could not afford on my own system). In this way I had to open my email if not during class break, indeed during my free time practice in the lab. This meant that big brother, who was a rather short professor, could see, at least, to whom all my correspondentce were and who sent me correspondence, even if I did not open those emails.

Now I am not network savvy, nor do I know the possibilities in a wireless classroom, but now I would always beware what I was doing if I was in a school atmosphere. Remember your brand may not be your friend and your professor may not be either.

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Sarah-Sue

I am laughing at all the people out there who actually subscribe to the student-as-consumer model and believe that professors work for the students. These people are going to be in for rude awakenings not only in the workforce but in their adult relationships. Yes, professors should try to make lectures and class discussions interesting and compelling. A good professor will always have those goals. But to claim that students surf in class only because professors are boring is so disingenuous it is tantamount to lying. Sure, some professors are boring or speak in monotones, but guess what, children, not everyone you meet and will have to work with or live with is going to be scintillating. Your partner, boss, or co-worker is not going to be entertaining you all the time, yet, you will have to listen to these people and engage with them if you want to have good relationships with them. Surfing in class is the height of rudeness, and it absolutely is distracting to many students (I know this from observing many classes as a teaching supervisor and sitting in the backs of classrooms), and the students who are online or playing games are most often not listening to the professor or their classmates. What makes you think that students can set the rules in classes? Professors set the rules in their classes. Students who can't follow the rules of a class should not take that class, not blame the professor. Grow up and take responsibility for your own rudeness instead of blaming others for it.

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Eliah

I'm an undergrad management student and my school solved this problem quite easily. Because we need the internet at some point during the class, there's a switch up front for the teacher to turn on. Its off during lectures, but we can use the internet when it is turned on. Not only is the teacher "sure" that the students are listening, we are actually forced to listen because we can't do any surfing... well, the person who's playing Warcraft in front of me isn't doing any better.

Dave

As long as laptops aren't disruptive or distractive to others I don't see why people can't use them in lectures. If they want to surf that's up to them.

If the lecture is boring the laptop allows students to read other material or clarify a topic the lecturer skims over.

If laptops in lectures are very common developing networking tools to utilize this tool would be great. An open chat channel that students could swap notes/references would be great, especially if it's a boring lecture. Although for first year courses this might not work with hundreds of students.

Lara

As a law student who sits through long lectures that can be quite boring, I'd have to argue not to cut off the internet. I haven't read all of the comments above, but the ones I did read seem to suggest that the internet is all around a detriment.

I will admit that my attention span is less when I am able to surf the internet...sometimes. On the other hand, in undergrad everyone just brought in crossword puzzles, doodled, or even slept. If these are the alternatives, I cannot say that the internet is any worse.

Furthermore, it can have positive effects. Many times law students use the internet as a reference (looking up case briefs to jog their memories, instant messaging a friend to discuss an interesting point, etc.). Whereas a professor won't always call on a student with something interesting to say, that student can always discuss online with friends in the class.

Finally, some professors just don't lecture well. This is unfortunate, but it is a fact, and students still have to attend these classes. If a professor is simply repeating what is in the case and not creating a provocative discussion, why shouldn't a student multitask, check their endless emails, and do other important things that would just waste valuable studying time later in the day?

Overall, I'd have to say that the internet being available occasionally takes my attention away from class, but when I am genuinely interested in the discussion, I will choose not to surf. If the discussion is boring, I wouldn't be listening anyways and I get important things done online and take a moment to relax, read the news, maybe even pay a bill online. The life of a law student is high stress and they have to be adults to handle it...why not treat them as such and let them choose what is in their own best interest?

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