Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Facebook and Texting vs. Textbooks and Faces

Susan D’Agostino - Southern New Hampshire University

Last semester, my business statistics students were not exactly thrilled when I announced an in-class ban on electronic devices, including laptops, phones, and digital music devices.

“But I use my cell phone as a calculator!” one student protested.

“Can’t I use my MP3 player to help focus during exams?” another pleaded.

“I found a cool app that gives p-values for the standard normal distribution!” another offered hopefully, as if using statistical jargon would entice me to cave.

“Humor me,” I responded. “Let this class be the one hour and fifteen minutes of your day in which you are completely unplugged.” I felt like a counselor at an outpatient program for recovering addicts.

Halfway through the semester, I did what any self-respecting statistics instructor would have done: I surveyed my 67 students and used the tools I was teaching—confidence intervals for means and proportions—to compile the data. My results provide estimates—with a 95 percent confidence level—for the in-class, electronic multitasking habits of business majors at midsized, regional universities. Every student in this category has, at some point, used a laptop, phone, or digital music device in class. In a seventy-five-minute class that permits students to be “plugged in,” a student with an open laptop takes electronic notes just as much as he social networks: 34 minutes with a margin of error of 5 minutes. Looking at websites that are relevant to class is only slightly more common than looking at websites that are irrelevant to class: 36 as opposed to 32 minutes. A student with an open laptop spends, on average, 27 minutes sending and receiving email and 11 minutes reading an electronic newspaper. That these numbers sum to more than the seventy-five class minutes hints at the prevalence of in-class, electronic multitasking.

Overall, when electronic devices are permitted in class, a majority of students using the devices—58 percent— multitask at least half the time. Students self-reported on the number of multitasking activities they engaged in beyond listening to the lecture or participating in class discussion: 52 percent of the examples involved one activity, including social networking or texting. Forty-six percent of the examples cited two, three, or four activities, including social networking, emailing, and doing homework. An intrepid 2 percent of the examples involved five multitasking activities: social networking, instant messaging, searching online, playing games, and texting.

To my surprise, the vast majority of students—94 percent—expressed either a favorable or neutral opinion of my policy. Were these the same students who originally made me feel like a counselor for substance abusers?

“Knowing I can’t text allows me to pay better attention,” wrote one student.

“Not having my computer out means that I can’t find myself on Facebook,” wrote another student.

“I like the reduced noise distractions from [the absence of] electronic devices,” wrote a third.

“It’s a good policy. I always see the students with laptops looking at Facebook or playing games,” another offered.

So what about the responses from students who did not appreciate my policy? One commented that he “miss[ed] the unlimited amount of information that a computer has.” Another was put off by having to “carry notebooks and pens for note taking.” Another mentioned his concern about being unreachable in an emergency. Of course, I had informed my students that the university’s security office would deliver an emergency message to a student in class if needed.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that the average 18-year-old spends over seven hours daily using electronic media devices for recreational purposes outside of the classroom. Based on my study, this statistic would likely increase dramatically if recreational use of electronics inside of the classroom were counted.

College students should not sell their in-class time short. Class should be a time and place devoted to wrestling with ambiguity, not deferring to online encyclopedias edited by anyone with an inclination to blog. Currently, this assistant professor of math is wrestling with whether the anonymous student who wrote the following comment on my survey intended to be ironic: “I think [the in-class ban on electronics] is a good policy.... In this age of technology, people need to stay connected at all times. It absolutely gets in the way during class. Unfortunately, I really do not know how to fix the issue. I guess you could Google it?”

About the author: Susan D’Agostino is an assistant professor of mathematics at Southern New Hampshire University.

Aftermath essays are intended to be editorials and do not necessarily reflect the views of the MAA. Contact information is available here.


  1. Not that I completely disagree, but.... Have you done a similar survey of how much your students multitask when they do not have electronics? Categories might include staring out the window, daydreaming, doodling, checking out students they are attracted to, doing homework for other classes, reading things hidden in their textbook, etc.... I agree that electronic devices provide new and different ways for students to get distracted! On the other hand, I think the bottom line is that if students are interested, they will pay attention, and if not, they won't.

  2. i agree with josh, students will always, ALWAYS find something else to do if a class is boring regardless of using electronics or not

  3. I too agree with Josh as i am also a i can say what a student will prefer..........'cuz v get borred if v r only left out wid books...........