Wi-Fi deadzones more effective at engaging student attention than pole-dancing to Toto's Take My Hand from Dune: the official soundtrack

Yale professor Alexander Nemerov found a great way to get students to pay attention: lecturing in a Wi-Fi dead zone. Glenn Fleishman, writing for The Economist:

The good professor is no Luddite. He realises that a request to turn off the hall's Wi-Fi routers during a class may meddle with other nearby needs. (And it would in any case be useless in blocking mobile 3G and 4G signals.) Some students, he concedes, clearly use the internet to enhance his lectures, looking up artwork he discusses to get a closer or different view, or taking notes. But some engage in less pertinent online activities. Dr Nemerov debated with himself whether to note the signal blockage in his course syllabus but ultimately decided to leave students to discover this for themselves.


      1. 250 gets you a jammer and, at no extra cost, a criminal record. Respond now, and we will throw in the knowledge that you are endangering lives for free!

  1. At least for me having access to the internet when I was in classes would have been a disaster. I might have started out looking at something pertinent to class, but it would quickly have degenerated (as this trip to the internet seems to have). In general I would say that the downside of everyone being connected in a classroom outweigh the upside. 

    On the other hand, I have never been a student in this environment, so I am open to having my mind changed.

  2. Perhaps students who decline to pay attention in class earn the grade they deserve?

    *shakes fist*  Get off my lawn, you rotten kids!

  3. Yale tuition is something like $40,000 a year.  If you’re taking, say, 5 classes a semester, that means that this class is costing you $4,000.  Why would you want to waste that money by spending the time surfing the internet?  

    1. Because the internet is addictive, and plenty of well-meaning students can’t last 10 minutes without checking Facebook if access to it is so easy (an already-open laptop that is connected to the web).

  4. Tuition is a sunk cost so it doesn’t matter if you pay attention or not. You’re not getting your money back (unless you leave the course early enough).

    The point is to get your degree, you need to sink the money into it anyway. If you can do that and spend the time playing WoW, is it really a loss? Economists would likely argue no.

    Although other economists might point out that education is the kind of investment that generally cannot be taken away.

    1. The teaching/student relationship is not solely a business transaction. Is it a loss if a student who pays his tuition decides to use his time to update Facebook instead of paying attention to a lecture? There is if you are the one giving the lecture and seeing people clearly engaged with something else distracts you and prevents you from presenting the material in the best way possible, thus affecting how the rest of the class learns. How many times have you heard the argument that it is the teacher’s job to make the material engaging? We need your attention to make it so, or else you could simply watch a video podcast and save yourself a ton of money.

      1. I’m not sure how a Facebook update could possibly distract a lecturer, it would appear to them that the student was simply typing notes.  Further, I guarantee you everyone who ever attended post-secondary education had at least one prof every year who was actually more confusing if listened to than if ignored. 

        Personally I had a prof in my first year programming course that spent more time admonishing the attending students for the absence of the non-attending students than he did teaching the class, which of course caused more people to not attend, and increased the length of his rants.  I continued to attend, mostly to see how crazy he was going to get, and but also to find out whatever secrets he planned for the final exam to screw his absent students.

        I also had profs who were so poorly informed we’d often have to get  our notes corrected by the TAs during labs – frankly in science/engineering degrees you can largely skip the lectures if you memorize the textbook and spend a lot of time in the lab. 

        1. Teaching, especially lecturing, is performance. And performance depends on the magic of audiences and performers interacting.

          You might say, “All performers should eat it–they’re being paid, so what do they care if their audience pays attention?” 

          But in fact, our tiny teacher egos can only take so much open disrespect. We crave human connection. We try to make eye contact. We are slowly ground into dust by seeing you laugh as you eat popcorn and watch youtube videos on your phone.

  5. Having just about finished my dissertation on this, I can tell you it’s amazing how little evidence there actually is to show that laptops hurt grades, and how much of the evidence is decidedly mixed. Not what I expected when I started the study, but the results are what they are. The best response I’ve seen was from Jana McCreary:

    McCreary, J. (2009). The Laptop-Free Zone. Valparaiso University Law Review, 43(3), 989–1044.

    She bans laptops – from the first two rows. You want a quiet area? Sit in front. You want to use your laptop? Don’t distract the other students and sit further back. Her article is well worth reading, both for its rational approach to the issue and for a good summary of how bans seem to be based on emotion rather than reason our educational outcomes.

    1. Would you mind posting a partial bibliography of studies addressing the impact of laptops on learning? I’d love to have a look at some of those. (Congrats on finishing the diss. And good luck on the defense (and scheduling it)!

      1. Saltine,

        Here is a sample – enjoy!

        Barak, M., Lipson, A., & Lerman, S. (2006). Wireless laptops as means for promoting active learning in large lecture halls. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(3), 245–263.

        Crook, C., & Barrowcliff, D. (2001). Ubiquitous computing on campus: Patterns of engagement by university students. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 13(2), 245–256.

        Diamanduros, T., Jenkins, S., & Downs, E. (2007). Analysis of Technology Ownership and Selective Use among Undergraduates. College Student Journal, 41(4), 970–976.

        Fay, A. L. (2006). Impact of Laptop Computers on Students’ Academic Lives (pp. 1–23). Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/resources/PublicationsArchives/StudiesWhitepapers/LaptopStudyReport-2006.pdf

        Grace-Martin, M., & Gay, G. (2001). Web Browsing, Mobile Computing and Academic Performance. Educational Technology & Society, 4(3), 95–107.
        Green, K. C. (2010, October 10). The 2010 national survey of information technology in US higher education. The Campus Computing Project. Retrieved August 2, 2011, from http://www.campuscomputing.net/survey

        Helsper, E. J., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503–520.

        Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(1), 46–64.

        Kirschner, P. A., & Karpinski, A. (2010). Facebook® and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1237–1245. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.024

        Lajoie, S., & Azevedo, R. (2006). Teaching and Learning in Technology-Rich Environments. Handbook of Educational Psychology, 803–821.

        Lauricella, S., & Kay, R. H. (2010). Assessing laptop use in higher education classrooms: The Laptop Effectiveness Scale (LES). Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(2), 151–163.

        Lloyd, J. M., Dean, L. A., & Cooper, D. L. (2007). Students’ Technology Use and Its Effects on Peer Relationships, Academic Involvement, and Healthy Lifestyles. NASPA Journal, 44(3), 481–495.

        Moreno, R. (2006). Learning in high-tech and multimedia environments. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(2), 63–67.

        Rideout, V., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation.

        Selwyn, N. (2007). The use of computer technology in university teaching and learning: a critical perspective. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, A critical look at computer use in higher education, 23(2), 83–94.

        Smith, S. D., Caruso, J. B., & Kim, J. (2010). The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2010. EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research.

        Williams, R. L., & Eggert, A. C. (2003). Notetaking in College Classes: Student Patterns and Instructional Strategies. The Journal of General Education, 51(3), 173–199.

    2. Would love to read your dissertation.

      I read the law review article to which you link, but it doesn’t disprove or prove anything. It’s useful insight. Also worth noting that her focus is on her law-school experience and that of other law schools. Many people are sent to college and may have little interest in the academic part. Law-school students are by their nature more motivated to make the investment count.

      1. Saltine – thanks, just need to do a bit more revision on the conclusions and then it’s on to the defense. I’ll put together a quick bib and post.

        Glenn – you’re precisely right, the article is useful insight into not throwing out the education baby with the distraction bathwater. The part of McCreary I was thinking about was 1000-1002, where she points out the flaws in Yamamoto’s argument for a ban.

        I’d be happy to send you a copy of the diss, thought it’s going to be published and released Open Access, so copies will be available via ProQuest in a few months. Or you can google me and drop me an email – happy to send you a copy of the near-final version.

  6. Since Vulcans are not the ones doing the teaching, emotion is and will be part of the teaching process, especially when good teachers are involved.

  7. Didn’t seem to matter much when I was in school.  No laptops, no cell phones, no internet.

    However, all the slackers sat in the back of the class and talked the whole time.  Makes you wonder why they bothered to show up?

    Anyway, this is not a new problem, but rather indicative of a lack of respect in our culture.  Change the culture, and the lack of attention problems will go away.  (It will also get you kids off my lawn!)

  8. Yes, teaching has a big emotional component. But that doesn’t mean that educational policy should only be based only on what “feels good”. Believe it or not, you can actually be a good teacher and use intelligence and reason in addition to emotion.

    1. “Believe it or not, you can actually be a good teacher and use intelligence and reason in addition to emotion.” This is precisely my point, and the reason your comment “bans seem to be based on emotion rather than reason our educational outcomes.” which dismisses the emotional component, is wrong. Glad to see you saw the light (finally).

  9. It is mostly really, really distracting for students not interested in the other students WoW games. It is like people texting in theaters with their backlights on full burn, no matter what you do you have this constantly flashing changing series of lights all over your view.
    I never found laptops in class that were being used for notes etc. that distracting, because they are fairly static (the exception was in art history courses where the lights were set very low, and people had 17 inch macbooks with backlights on full blast), but goddamn it was maddening to have students playing whatever online games in front of you.

    I don’t really agree with why the teacher in the article is doing it, because if a student wants to crash out because they spent their days on facebook so be it, but laptops can be a huge distraction for students other than the ones on them.

    1. if a student wants to crash out because they spent their days on facebook so be it,If the classroom was a vending machine, I would agree with this sentiment. But there is a cost, not just to the student doing the crashing out, but also to the teacher and other students. It’s supposed to be a positive sum game, if people are doing it right.

  10. And then there’s people like me who use their laptop to take actual notes, sync it with their desktop at home via dropbox, and look up stuff related to what the teacher is talking about during the lecture.
    I never really found other people’s laptops to be all that distracting before I started using a laptop in class either.

    Of course, it helps that I only take classes that are actually interesting to me.

    1. I dislike distractions in my classes, but I really like people like you in my classes. My new thing has been to ban laptops and phones but to include an appeals clause in my syllabus. So anyone who wants to use one has to talk to me about it. Every single student who has made an appeal has been like you. Any suggestions for encouraging others like yourself to come forward?

  11. As someone with pretty bad dyslexia I would hate this. I’ve grown accustomed to being able to look spellings up on line at any time. Same with foreign students for spelling and definitions.

    I’m not sure why we disadvantaged students should be further disadvantaged by people who care so little about their education that they ignore it.

    Also as for lecturers finding their students getting distracted: Have they tried being less boring? Made sure they are lecturing clearly, concisely and on topic? Tried adding information to what they’ve just put up on Powerpoint or are they just reading from their slides? I find lecturers who complain about students not paying attention normally do none of these things, it’s easier to blame the students rather than admit they, themselves, might be the problem.

    1. I agree with you last parts 100%.  I’ve had professors spend the first half of the semester teaching away and once that first exam comes back they look bewildered.  Why aren’t we learning…?  About half of them realize there is some serious disconnect between what they are saying and what we are able to understand.  Usually a good, honest and open, discussion follows and we try and point out that they are usually teaching at a level of understanding that we don’t have yet (engineering degree here…)  And the other half, like you said, assume they are doing everything correctly and blame the students.  Usually they end up having to curve like hell to get more than half the class to a passing grade.

      My best professor wasn’t tenured or really even a professor, she was a full time adivsor that got roped into teaching my circuits I class because they were short handed.  She made it fun and open.  She talked, we asked questions openly and freely, and everything was geared toward making sure we were learning the material, not simply regurgitating formulas and facts.  I wish I could say the same about many of my other professors…

      -But on topic.  I love knowledge and input.  The internet can be a big time waster for me…obviously I’m posting on BB rather than being productive.

      1. I had a class like that. Upper-level geology course on petrology, one of the most-hated subjects in geology. Four other students with me in the class, in a small room – quite intimidating. I got a 6% grade on the first exam (the lowest – but the highest was something like  25%).

        I sent the professor a rant via email about his class. He “invited” me to his office to discuss it – turned out he was quite nice about it and reasonable (and impressed with my email), but he had high standards. In the next class we all discussed it and he tried to change his teaching style and to engage us more, but he did not lower his standards or change how much stuff we were expected to learn – which I’m grateful for, ultimately.

        I think there will be a real loss to university culture when old professors like that are all retired, but I do not think it’s the most effective way to teach modern students either. I think some younger professors take it too far in the other direction. Sounds like your circuits class struck the right balance, though.

        1. Even when I was a child, I liked the battleax teachers who really pushed students to learn. Our tough, 6th grade science teacher is the one that we all talk about with affection 40+ years later.

  12. College instructors who feel the need to “control” their students are clearly failing at their job. If you can’t teach in a way that gets your students to pay attention by choice then you should be fired.

    1. College instructors who feel the need to “control” their students are clearly failing at their job. If you can’t teach in a way that gets your students to pay attention by choice then you should be fired.

      Colleges are largely holding tanks for people who want to avoid work for another four years. Students who don’t do their work should be expelled.

  13. Should I feel ashamed that I can pretty much hum “Take My Hand” from beginning to end?

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