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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.


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.