How I learned to stop worrying and encourage internet surfing in class

When I was designing my summer session class, I ran into a problem. If I really wanted my students to achieve the course goals, they would need to spend a lot of time on a computer. In a 3-times-a-week lecture course, I might expect them to do that work outside of class, but we were going to be meeting for two hours a day, four days a week - they wouldn't have much time between classes (especially if they were taking other classes and working). And I didn't want to lecture for two hours a day. So, if I wanted them to get in-class practice doing things that related to their goals, I needed to schedule my class for a computer classroom.

I was excited about my decision, but when I told colleagues about it, they asked, "aren't you worried that they'll spend the entire class surfing the internet?" I hadn't even really thought about the question until they brought it up, but it was a good point. Put students in a two-hour class with computer access. How many of them would spend the entire time on Facebook?

I did have a secret weapon in the classroom. There was a switch that could turn all the monitors off, so they couldn't surf if I wanted to lecture. So when I went into class on the first day, I was prepared to use The Switch whenever I needed the students' attention. But at the end of the term, I had only used The Switch during days when other students were giving formal presentations (and I wanted the presenters to have a polite audience). When I was teaching, I just left their monitors working the entire time. And it was fine.

I don't think this would work for all classes, so let me tell you a bit more about how a typical class worked. I'll use an example of something that I thought worked reasonably well: volcanoes.

I taught volcanoes backwards. In intro geology classes, I always start by naming rocks, and then talking about how melting and crystallization happen, and then about different tectonic causes for melting, and then, finally, about hazards. This class was about hazards, not about geology, so things like magma names were only useful because they allowed the students to translate web information (such as the Global Volcanism Program's website or volcano blogs). So I started with hazards, and then introduced other information (such as magma composition, amount of fluids, or tectonic setting) as necessary. I used a lot of internet exploration of some examples, partly because I wanted the students to get comfortable trying to figure out what hazards might affect a particular area, and partly because the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program has fantastic and easily accessible info integrated into Google Earth.

Here's the basic class plan:

  • Lecture burst (with Powerpoint pictures of examples): basic volcanic hazards (lava, ash, pyroclastic flows, volcanic mudflows).
  • Start exploration - in-class exercise on Moodle (our course management software).

Here's the text of the assignment:

Choose one of the following volcanoes to explore (using Google Earth and the Global Volcanism Program's web site): Pinatubo, Mauna Loa, Vestmannaeyjar, Sakurajima, Tungurahua, Arenal, Ruapehu, Mt. St. Helens. For your volcano, answer the following questions:

1) Can you see any evidence of recent eruptions on Google Earth?
2) Do you see evidence of lava? Ash fall? Pyroclastic flows or mudflows?
3) What does the topography (landscape shape) of your volcano look like?
4) When was the most recent eruption (according to the GVP site)?
5) What kind of lava does your volcano erupt? (GVP website has this info for many volcanoes.)

  • Collect first round of info: write names of the six volcanoes on the whiteboard, and list the hazards (determined by students) underneath them.
  • Lecture burst (with Powerpoint pictures of examples): topography of volcanoes (shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes, cinder cones, craters, calderas).
  • Exploration continued: look at topography of the same volcano.
  • Collect second round of info: add topographic info to notes on each volcano.
  • Lecture burst (with projector off and screen up - use whiteboard beneath screen): volatiles, viscosity, and magma composition (simplified - rhyolite/dacite/andesite/basalt as proxies for amount of silicon and for viscosity).
  • Exploration continued: use Global Volcanism Program info to find out the composition of lavas erupted at the same volcano.
  • Collect third round of info and discuss the growing lists. Discuss what sorts of hazards are typical for various compositions of magma and for various topographic shapes.

During the "explorations," I wandered around the room, looking over students' shoulders. Some students had questions about how to find stuff (perhaps because their minds wandered during the demo at the end of the lecture burst). Some had questions about what they were seeing on Google Earth. (They had all used Google Earth for two weeks by this time, so most of them weren't asking about how to navigate or how to tilt the image to see the topography.) Some chatted about cool things they noticed. But most just typed answers to their questions, and when they were done, either checked out other volcanoes or surfed the Net.

This exploration didn't take nearly as long as I expected - I think I let the class go after about 75 minutes. That was the biggest weakness, I think. I did a similar exercise the next day, looking at the different tectonic settings and finding examples of volcanoes at mid-ocean ridges, volcanic arcs, hot spots, and continental rifts, and that seemed to be enough background to talk about differences in hazards between Iceland and Chaiten. I didn't give them any kind of quiz or exam, or do any sort of cleverly designed assessment to figure out whether they retained more than students in the traditional lectures in my intro class. But they seemed to retain enough, at least based on the later discussions and papers (though some students still thought that lava flows were the worst possible hazard - I can't remember if those students missed class or not).

So yes, the students did look at Facebook during class time. But it wasn't any worse than the end of other group activities, whether in lecture or lab. There are always some students who finish quickly, and some who are slow. And typing is much quieter than talking - even if the students were chatting about the same things.

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Yeah, I try to be pretty chill about students goofing off with computers, cell phones, etc. For the most part it tends to be quick email checks while they're waiting for other things, or because they finish early, and if it's a 2 or 3 hour lab I think most people stay on task better if they're allowed short breaks. I'll only ask them to stop if it's really distracting (I mean, they still have to finish the work sooner or later). My colleague has a good technique for handling laptops in lectures - he'll make the students with computers look things up and calculate things related to the lecture for him. (I dislike laptops in lectures, but I won't ban them, because I know there are accessibility issues in play there as well.)

As a 60+ student returning to grad school, I have been prepared for irritation at the other students' surfing. I have certainly been irritated in the past by profs who slap together a power-point presentation which they read word-for-word, so evidence of the destructive side of computer access, on the instructors' part, was there.

My first class, a year ago, was in a small crowded space so I was looking over the shoulder of a student who were constantly popping into other pages. But so what, I concluded -- it was an immersion class, 12 hrs, six days, and I personally went to sleep a few times. I would have preferred being awake and surfing to light snores! So I upgraded to a netbook and will let happen what will happen. And these are theology classes.

As a sometime geology student, I would have killed for the availability of Google Earth and the Kim's way of teaching. Forty years ago, I sometimes found myself so baffled by the work-arounds that I missed the whole point of the lesson. Kim, I'm sure what you're doing will make this information much more accessible.

Just yesterday, i found the Highly Allochthonous posting… where 63 people analyze a Google Earth image, trying to decide what they're looking at. For teaching or learning, it's a terrific tool.

I love it Kim. I think this an excellent use of modern day technology with getting the students interested and still letting them find the information on their own. This is the sort of thing I hope to find when I host my Wedge topic.

Since wireless became readily available in classrooms, it's been a constant issue for me. But I've found it's a problem that largely solves itself--those students goofing off and not following the lecture largely flunk the class. So in the end there's a certain justice.

I'm really torn about the interwebs in the classroom. Yes, excellent tool when controlled, but sometimes it can be a giant distraction. I mean, I know I might drift off into cyberlands if I had been given the chance in some classes (Psych 101, I'm looking at you). Maybe the best tactic is the caveat emptor approach - if you don't pay attention in lecture, you likely won't do well in the tests anyway.

That being said, great example of what to teach for volcanoes, Kim! I may just have to steal it.