Is Facebook the new spitball?

Social networking the ultimate form of classroom distraction

Students surfing the Net and checking their Facebook is the newest distraction in today’s classroom. Cindy Titus

It must be discouraging to give a lecture to a bunch of students who are plugged into Facebook or Twitter and not paying attention. And while one may assume that professors would completely despise such social networking sites and blame them for cultivating a crop of lazy students, this is not necessarily the case.

“The problem isn’t Facebook ... or social networking sites,” said Samantha Arnold, a University of Winnipeg politics professor. “The problem is the general sense that coming to class is all you need to do.”

Arnold says there have always been distractions in classroom, but the craze around social networking happens to be the latest and most popular way to waste class time.

“I think that ‘Facebooking’ in class is simply the 21st century version of doodling in class ... or spitting spitballs,” she said.

Nonetheless, witnessing students on these sites during class is frustrating for Arnold. To minimize the amount of distraction in her classroom, she enforces some specific rules for using computers during lectures. For instance, students who insist on using laptops must sit at the back of the room so other students aren’t bothered.

While many students are likely peeved by their peers who surf the Net during class, others have become immune.

Anthony Sannie, a first-year U of W student, says it doesn’t bother him when other students putter around on Facebook during a lecture. And from what he gathers, his professors don’t seem to mind either.

“I don’t think my professors really notice or seem to care,” he said.

But Arnold is far from neutral on the matter and thinks there should be a university-wide policy for the use of laptops in classrooms. She suggests that professors should be able to use their discretion to ban the use of computers in their classroom.

Sannie disagrees.

“I don’t think computers should be banned,” he said, adding that some students need their computers to take notes or to access online readings and course materials on Learn or WebCT.

While Arnold does acknowledge the issues that could arise from banning laptops in lectures, she thinks the best solution would be to enable professors to switch off Wi-Fi in classrooms. But Richard Nakoneczny, U of W chief operating officer, says this is not impossible.

“Every Wi-Fi access point covers a lot more than just one classroom, so you would have to block out whole sections of the campus,” he said.

Since there may be no solution to the problem, Arnold is looking for ways to use social networking productively in the classroom. She is considering creating Facebook pages for her classes next year.

“A Facebook page would probably be a lot easier and a lot more reliable than ... something like Learn or WebCT,” she said, adding some of her students find it difficult to access course materials through such online course management systems.

But until it becomes a teaching aid, Arnold said social networking does not have a place in her classroom. There are, however, some exceptions.

“I’m going to be giving a test right now,” she said. “And while the students are writing the test, I am going to be fucking around on Facebook.”

Published in Volume 64, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 4, 2010)

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