How can I monitor internet use in my class?
June 24, 2010 8:09 AM   Subscribe

How should I respond to students who read emails and surf the net during a class I teach?

I teach a course in a local university. As more and more students bring their laptops to class, I have noticed that many appear to be surfing the net or responding to emails. I know because they often sit close to a window, and I can see the reflection of what's on their screen. The most recent being some lovely wedding photos.

I'm not claiming to be the most interesting professor in town. But on balance I do my job well enough. However I am not sure how to directly address this matter with students. I have tried mentioning that laptops are Ok for taking notes in class, but not for personal matters. However I am not going to be able to teach and monitor each student.

I'd like to have an effective way to deal with this in the fall. So if you have observed this in a class, how was it dealt with. Thanks
posted by ChicagoTherapyConnection to Education (76 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You might be interested in reading this (slightly contentious) previous question.
posted by chiababe at 8:12 AM on June 24, 2010

posted by cocoagirl at 8:12 AM on June 24, 2010

This is a constant problem. If students are not willing to abide by the "class use only" restriction that you have set, just say you don't allow laptops in class. Post your notes for downloading if you are worried about students being able to write everything down. If this seems too harsh to you, try limiting laptop use to the back row where students will only be distracting themselves and not those sitting behind them. Ultimately, it's not your job to monitor each student, it's up to them if they want to pay attention or not.
posted by proj at 8:13 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd argue that as long as they're not disrupting the other students' ability to participate, they're only harming themselves. Why not just ignore them, and then grade them fairly on quizzes and exams?
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:13 AM on June 24, 2010 [10 favorites]

I teach lectures with 400 students in them. At least half are on facebook while I'm lecturing. And I don't give a shit. I scream- SCREAM- at them for being disruptive (as in having actual, oral conversations) in class and thus ruining my lecture for the people around them (and in so doing affecting those hapless students' marks), but if they want to surf, they can surf. They're adults and they can pay the consequences.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:14 AM on June 24, 2010 [26 favorites]

I start class with a policy statement, saying that laptops and phones are not to be taken out during class without my expressed permission. If I see a cel phone, the student has to hand it over to me, and I will then change the language in which all of the instructions for the phone are given.
posted by pickypicky at 8:14 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

At my school, there are basically two attitudes:

1. You ban laptops. Student will grouse, but they'll get used to it.

2. You ignore it and acknowledge that the students are paying for the course, and it's their prerogative to waste their own money (or their parents' money), and that the students who want to get something out of the course will pay attention to you.

(Sometimes a prof requests that those people with laptops sit in the back of the classroom, so that the people sitting behind them aren't distracted.)

There's not much you can do to control this behaviour, unfortunately, only your reaction to it.
posted by Phire at 8:14 AM on June 24, 2010

There are 128 comments on that previous thread about this exact question.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:18 AM on June 24, 2010

I was a high school teacher for years. My advice is based on that experience, which might not apply so well. But here is my 2 cents.

You are not there to be their friends. Someone, their parents, is paying for them to be i the class. Deal with it harshly. Do not stand for it. It is incredibly rude to be sitting in a lecture and blowing off the speaker.

You are teaching them future bad behavior in the work-place. They will become people who sit in a business meeting and search the internet then. It is rude.

Pay attention or leave the room. They are distracting you and creating an environment of people not paying attention.

Walk around the room as you teach. I can not stress the importance of walking the room repeatedly during the class. Simply doing that will minimize bad behavior.

As you go past a student that is surfing the web, do not make a big show, but let them know that it is not appropriate. If they continue to do it the next day, then ask to see them after class, and tell them to stop. If they continue, then make a big show and ask them to leave the room
posted by Flood at 8:18 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?
posted by ChicagoTherapyConnection at 8:20 AM on June 24, 2010

Everybody in my business meetings has a laptop open doing other crap or is poking at their cellphones. unfortunately its the new normal.

That being said, if there's really no use for a laptop in your class, you can ban them. If they're distracting you, they're a distraction and you can ban them. Or you send them to the back row.

If they're using it to take notes, there's no need for wifi is there? maybe you can also try turning that off.
posted by captaincrouton at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2010

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

I haven't, but of course I would be very upset. It's hard for me to imagine anyone not being upset.

It's hypocritical for schools to offer wireless access in classrooms but then look down on students who use it. The main time I've used a laptop to take notes was in law school, and almost none of the classrooms had wireless (this was as late as 2007), which was fine with me. If you're going to offer wireless, laptop users are going to use it when they're bored for the same reason notebook users doodle when they're bored.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2010

I've never had my laptop or cellphone taken away (but then again, I actually take notes), and I've never seen it done. I HAVE seen people get kicked out of the classroom if they were caught playing games.
posted by Phire at 8:28 AM on June 24, 2010

This is not a binary situation. It is not 1. Browse the Internet OR 2. Pay attention to you. If you restrict laptop usage, these students will find a myriad of other ways to waste time and not participate in class, be it a magazine, crossword puzzle, or origami. These are just piss poor students and, in general, rude human beings and this will not change.

These are adult university students who are paying to be there and I am in total agreement with previous commenters that say they are only hurting themselves. In the same vein, you are not a disciplinarian should not consider confiscating laptops. Address it ONCE at the beginning of the class and/or on the syllabus and go on with teaching your class in the most professional manner possible.
posted by nineRED at 8:30 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll be honest there were plenty of classes I used laptops in because I was bored out of my mind but wanted to attend incase the professor asked a question on the exam that wasn't in the book (I don't learn jack from lectures; I have to see stuff in writing). If laptops were banned I wouldn't have bothered attending class. If you think laptops are distracting ask the people with them to sit in the back row.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 8:32 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

I would be very upset. You may not touch, let alone take, my personal belongings. Taking someone's property is crossing from trying to teach more effectively into the territory of intruding on personal space.

If you want to kick someone out, that's a different story.
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:32 AM on June 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

if they were reading ahead in the book or reading a different book, would you be as upset? what if they were writing letters or making a drawing?

This is what I was thinking, too. When I was in college, my friend and I used to write huge long letters to each other, pages of stream-of conciousness stuff. Just because the other students are writing, doesn't mean they are taking notes, or even paying attention. I think the laptops at the back of the room might be the answer to not distracting the other students, though.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:36 AM on June 24, 2010

As long as they're not disruptive, accept the fact that they're adults and they pay your salary.*

Concentrate on your job - lecturing and grading.

* or their parents do but that's really not your concern.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:37 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

You wouldn't let someone sit in class openly reading a magazine or book, right? This is exactly the same thing. Just say no.
posted by yarly at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2010

I had a professor in college who used to regularly call on people in class. Everyone paid attention for fear of getting called on, out of the blue. Even though the professor was "old as dirt" (his words) he somehow knew who wasn't paying attention, and called on them. Since his lectures covered the prior night's reading, his questions usually pertained to things that, had you done the reading, you would know...
posted by Arbitrage1 at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

You work for them. You are being paid to teach. They are paying to be taught. What they choose to do while being taught, as long as they aren't disrupting other students, should be their own business.

It's also presumptuous to think that surfing is incompatible with listening. I had maybe 2 or 3 lectures in my entire undergraduate career that I couldn't have absorbed completely while also surfing.
posted by callmejay at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

You do not have the authority to take anything from a student. You are not an officer of the law with some authority to even temporarily confiscate anything. You are not a primary or secondary school teacher who is acting in loco parentis.

Your authority is limited to calling security or campus police and asking them to remove a student you claim is disruptive. This will take a while and, depending on your school and the campus police, might involve some argument with the student. Or, arguably, decrementing their grade.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:44 AM on June 24, 2010 [11 favorites]

You wouldn't let someone sit in class openly reading a magazine or book, right? This is exactly the same thing. Just say no.
Do you really want to create a high school like environment where you have escalating methods of trying to hide the fact you are not paying complete attention to the teacher? I could get away with not going to class and still get good grades when profs started acting like totalitarians. Most of your students won't be able to. Would you rather have your students who need to hear your lecture show up and not pay complete attention or would you rather have them skip class?
posted by An algorithmic dog at 8:48 AM on June 24, 2010

I knit during college lectures so that I can remain awake and alert.

This coping mechanism was one of the clues in my adult diagnosis of ADHD.

When I can keep the 'ooh shiny' part of my brain occupied, the executive part of my brain isn't busy chasing down and coralling my other brain. This frees the executive up to listen and learn.

It also keeps me from mindlessly kicking the chair in front of me. Trust me, that's way more distracting than laptop use.

So. My alternate suggestion? Announce to the class that you're aware that laptop use is often a coping mechanism for difficulty concentrating. You are aware that when it comes down to brass tacks, your students will have am ear open for the critical information, but you aren't going out of your way to hold any hands. If the computer interferes with a student's ability to learn, they should take the initiative to put it away.

Then, in your own free time, maybe read up a bit on what having ADHD is actually like. It's certainly not the reason behind every potentially disruptive behavior, but I think you'll appreciate the insight.
posted by bilabial at 8:50 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I agree. As long as they're not distracting others then there isn't much you should do about it. Once they start distracting others than you can ban laptops from everyone or specific people. But in the end, nobody is forcing these kids to go to college or your class. They picked it. If they want to waste the time that's their problem.

I used to sit in class and make playlists for my radio show or write random things. I also paid attention.

The only good way to get people to pay attention is to give them a good reason to pay attention. Put things on the test that you only mention in class. Give quizzes randomly. Call on people randomly.

If it bothers you that much then kick people out of class. Well, maybe not straight kick them out, but remind them that it's their choice to be in class and if they'd rather play on Facebook then they can leave and go do that somewhere else. I once had a professor who kicked the entire class out because she decided nobody had done the reading (which was probably true, I know I didn't that day).

Don't take points off on the grade though. Forced participation in class sucks. I have had professors who gave 5 points a day for being in class. Thankfully they understood that participating in class is different for everyone. If you got kicked out you didn't get the points, no matter when it was. If you got kicked out enough or for something they felt was severe enough they had it in the syllabus that more points might be taken away. To my knowledge those extra points were never lost.
posted by theichibun at 8:50 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ha, I'm just writing a teaching philosophy where I address my strict classroom management policies.

I don't allow laptops or cellphones or anything like that in class. I've been a student in situations where people were web surfing or texting under their desks beside me, and found it incredibly distracting. In my classes, laptops have never been required for anything, though I guess if a student wanted to ask politely to use their laptop to, for example, look something up, I wouldn't have a problem with it. My classes are discussion-based, so that could conceivably happen. But here, I mean general constant websurfing.

However, I would never take an adult student's phone or device away from them. Instead, what I do is give the student one warning. I stop whatever I'm doing, look at them, and ask them to put their phone/laptop/whatever away. They're generally pretty horrified to be called out in front of the class, and almost always comply. If it keeps happening during that class period--and it almost never does--I ask them (again, politely) to leave.

This is how I look at it: they're grown-ups. They don't have to ask me to, say, go to the bathroom during class. If there's something really urgent they need to do, it's no skin off my teeth if they want to go out in the hallway and do it. But I find the use of devices distracting, as both a student and an instructor. It sends a much more clear I'm-not-paying-attention message than doodling does, and it's important (in my workshop and discussion based classes) that they treat other students and me respectfully.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:51 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Agree with all the previous posts that your students are adults and are only hurting themselves by not paying attention.

I don't think banning laptops completely is a good idea, though. Now that the personal computer has been ubiquitous for so long, many of us who grew up with computers can take notes much faster and more effectively by typing than we ever could by writing. If forced to take notes by hand, I would be at a severe disadvantage.
posted by xedrik at 8:52 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a college student myself. Whether I do a side activity in a class depends on the structure of the class and how I feel that day. I never take my laptop to class, but I do things on my phone in some classes or I might do a crossword or something. This sounds bad, but I do it in classes/at moments that I can listen to and still follow along, especially if I have read the textbook beforehand.

Also, another factor for me personally is that I struggled with generalized anxiety to the point where I could be very anxious just sitting in class (or anywhere for that matter). At this point, I've worked through some of the underlying causes of that, but before I would often play a little game (such as solitaire on an ipod) or do a small personally distracting activity during part of the class (say for a five minute length of time until I felt calmer), which I found to be greatly preferable to having to leave the room for that amount of time or longer, and it also made me feel more "normal" and more like my old self.

My point is, please dont judge some of your students too harshly or assume that they are all just tuning out based on boredom or laziness. I would have given anything to be tuned in and having a small distractor was a vital tool during a very difficult time in my life. Also, if you were my instructor and you called me out on it, I would have felt absolutely awful and would have probably cried (it didn't take much).

So while I understand that looking at wedding photos may seem like one thing, you cant be certain of why someone is doing a side activity during your class. I tried to be inconspicuous and generally did this in very large lecture halls. If I had had a laptop with me, maybe I would have perused the internet, but my intentions were in the right place.
posted by afterdark at 8:54 AM on June 24, 2010

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

If I'm college, you will never, ever take my personal property, period. If you look you're going to try that, we're going to have problems and by we, I mean you. Not sure what I mean by that last statement, but any college professor attempting to take personal property from me is a non-starter. I can't imagine it's different for other adults.

Frankly, this whole issue sounds like a you problem, not a student problem. It sounds like you're trying to micromanage every moment of a person's time and attention for the length of your class and that sounds unhealthily arrogant.

The student may be wicked smart and bored by you, may be dealing with personal issues, may be taking a break 'cause your class isn't a big struggle and they were up all night partying or studying for another class, maybe you're teaching a required class that they have no interst in, who knows? Let it go and concentrate on those who are paying active attention.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:56 AM on June 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

I have been the kid who dicked around on his laptop during class and I have also sat behind the kid who was diligently taking notes on his laptop in class. You probably wouldn't be able to tell which is which, as neither of us had our heads up unless it was to ask a question. I'd either assume everyone is fucking around and ban laptops, or stop making assumptions as to what the screen turned away from me has on it (yes, even if you saw one bad apple looking at wedding pictures.)

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

Do not even try it. Don't even ask. You're asking someone to hand over a several-hundred-dollar piece of technology to someone who is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect stranger. This is not a road you want to go down in the middle of class.
posted by griphus at 8:57 AM on June 24, 2010

I am a professor, but I do not "work for" my students, and really resent being told that I do. I teach at an elite university. If some schmuck doesn't feel s/he's getting his/her money's worth, they can leave. Someone else is eagerly waiting to take the place.

They aren't in charge of the classroom just because they paid tuition to be there. Everyone else in that room has a right to have a professional, focused atmosphere. They paid too.

If you don't like it, you don't have to take my class. But I don't work for you just because you do take my class. I work for the university. If, as a customer (or client) of the university, you don't like how I teach, complain to the dean.

And even if I did think of myself as "employed" by the kid texting blithely through my lecture, the customer is not always right. Just because I pay for tickets to a concert, doesn't give me a right to talk through the cadenza.

Luckily, I teach small classes. No way you'd escape my notice if you were emailing or facebooking during a lecture/discussion. And you'd hear about it from me after class, and in your grade for participation at the end of the semester if you didn't cut the shit after being politely and privately asked to stop.

The attitude that students are "customers" and can therefore behave however they want in class is recent, dating about to the early 1990s in my experience. Once when I was teaching at a big state university on the west coast, I had a student pull the "you work for me" shit (based not only on paying tuition but on being a taxpayer, supposedly, which is one reason I left Big State University). I did some quick math, gave him 50 cents, and told him to drop the class.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:58 AM on June 24, 2010 [23 favorites]

(That said, I would never take someone's computer or phone. That is not a professor's right, either. I can ask you to leave class if you're being disruptive, however, and be perfectly within my rights to do so, at my discretion.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:00 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

My approach (for undergraduates in large lectures) is not to care. I realize this doesn't work for everyone, but my take is that it is basically their problem if they aren't paying attention (and it will come back to bite them on homeworks and exams if they are doing it systematically). One thing you could do is calculate approximately how much theytheir parents are paying for each class, and point this out to them. Even at a state school with in-state tuition this is probably a formidable, shocking number.

If a graduate student were doing this in a class, however, I would probably take them aside at some point and have a talk with them.

If I see a cel phone, the student has to hand it over to me

Uh, this probably is very much not legal, and is equally likely to trigger an angry phone call to your chair. I would never take a personal belonging from a student.
posted by advil at 9:04 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

As an IT person, I regularly browse the internet as I am helping people on the phone or via remote software. And believe it or not, the other person can't tell and everything gets fixed in the same amount of time. Spending the twenty seconds of blank silence as the user connects me, or the five minutes it takes for file to transfer, browsing a site keeps me sharp. My brain becomes engaged in staying focused because there's actually something to focus on.

In the classroom, the brain (well, my brain) is much more likely to lose focus and check out of a boring lecture if there's nothing in the classroom holding its attention. I am much more likely to be paying attention in class if my brain stays turned on during the parts of the lecture that I would normally lose focus with--for instance, unnecessary (to me) explanations, things I've already covered, etc. There is a danger of getting too absorbed in the side tasks, but in my experience it's a lot less likely than drifting off into a catatonic state.

Also, doing things like taking non-disruptive students possessions away is extremely rude. I would consider it a personal affront and would make every attempt to secure a different professor or make whatever complaint possible. The classroom is not supposed to be a hostile early-high-school environment.
posted by Phyltre at 9:08 AM on June 24, 2010

Just make the work (or some part of it) due at the end of class. Or, just tell them that at 20 minutes before the end of class you'll flip a coin. Heads turn in your work, tails it's due next week. I find this works well as students view the decision as being made by the coin and not the teacher, the coin is the bad guy (not that you should care what students think of you).
posted by maxpower at 9:09 AM on June 24, 2010

Or perhaps, if you are a social sciences instructor, for instance, you are lecturing about something (necessary background information) the student has already covered ad nauseum in previous courses in which they did very well. Such is the occupational hazard of teaching courses with weird prerequisite chains. Seriously, I know what postmodernism is, there may be a handful of non-majors in the course who still don't grok it, so at that moment you're lecturing to them, not me.

I'm probably a lot like many of your students. I've got my laptop open to take notes, but you're spending a lot of time at the front of the room where you're not teaching - you're erasing the board, futzing around with Powerpoint slides, rifling through your own notes. So I'm a problem student if I choose to use that downtime in a useful manner? You don't say.

Luckily, I teach small classes. No way you'd escape my notice if you were emailing or facebooking during a lecture/discussion. And you'd hear about it from me after class, and in your grade for participation at the end of the semester if you didn't cut the shit after being politely and privately asked to stop.

fourcheesemac, you're a humanities/social sciences prof, right? I only ever hear this sort of sentiment from you guys. It's telling. I'm not too sure what you do when you come across a student who is an expert multitasker, though.

There's no way I'll have a laptop out during a seminar/discussion group class, because the rapid-fire nature of intimate discussions doesn't leave a lot of room for a computer to be useful in any context. But then again, I'll smartly participate in larger lectures (where participation marks often don't matter, mind you) even when I'm multitasking. Hell, there've been times when having my laptop in class has helped me contribute to a discussion because I could look up the abstract of a paper that was relevant to the topic.

I'm a strong student, and when my laptop's open in class my screen is turned down to its darkest setting. No one's being disrupted, and guess what? I'm possibly more useful to class discussion than some of your perfect, conscientious students who didn't bring their MacBooks to class. There are a lot of students like myself, and don't assume that we're some combination of recalcitrant, stupid, or disruptive. Some of us are earning our keep in school, so you're best to focus on the ones who clearly are not. I don't feel like this is an issue of Millennial-cohort entitlement for the people who are otherwise behaving like good students and helpfully contribute to the academic environment around them.
posted by thisjax at 9:30 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The fact is, it doesn't matter. People who care about learning will learn, people who are just there for a piece of paper to get a better job don't care about learning. Whether or not you let them browse the Internet won't make any difference at all as to how much they learn or grow as a person. However it is pretty rude and I wouldn't stand for that. Just don't fool yourself into thinking you're making much of a difference in terms of helping them not waste their / their parent's money.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:31 AM on June 24, 2010

I surfed my way through law school--I had internet in every single class, and spent the entire time reading, well, Metafilter mostly, and still managed to graduate with high honors from a very highly ranked program. It's not necessarily that the classes weren't interesting (they were) or that the classes didn't convey important information (they did--stuff that wasn't in the textbooks, or the professor's personal view on a subject), it's just that I can surf the net and type notes faster than a professor can teach.

"Bad" students will find ways to pass the time with or without computers--doodling, talking, passing notes, etc. "Good" students will be able to process whatever you're trying to teach and still be able to surf Cute Overload.

You may find it insulting to see your students multitask in your class; I would find it equally insulting if you tried to stop me. And heaven forfend that you attempt to take my laptop or cell phone away; that's just asking for a revolt.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:33 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I thought this recent post by Philip Greenspun was interesting, and perhaps offers a solution. It has as its focus real engagement, and is more like classes where I've retained what I learned over the years vs classes that were interesting but I've not retained:
When I teach a group of 15 or 20 students, I do it by going around the room, learning each person’s name, and asking a question. If the person doesn’t give the right answer, I ask the next person. If that doesn’t work, I give a hint and ask the next person. We keep going around the room with questions such as “What happens if you have the helicopter parked on a frozen lake and turn on the engine to start the rotor system spinning?” (answer: fuselage turns in the opposite direction; this leads naturally to the next question “What would you then want to add to the helicopter?” (answer: tail rotor)).

Students stay awake because they know that they’re going to be asked a question within the next five minutes or so. The material ends up being naturally paced to the comprehension level of the class. If people aren’t answering correctly, the class slows down, people have more time to think, and I provide more explanations. At any time during the two-hour class I can tell you which students are getting it and which may need remedial instruction.
I think I'd really enjoy a class like this, assuming the teacher knew what he or she was talking about. I think it would definitely solve the "people looking at laptops or phones while bored" problem.

In a larger class, well, I think it points out a fundamental problem of the large lecture class. We could simply get the best teacher of [subject] in the world and have them lecture, save it to podcast and do away with most the teachers of [subject] altogether. Bleak, but it seems to follow if nobody's listening to the lecture.

Sorry I digressed, but I think my advice here is "try more engagement with the students"--I suspect that will decrease internet use.
posted by artlung at 9:37 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

The attitude that students are "customers" and can therefore behave however they want in class is recent, dating about to the early 1990s in my experience.

I don't think anybody is saying that they can behave however they want. As long as they aren't being disruptive to those around them, they are paying customers.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:39 AM on June 24, 2010

The problem with banning such devices as classroom policy is that if a student receives ADA accommodations allowing a laptop you will look inconsistent at best, draconian at worst, and risk invading their privacy--itself an ADA violation.

This is a red herring. Every school has a set procedure for students with registered disabilities to follow--which, in my experience, requires registering with the office of disabilities and informing the instructor of any accommodations that need to be made (informing the instructor of why is not part of it, which is why this is not a violation of ADA). Any reasonable instructor would comply with these exemptions and changes to policy--or, risk losing his or her job. However, that doesn't stop professors from being allowed to set classroom management policies for the general population.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:43 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing from comments that shame is not possible in this age. If indeed it ever was.

Appeal to their pocketbooks. Calculate how much your class costs per hour. Point out that every minute a student is not listening to you, they are tossing x$ down the toilet.

More, if you consider that the class is theoretically supposed to prepare them for higher wages.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:45 AM on June 24, 2010

fourcheesemac, you're a humanities/social sciences prof, right? I only ever hear this sort of sentiment from you guys. It's telling. I'm not too sure what you do when you come across a student who is an expert multitasker, though.

I don't know if it's telling of much more than the average class size in the humanities versus, say, the sciences. A student in a humanities class is much more likely to be enrolled in a small discussion-based course, where web surfing is both more obvious (and potentially distracting) and detrimental to the desired learning environment, than in a large lecture.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:48 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

An aside from an old teacher who always had small classes and not huge lecture room classes:
My class. My rules. I teach. I ask questions. You participate. Don't want to? Don't bother coming to class but participation a percentage of final grade.
posted by Postroad at 9:50 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd create guidelines for *your particular class* that you feel you can live with, like limiting disruptive behavior, rather than saying no laptops or cellphones whatsoever. I would not consider taking a device from an adult.

If you have a small class and can walk around, do so. Give pop quizzes if you feel things are getting out of hand. If you have the time to see someone looking at wedding photos and note it as it is reflected in the glass behind them, I would think you *could* actually monitor your students, but maybe that's just me.

So I'd say, for guidelines: put your phone on airplane mode at least while in class or turn it off (a ringing phone is NOT acceptable and rude), please use the back rows if you are on your laptop and turn the screen brightness down out of consideration for your fellow students, and be prepared to be called upon or tested on lecture material.

YMMV, void where prohibited, etc.
posted by misha at 9:52 AM on June 24, 2010

A student who requires a laptop for a disability accommodation will have documentation of that need, and of course that would be an exception.

thisjax, yes, I teach humanities (and social science) courses. Have for 18 years at the college level. Am tenured. Maybe the difference is that in a well run humanities or social science class, learning is collective, the product of discussion and debate, not a matter of an individual mastering facts and procedures independently from the group as in a math or physics class. If all that matters is whether you can do the equation at the end of the semester, I suppose it doesn't matter if you show the fuck up for class at all. No skin of my back. But in a class of 20 students in a high level discussion/seminar format (mostly what I ever teach, if I teach undergrads at all, as I chair a department these days and teach less than I used to), one person not participating is affecting everyone's learning process. Plus, I don't care if your screen is dim, if you're not paying attention to what the professor *or the other students* are saying, typing away, everyone can feel it as a sign of disinterest and disrespect. It affects the discussion even if you are completely furtive about it.

I surf the web when I'm on the phone too if I can get away with it, absolutely. If your full attention is not required *and* there is no perceptible inattention to offend your interlocutors, no harm no foul. But I don't surf the web in department meetings or when I attend lectures.

Basically, it's about acting like a fucking adult.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:55 AM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Also, all you geniuses who claim you learn better with distractions are kidding yourselves. I am as ADHD-ish as the next tenured PhD, which is plenty. When I have to actually learn something, it requires my attention and focus.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:58 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

The problem with giving pop quizzes is that it is not clear that it will work -- I know plenty of people (myself one of them) who would sit on their laptops, put the laptop away to take the pop quiz and get a perfect score, then get back on the laptop. And we were generally pretty happy with the pop quizzes because they were easier then the tests and so inflated our grades. You can not make people pay attention to your lecture -- especially people who don't need to come in the first place. Giving participation is only a bandaid to the fact that there are plenty of people for whom lectures are just not effective learning mechanisms.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 9:59 AM on June 24, 2010

I just thought of a great solution. Ask any student who plans to have her/his mind elsewhere to please sit with her/his back to the rest of the class. Same with the sleepers.

It's the same thing. It's just about courtesy. You are not the only person in the room. Signaling your inattention to the others in the room, including the instructor and your fellow students, is rude. Period.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:00 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm much more annoyed by other students asking stupid questions in class than by students using laptops/phones/etc. Especially when the professor indulges the stupid students by re-explaining information that most people understood the first time.

Ironically, almost all of the stupid questions come from students who appear to be concentrating exclusively on the lecture and never use a laptop or phone during class. Laptop users seem to understand that it would audacious of them to ask a question after spending most of the class ignoring lecture.

But I'm an MBA student, so that may be contributing to the stupid student problem.
posted by mullacc at 10:06 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

FourCheeseMac: the problem is that you keep assuming that the people who are in class want to be there. As far as I'm concerned give me a class (like certain Comp Sci classes) where I can learn everything from the book and I won't bother showing up to class with my laptop. The reason you end up with people showing up to class with laptops and sleeping in class is because the trend in university is to make classes mandatory attendance. I've had plenty of professors where you had to go to class because they would purposely (they told us as much ahead of time) discuss things not in the book to make you attend class if you wanted that 100% on the exam. Many classes are not about learning anymore, they are about checking off degree requirements boxes. In this brave new world where the administration of the university puts checklists ahead of learning is it any wonder that students show up to class and do other things? The idea that university classes are about learning at this point is a fantasy unfortunately.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 10:07 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

That is theft. I would respond with the amount of force necessary to protect myself and my belongings.

These are adults, they can manage their own time and resources, thank you very much. If there is no disruption, then you are really overstepping your bounds by trying to micromanage their time for them.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:20 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Does your school have some sort of guidance on this? If they have a policy, I would not be more restrictive than that. If you want to draft your own policy, I suggest you run it by them. Not because I heart bureaucratic BS, but because I think it will serve you when someone complains.

My personal opinion is that my mind would boggle if I were in a university level class and my professor asked me to hand over a phone or laptop.

I don't think you want an atmosphere where it starts off adversarial and here, I'm going to be a hardass about this, unless you really think that will work for the type of student you usually get. I would start off the semester with a discussion of laptops and phones and how you would appreciate it if students used those only for notes/class related activities because it can distract other students, and I would mention that if I noticed someone who was often texting or surfing during class I would likely ask them to come meet with me for a few minutes so that they could explain how I could better engage - and I would say that in a genuinely open/I want to hear feedback type of way, and not a I'm gonna call your ass out type of way.

Aside from the debate about who has the right to do what (except for the taking property), I think it's ultimately about creating a good atmosphere where there's some mutual respect and a student will not want to open the laptop or phone out of either courtesy or interest in your class.

Maybe I am overestimating, I don't know. But bees and honey and vinegar and all that. Plus bees leave student evaluations, yes?
posted by mrs. taters at 10:33 AM on June 24, 2010

ChicagoTherapyConnection Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

It's never happened to me, but I would respond with a police report. You are not a teacher and they are not minors; you do not get to confiscate property.
posted by spaltavian at 10:35 AM on June 24, 2010

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

I agree with what others have said - this is a criminal act, as far as I'm concerned. I would not surrender my device. If taken from me by force, I would call the police. A bank teller has the right to be annoyed that I'm using my cell phone while standing in the bank line, and even refuse service to me if it bothers him/her enough. They do not, however, have the right to take my personal property. A college classroom is no different.

I'm inclined to agree with the sentiment that as long as the students aren't distracting others or disrupting the class, then just accept that they're hurting themselves and don't worry about it. On the other hand, what fourcheesemac said about the necessity of participation and the obligation to the other students also rings true. I don't think a rule banning the use of laptops, or just the non-academic use of laptops, and imposing some kind of penalty would be inappropriate. As to the actual end result of such a policy though, I don't really know.
posted by Vorteks at 11:00 AM on June 24, 2010

Has anyone had their laptop or phone taken from them in class. If so, how did you respond?

I've had 2 college professors that have been very paranoid about cell phone usage in their classes. One is for a class I'm currently taking. He openly calls out anyone in class that he thinks is using a cell phone and interrupts his lecture to ask them to stop. He's an awesome teacher, but he often stops for 3 or 4 minutes and talks about how much he hates cell phones, then can't remember where he was in his lecture...and the people he thinks are texting aren't always texting or don't even have their phone out. His callouts are way more distracting than people using their phones and they get him off track.

A few semesters ago, I reached into my bag to pull out my pencil case and my cell phone was on top of it and flew out. It was completely and totally dead, so there was no way I would have been using it anyways. The professor came over, picked it up, put it next to the computer, and told me I could have it back at the end of class. I filed a complaint with the university the next day. In high school, sure, confiscate phones. But it's not your right to take their property or even touch it.

And don't think that getting rid of computers will magically make students pay attention. I've often seen people sitting towards the back of the room in attendance based no-laptops-allowed classes doing other homework, drawing pictures, doing crosswords, and (more than once) coloring. The only way to fix that is re-evaluating your teaching.
posted by kro at 11:12 AM on June 24, 2010

If all that matters is whether you can do the equation at the end of the semester, I suppose it doesn't matter if you show the fuck up for class at all.

I have one major in the social sciences and the other's in a hard science. Thanks for misrepresenting the extent of student involvement in math lectures. And given that I have direct experiences with courses in both disciplines, yeah, your point makes sense with respect to seminar courses, but what of large lecture-style social science courses? What about courses run by profs who provide an abundance of Powerpoint presentations and PDFs that one is reluctant to print and would rather annotate on-screen?

The other issue here is that you keep assuming that all students are subject to lectures that, well, actually provide anything. I don't like showing up to lectures where professors read verbatim from slides detailed enough to make said lecturing redundant. But, I do it any in case a classmate thinks of a clarifying question that didn't occur to me. You might be a good prof who has the luxury of teaching in settings where students must maintain a high level of engagement, but you know that academia isn't uniformly like that.

Plus, I don't care if your screen is dim, if you're not paying attention to what the professor *or the other students* are saying, typing away, everyone can feel it as a sign of disinterest and disrespect. It affects the discussion even if you are completely furtive about it.

I'm pretty sure that I said upthread that I don't do this in seminar classes, because I agree with you that it just doesn't work. Then again, I'm also in seminar classes with students too confused or inarticulate to contribute even if they were glued to their classmates' words, so perhaps you should think of the edge cases.
posted by thisjax at 11:13 AM on June 24, 2010

I am as ADHD-ish as the next tenured PhD, which is plenty. When I have to actually learn something, it requires my attention and focus.

Fourcheesemac, there's a difference between being "ADHD-ish" and actually having ADHD. One is a made-up label that's being used to excuse a lack of understanding and compassion; the other is an actual disorder that often requires medication and/or a complex set of coping mechanisms. I'm not trying to be shitty with you, but in this instance, saying that is like saying that since you're missing a toe, you totally get what it's like to lose your leg, and really, if those lazy people without a leg would just work harder, they could walk just like you do.

Anyhow, topic at hand. If I were still in school, I wouldn't take classes with a prof who banned laptops or cell phones. Full stop. I was a single parent when I was in school, and my cell phone was what made it possible for me to go to school in the first place. I have arthritis in my fingers, and while it's not technically a disability, it makes it damn hard for me to hold a pen. I can write, but it's slow and laborious and not at all useful for note taking.

I'm sure that you're saying that you'd be totally happy to accommodate both of those reasons, which may well be, but maybe I'm not willing to explain to everyone who asks that oh, no, I'm not breaking the rule, but I have an exception because of my invisible disability. Which will prompt questions, thus potentially leaving the hypothetical me in a rather awkward situation--do I discuss personal health issues with my classmates, or do I refuse and leave them thinking that I'm somehow cheating the system? Neither option sounds like a lot of fun, frankly.

If your students don't pay attention, they'll either learn on their own or they'll fail the course. (I'm very much the sort of person who learns from reading--you can talk to me about it for an hour and I won't get it, but give me ten minutes with a textbook and I'm good to go.) Your job isn't to try to force them to pay attention or learn in the style that you feel is appropriate, it's to present the material and see if they've mastered it. The number of games of Bejeweled they've played on the way shouldn't matter.
posted by MeghanC at 11:24 AM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

The attitude that students are "customers" and can therefore behave however they want in class is recent, dating about to the early 1990s in my experience.

fourcheesemac, you're mixing up the issues here. Saying that students are ADULTS who have to accept the consequences if they, say, facebook during lectures nonstop, has nothing whatsoever, NOTHING, to do with this ridiculous idea that they're customers or, to be even more ridiculous, "clients." They might THINK this way but that sort of thinking will destroy them. To the contrary: If I take as course policy that THEY, and not I, are responsible for taking notes and that THEY, and not I, are the ones in control of their course success or failure, then that's about as far from "customer" as could be imagined.

Don't belittle those of us who aren't teaching in your "elite" environments. We have issues in managing massive lectures that you couldn't imagine.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:52 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

From my experience in the corporate world, in my field at least, people have their laptops with them all the time and may be taking notes or even be doing actual unrelated work - or playing games or looking at wedding pictures - during a meeting, even a meeting with a lively and important discussion or an important presentation by a superior. It actually seems to me that learning to respectfully and realistically cope with that may constitute being an adult moreso at this point. I'd predict that it's going to be iPads or iPad clones soon and maybe in a few more decades computers you can't even see so we all ought probably to be getting used to it.

But that said, if a professor in school really wanted the laptops et cetera to be absent and sincerely felt that it would help them teach better or help the class as a whole learn better I'd be willing to go along with it, if it didn't seem like it was part of some sort of general controlling or micromanaging fetish. I say that even though I've got real ADHD; doodling, if required, isn't that bad - strictures on your drifting attention would be way worse if you were in the military or something.
posted by XMLicious at 11:56 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you were engaging me as a student I wouldn't feel the need for distractions.

Look, you're teaching to a room full of people, and everyone is at a different level. Sometimes I already know what you're teaching everyone else. So you are in every sense of the word wasting my time. If I can salvage a little bit of that with my laptop or phone, then good for both of us. I'm much more likely to keep coming to class for those days that I don't know everything rather than resenting you and the subject you're trying to teach.

If you tried to take my (expensive, important, and somewhat fragile) property away from me you would find yourself on the floor. If you were lucky you wouldn't be bleeding.

Get over it and don't let it be a distraction to you.
posted by Ookseer at 12:27 PM on June 24, 2010

No, it's not. I'm speaking from experience. If you ban laptops in class and some student shows up with one, other students will get the picture that they have special dispensation and either bitch about it or figure out why. It has the potential to violate the student's privacy.

This is unavoidable for the full range of accommodations we make for students with disabilities, from allowing students extra time to work on assignments to allowing them to have someone with them in class to take notes for them. That these things attract the attention of other students is unavoidable--but that doesn't mean we, as professors, are obligated to extend these accommodations to all students in order to create an illusion of fairness.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:33 PM on June 24, 2010

(As for how you handle those questions that come up, the Disability Resource Center of my alma mater covers this pretty well:

"A student has approached me and is concerned that he/she feels a particular student in class is receiving special treatment.

Explain to the student that:
a. The University is legally obligated to assist students who qualify for accommodations.
b. All students are held to the same standards of academic performance.
c. The issue cannot be discussed further because you need to respect the confidentiality of the student.")
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:41 PM on June 24, 2010

I have ADD. I find it highly distracting when laptops are used in lectures to surf the web. It doesn't bother me when they are being used to take notes, because it is relevant (and even helpful for following along) rather than distracting.
posted by lover at 1:47 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my syllabi it clearly states when accessing phones and terminals are allowed and what material is acceptable. For instance, do not distract your fellow students with pornographic material or inappropriate sounds. Because I deal with students who may have children I do not demand that they shut off their phones but that conversations have to be taken out of class immediately. If people choose to run their Ebay empire and I notice (I walk as I lecture) then I state explicitly that I will not help said student. I have never taken any electronics from a student and do not plan to because I can have them leave to public shame. If a student violates one of the rules, like texting during an exam, well the result is an "F" for the course and an appointment with the Dean of Students.

Students are adults, incentivize appropriately and make policy transparent.
posted by jadepearl at 2:52 PM on June 24, 2010

Require people using laptops to sit in one designated section of the room.

Otherwise, they are adults who have paid to come to class, and I think it's infantilizing to try to police their behaviour. Some people will face bad consequences to their grades, yes, but that is their problem to face. Other people may find the seeming distraction "useful" in a way. People learn and cope with sitting in class differently.

(Full disclosure: I'm an undergrad who does not own or use a laptop or cell phone in any class. But I still think it's stepping over the line to totally disallow them. Ask for phones to be turned off, yes. Ask for laptops to be kept to the back or side, sure. Even ask people to please not watch movies or surf or whatever...but you ultimately can only ask and guide the behaviour or adults, not control it.)
posted by Ouisch at 2:56 PM on June 24, 2010

Random cold-calling and the Socratic method can be your friends. I recommend them highly.
posted by dilettanti at 3:17 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A note to everyone who is suggesting that the OP "just ignore it": for me, lecturing at a university level is challenging work, at least the way I do it. Although I ultimately find it very rewarding, it's physically and mentally tiring. I expect the students to be mentally engaged, not only for their own benefit, but for mine as well. It's a pleasure to lecture to a sea of attentive faces, and the occasions that this happens are wonderful. But when I'm in the middle of a lecture and I look out and see a student intently focused on the bluish glow of Facebook, it distracts me and my lecture suffers for it. Other lecturers might not have a problem with this, possibly including the OP, but keep in mind that for some of us it makes our jobs more difficult, and this is ultimately unfair to the rest of the students in class.

You get exactly one chance to implement a policy regarding electronic devices, and this is at the very beginning of class. I always make my slides available online before each lecture, so that students can print them out and take notes on them if they wish, and I prohibit the use of electronic devices in class. I tell the students on the first day that if I see them using electronic devices during class, or if I hear any noise from one, I will take away points from the "class participation" portion of their final grade, possibly without mentioning it during the lecture. Students are welcome to go out into the hall to take calls if they wish. Also, it's been my experience that most students are very accustomed to having peers that get special dispensations wrt classroom procedures, exams, etc. and do not get outraged if there's someone in their class for whom different rules apply.
posted by tractorfeed at 6:58 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the many replies. I am not interested in asking students to give me their laptops or phones. Personally, if a student is not interested in being there, is bored, doesn't like my teaching, or feels obligated to take the class; I can understand that. I've been there.

What I'm less clear about is what level of responsibility are students willing to take for their choices? Are they willing to accept if they choose to make certain decisions, there will be certain consequences both good and bad. So how would you respond if you were free to just read on your own, take the tests,write the papers, not show up for class or for group exercises; but the best grade you could get would be a B+?
posted by ChicagoTherapyConnection at 7:21 AM on June 25, 2010

For us, at the beginning of the year, the prof has to set out a very specific mandate regarding what the course breakdown is.... so we know ahead of time that 40% goes to the final, 40% goes to the midterm, 10% to homework and 10% to participation, for example. This is taken seriously enough that we're allowed to go complain to Academic Affairs if the prof changes the breakdown in the middle of the year without due reason.

What I'm saying is: yes, it's possible to build in a penalty for not showing up, but make sure it's consistent, and make sure it's systematic. (And unless your penalty is also going to apply to people who use laptops in class, which, again, penalizes those who use laptops legitimately, I don't see how this solves your initial problem.)
posted by Phire at 7:25 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

So how would you respond if you were free to just read on your own, take the tests,write the papers, not show up for class or for group exercises; but the best grade you could get would be a B+?

This seems to be a different question for your original one, so I recommend waiting 6 days to ask this as a new question.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:52 AM on June 25, 2010

ChicagoTherapyConnection: "So how would you respond if you were free to just read on your own, take the tests,write the papers, not show up for class or for group exercises; but the best grade you could get would be a B+?"

I would say that you've set up the class so that being there is part of the class. And that's a perfectly valid way to do it, and is how most of my college classes that had being in class points worked. It's perfectly fine, as long as you have a clearly stated method for knowing how often people are there and let the students know your method.

My favorite was 5 points a day for showing up. Everyone could figure out for themselves if they could afford (grade wise) to miss a class. Professor didn't care if people weren't there as long as they didn't complain about the grade or ask for extra credit.
posted by theichibun at 8:57 AM on June 25, 2010

So how would you respond if you were free to just read on your own, take the tests,write the papers, not show up for class or for group exercises; but the best grade you could get would be a B+?

Depends on the class. I'm a English lit major and most of my enjoyment from school comes from the informed discussions in small classes. On the other hand, I find myself miserable during lecture classes. If it were a lecture class for something that I have a demonstrated inaptitude for -- Chemistry, for instance -- and I knew I probably wouldn't get the B+ in the first place, I'd be fine with it.
posted by griphus at 9:03 AM on June 25, 2010

So how would you respond if you were free to just read on your own, take the tests,write the papers, not show up for class or for group exercises; but the best grade you could get would be a B+?

Jaltcoh may have the right idea that this might be better dealt with as a separate AskMe.

I was never one to care about grades very much, but prima facie if you are proposing that a student's compliance or non-compliance with your classroom management strategies would effect your evaluation of their academic ability that seems a bit ridiculous. I think that everyone accepts that grades are a crude evaluation tool but this would seem deliberately nonsensical.

If you want to achieve an effect like this on their grades you should implement it with the constant in-class quizzes proposed by several people above so that there's at least some rational connection between the grade handicapping and the students' performance.

(And I'm not saying that you should have a nice grading system or an easy grading system, be as tough as you want - I was always just fine with classes where it was in practice impossible to even get a B+ - it's just that a grade should genuinely be an evaluation of a student's ability or academic performance at least and not a behavioral modification tool for the convenience of the instructor.)

On re-reading, if you're describing something like a "participation" component of the grade, make sure you explain that well before hand and make sure it's participation for the sake of demonstrating the student's ability and command of the subject matter because that can't be fully accomplished with your other evaluation methods, not simply participation for the sake of compelling participation.

(Obviously although I didn't care about grades much I really hated it when schools would make me jump through hoops.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:00 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It appears this topic is one that stirs up some strong opinions. In fact, considering it was discussed previously and still receives this much attention appears to suggest it is a topic others think about to. I have favorited several ideas and will consider how to use them in the class. So thanks for the help.
posted by ChicagoTherapyConnection at 6:49 AM on June 29, 2010

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