In almost any Harvard class—across disciplines and course levels—one can see students checking Facebook, reading the New York Times, or checking their Gmail during lecture. The degree of internet browsing—something I like to call the Facebook Index—varies widely from class to class, and from student to student. However, by and large, Facebook during class has become so ubiquitous that no one even questions it.
Students and professors seem to accept this as a routine part of Harvard life. An explanation for this widely accepted phenomenon, however, is far from obvious.
Harvard students are, for the most part, intellectually curious. Their professors are leaders in their fields and senior advisers to governments and corporations. Why such talented students choose to surf the internet over actively listening to their distinguished professors is quite the paradox.
The question gets more perplexing when considering that outside of class, the same students are eager to meet people who are intellectual leaders in their field. The same students will desperately try to lottery into an Institute of Politics forum event with the president of Chile or a dinner discussion with Larry Summers. A recent event with the former president of India was so well attended that a police officer physically prevented me from entering the room because it was literally overflowing.
Intrigued by this paradox, I started asking my classmates “Why do you Facebook during class?” Answers were mixed, but generally a variant of the following responses. People say they go on Facebook under one of the following circumstances: 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; students need a break to re-focus; students feel pressed for time and decide to multitask.
Deeper probing of these responses has led me to the following conclusions. Harvard students are generally pragmatic and hyper-concerned about maximizing their Return On Time Investment. During class, students will give their attention to whatever they think will give them the most utility in each moment. Past generations of students must also have wanted to maximize their ROTI during class. But technological innovation has provided today’s students with more options to do so in real time, via their smartphones and laptops.
At the same time, the IT revolution has destroyed the traditional professor-student knowledge hierarchy. Access to knowledge has become easier. In the past, professors were knowledge gatekeepers when lecturing at the pulpit. To do well in class or feed their intellectual curiosity, students had no choice but to listen actively in lecture to uncover the knowledge residing with their professors.
But today, much of knowledge has become commoditized on the web. Knowledge in any subject—semiconductor fabrication, Kantian logic, or exchange rate policy—can be accessed through a quick Google search. Online sources like Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, Wikipedia, and Google books are all freely and instantly available online. Today’s students have many choices in deciding how to educate themselves and can do so in a highly personalized and customized manner.
The Facebook phenomenon is part of a much larger knowledge and cultural paradigm shift that Harvard must proactively respond to if it wants the educational experience to remain a central part of students’ lives. Faculty need to realize that they are in constant competition for students’ time and attention and their quest for personally relevant knowledge. Professors need to start thinking of themselves as service providers who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact.
Facebook doesn’t compete for student attention equally in every class. From personal experience, classes taught by Michael Sandel, Niall Ferguson, and Donhee Ham, have a very low Facebook Index. These professors interpret knowledge and make it relevant to students in a uniquely personalized manner. Sandel makes abstract philosophy relevant to everyday life. He extracts and synthesizes student perspectives to create a classroom experience that shares knowledge in a way that can’t be found in a book. Ferguson wows classes by candidly sharing his strong opinions on world history and current events. His classes are so unique they develop into popular new books.
The demonstrated success of these professors and others like Computer Science 50’s David Malan should motivate all Harvard faculty to approach their classes with some fundamental questions. How can we add the most value to our students? Can we personalize the content to each student’s unique interests with readily available technological tools? What specialized or experiential knowledge can we provide that is unique? What knowledge and resources can we share to help our students achieve their goals?
In a world that has been impacted by knowledge flattening, Harvard clearly is not alone in struggling to capture student attention. Rather than perceiving technology as a competing force in the classroom, our creative and distinguished faculty should explore innovative teaching methods that harness the same technological force to uniquely personalize class content and deliver it in a powerful, Facebook-type manner. Doing so, will not only improve education here at Harvard but also position the University to take leadership in improving education worldwide.
Hemi H. Gandhi ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is an engineering sciences concentrator in Leverett House.