An economist reconsiders banning the Internet in college classrooms

This spring the University of Chicago Law School banned Internet access in its classrooms, arguing that the web provided too many distractions that hindered both the teaching and the learning processes. Yale’s Ian Ayres was one person who praised the idea by pointing to the human weakness for distraction:

Law students are adults who generally can decide for themselves what is in their best interest — but I still don’t think it would be a good idea to have beer or magazines available in class. As someone who has played way too much Minesweeper in my day, I think some activities are just a bit too tempting.

Kevin Brady, an economist at BYU-Idaho, turns to Nudge for some possible alternatives to the Internet ban. In his paper “The Shove Without a Nudge: Banning Internet in College Classrooms,” Brady proposes fours options:

1) Rather than a ban or a default rule that allows surfing, students should assume they do not have right to surf the Internet in class, except with professor approval.

This would encourage, but not force, students to refrain from surfing. How? Switching the default rule raises the cost of Internet usage, especially in classes where professors never voice a specific Internet policy.

With (both the free surfing and surfing with teacher approval), students weigh the expected costs of surfing against the expected benefits. Although the benefits (such as excitement and, perhaps, an enhanced educational experience) and expected long-run costs (lower grades and worse job prospects) are likely the same under both default rules, the no-surfing default raises the short-run costs of Internet usage. These costs include the probability of getting caught viewing unapproved Web pages weighed against the expected punishment. Switching the default rule may not increase students’ probability of getting caught, but it will raise the expected punishment, thus increasing the overall cost of surfing and, presumably, convincing some students to refrain from Internet usage.

2) Require logins to access the Internet, plus feedback information on the extent of classroom web surfing. A more controversial proposal would be to give professors access to information about students’ surfing time.

3) Adopt a proposal raised by Ayres that would allow Internet surfing in the back row where it does little to distract other students. Ayres has said back-benchers are “virtually a step away from non-attendance.”

Because many students realize that surfing bothers professors and few students wish to bother their grade distributors, fewer students will surf…while it is likely that some non-backrow surfing will continue, it raises the expected punishment, which, as noted above, discourages surfing.

4) A RECAP-style system that provides information to law students about the consequences of heavy surfing, though admittedly measuring the effects would be quite difficult.

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3 Responses to “An economist reconsiders banning the Internet in college classrooms”

  1. doug Says:

    The libertarian in me says to leave the students alone. They have paid their tuition, if they decide to ‘blow it’, that’s their choice. Then again, is the teacher in charge or the student? I’d have to side with the teacher.

    I do consider the possibility that being ‘wired’ all the time has led to online addiction.

  2. PaulSweeney Says:

    Surely the incentive to “pay attention” and “learn” to to provide the best solutions architecture. If students “fail” because they paid too much attention online and not enough listening, then “online” proved to be less efficient and next years students will know and pick the right mode of learning. The problem is incorrectly framed as having to “make the students pay attention”. You should give them gameboys and wiis in the first month and then run a test. If you fail, you have the option of voluntarily putting your game boy in a “safe place” until the end of class. If you choose not to, you choose to ignore the feedback, and continue on your failing course.

  3. Marcus Westin Says:

    The issue is the same as in a 7th grade math classroom – unengaging teachers bore students who therefore seek stimulation, be it from zoning or surfing out from the classroom.

    A teacher is much more than a scholar – simply possesing large bodies of knowledge does not earn you the right to students’ attention. You have to create a worthwhile experience.

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