If Professors Stop Lecturing, Will Students Stop Checking Facebook?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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You might think that students taking classes with some of the world's most prestigious academics wouldn't spend lecture time checking their Facebook profiles. But it turns out that Harvard students have a pretty tough time disconnecting from the web. Harvard Crimson staff writer Hemi H. Gandhi writes that Facebook use in Harvard classes "has become so ubiquitous that no one even questions it"—not even professors.

When Gandhi asked his fellow students why they use Facebook in class, they told him they turn to the site because "a professor starts regurgitating exactly what they've read in the textbook; paying attention won’t clarify confusion; a professor starts on a random tangent that is neither interesting nor relevant; [they] need a break to re-focus; [or they] feel pressed for time and decide to multitask."

Because "Harvard students are generally pragmatic and hyper-concerned about maximizing their Return On Time Investment," Gandhi writes, they log onto the site (which, of course, was founded at their university in 2003). Besides, he says, students no longer have to pay attention to the professor's lecture to learn the subject matter because "much of knowledge has become commoditized on the web." To solve the problem, Gandhi believes professors must "start thinking of themselves as service providers who must constantly innovate to serve students better." 

Even though students pay for classes, most professors—whether at Harvard or any other school—probably don't appreciate being referred to as service workers. And, while it certainly wouldn't hurt them to leave the lectures behind in favor of a more captivating approach, do we really want a campus culture where students think its cool to sit in class with an entertain-me-or-I'll-check-Facebook attitude?

Friends who work as part-time college instructors have complained to me that they occasionally feel like circus performers putting on a show for coeds with short attention spans. No matter how enthusiastic they are about the subject, or how much engaging multimedia, discussions, and group work they include, convincing media-addicted college students to log off Twitter and Facebook and use their laptops solely for taking notes is impossible. Even on campuses that ban electronics from classrooms, students sneak a peek at Facebook through the smartphones they hold in their laps.

They don't want to spend all semester playing technology police, so my professor friends have simply accepted that some students aren't going to pay attention. I imagine that many Harvard professors have taken the same approach. They are, after all, teaching young adults who have to decide for themselves whether they want to pay attention in class or spend their tuition dollars clicking "like" on photos. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user birgerking