Implications of the “Facebook Index” to the Secondary Classroom

I recently cam across the article Students using Facebook in your class? Better try a bit harder by Matthew Ingram on the tech site GigaOM, which caught my attention because of this post I wrote not long ago.

Ingram begins the article by referencing an editorial in the Harvard Crimson that uses the term “Facebook Index” as a measure of how much time students spend off-task during lectures, and suggests instructors with a high Facebook Index need to be more engaging. While it is true that students who are bored will be more distractable, it is also true that there is an allure to online content – particularly direct personal connections such as messages and Facebook posts – that is difficult to compete with. The article then goes on to describe the conditions that lead students to “wander” online:

  • Students are multitasking (another issue in itself)
  • Students need a brain break to refocus
  • Students feel the professor is off topic, on a tangent
  • The professor is reiterating what is in the textbook
  • they are seeking clarification of what the professor is saying

This list struck me as interesting. The first item is lack of planning or organization, or just plain distraction, on the part of the student. The second item, a “brain break”, could be an excuse, but it is hard to focus for 60-90 minutes, so a simple option might be to build in a 2-3 minute break during lectures to allow students to refocus. But it is the last two items I found particularly interesting, because they hit the heart of the discussion of lecture as a means of teaching.

When I was an undergrad, I had classes where attendance was entirely optional, as the lectures addressed the same content as the textbook. This might seem odd, but then some people understood it better from a face-to-face explanation, while others were fine learning it form the text. In other subjects, the two were complementary – they addressed the content in different ways, and reinforced each other. In both cases it was up to the students to determine how they learned the material best, and to make appropriate choices of whether or not to attend a class.

I also had classes where attendance was mandatory, but they differed little from the optional ones, and that generated boredom or distraction. When we felt we could learn the material as well from the textbook but had to sit through a lecture, that’s when I would have seen a high Facebook Index (if Facebook, or indeed laptops and WiFi, had been invented – instead we read paperbacks…). Which got me thinking about secondary school.

In high school, classes are mandatory, at least everywhere I have lived or worked. In many cases students can be denied credits for missing too many hours of class, regardless of their performance. In addition, there is an expectation (by students and parents) that the lessons will (more or less) follow the textbook, and that the teacher is the primary purveyor of knowledge.

So in a high school classroom environment, we have many of the factors that make a class ripe for a high Facebook Index. What this says to me is that if we are teaching in a technology-rich environment (1:1,  iPad or BYOD), regardless of how interesting the and engaging the instructor and lesson may be, classrooms are ripe for student distraction.

While a complete analysis and review of possible approaches to deal with these issues is beyond the scope of a single blog post, a few first steps spring to mind:

  • provide brain breaks periodically. Three minutes of down time may well mean you save six minutes of distraction time.
  • Wean students (and parents. And administrators…) off the notion of Tecaher as Sole Information Provider.
  • Wean students off textbooks as the sole reference for the course
  • Construct information gathering activities and exercises which encourage seeking, compiling, analyzing, and applying information.
  • Restrict lecture content to bare essentials that are difficult to communicate in other ways.

Of course, the one we have little control over is mandatory attendance, but I think that is enough to start with.

2 thoughts on “Implications of the “Facebook Index” to the Secondary Classroom

  1. Peter (@polarisdotca)

    Nice summary, Ed. I think we’re starting to recognize that when students drift away in class and play on their mobile devices, it’s not because they’re weak students who don’t want to learn. Rather, it’s a symptom of something the instructor is doing. Or not doing.

    I know it’s naïve and I don’t have lesson plans yet but what if, just what if, students are so engaged in class they don’t have the time or desire to check their mobile device? Or, even better, what if they can’t check their email, twitter feed or status because they’re too busy using the device for learning?

    I deal with post-secondary instructors who feel banning mobile devices from class is the answer. Well, we all know how well teaching abstinence works, don’t we. I believe there are more productive solutions.


    1. ed Post author

      It’s not always the teacher doing (or not doing) something – there is an allure to online content. From the inanity of Nyan Cat to the little endorphin jolt you get when someone posts on your wall, some things are just hard to compete with. There are some things we can do to increase engagement. But as long as there is an emphasis on teacher as content-deliverer (and have curricula that are fact-dense that essentially require it), and we tell students “you have to sit there”, we are creating a system that has an intrinsically high Facebook Index.


Leave a Reply