An Instructor Saw Digital Distraction in Class. So She Showed Students What She’d Seen on Their Screens.

April 20, 2017

Students get distracted in class, and all the shiny baubles that grab their attention are well chronicled. But what happens when students are presented with the greatest hits from their browsing history for an entire semester?

A graduate-student instructor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Meg Veitch, did just that. In an effort to keep students focused, she tracked all the times she had spotted them digitally wandering in class. She didn’t have access to their complete browsing history; rather, she used the low-tech method of writing down what she had spotted on students’ screens.

Her work shows what many faculty members might have guessed: Students browse Facebook and shop online. But it also reveals the weirder distractions that students encounter, such as looking pictures of bread or Photoshopping President Trump with Muppets.

Ms. Veitch, who studies paleontology, presented her findings this week in a PowerPoint show for the class of roughly 160, which gave at least one student a chance to snap and share Ms. Veitch’s observations on Twitter:

Ms. Veitch spoke later to The Chronicle about how she had come to collect students’ wacky distractions, the challenges of the modern lecture hall, and the rationale behind presenting the results.

Q. Had you seen the tweet before I sent it to you?

A. I had not actually. It was the first time I had seen it.

Q. What was your response on seeing it?

A. I was very surprised. I had seen kids taking pictures of the slide after our professor had put it up, but I hadn’t exactly expected it to get on social media. I don’t know why, in retrospect, people love social media these days.

Q. I wanted to get a sense of where this came from.

A. I am a student instructor for the class. There’s two of us for oceanography — it’s an introductory course — and the professor who runs it, Brian Arbic … really enjoys using exercises with the laptop, working with Google Maps, that sort of thing. So he doesn’t want to ban laptops in the class, but by the same token he doesn’t want students doing things that aren’t really taking notes or looking at the lectures on the laptop.

In particular, if you’re watching a video or playing a game, it’s not so much your distraction. It’s distracting to everyone behind you. He tells them at the beginning of the year, they’re not supposed to do this, and that the graduate-student instructors will take away the laptops if this happens. We’re not going to take away the laptops.

We’re supposed to tell them to knock it off when we see it. But both myself and the other graduate-student instructor found really quickly there’s a bunch of students we couldn’t reach in the middle. And I actually started keeping the list just because it would help to remind myself, at the end of class, there was someone I couldn’t get to in the middle that I needed to pull them aside and say, "Hey, you shouldn’t watching Planet Earth 2" in the middle of class.

Q. I mean, it’s at least topographical?

A. It’s topographical, but I hadn’t seen it yet, and I didn’t want the spoilers. So I started keeping this list, and at some point I showed it to the professor, and he thought it was hilarious. And he thought he should let the students know that although he has repeatedly told them that the graduate-student instructors were walking around and looking to make sure they are on task, many students have been ignoring it, and these are the things we have seen because of it.

I guess it was a bit of a shaming tactic. You could definitely see some of the kids in class recognize their behavior when the list went up. I will tell you for that class, the first third of it, no one was even on Facebook.

Q. Was it that they were very attuned to what was going on?

A. It was more of them some of them recognized. After they saw the list, some of them were like, "Oh shoot, that was me. They actually see me doing that." For some of them, OK, you’re on Tumblr, that’s not so embarrassing. But other ones on that list, you definitely really want to know that the graduate-student instructors are looking over your shoulder and seeing you breaking up with your boyfriend.

Q. I saw that, and I was like, "Is this person just so incredibly busy they don’t have time to break up in person?" The other item I wanted to ask you about is the $240 of turtlenecks.

A. That one stuck to me just because we see online shopping, but there were only three turtlenecks, but it never occurred to me you could spend so much on three turtlenecks. I was just shocked.

Q. And how do you feel about having your name attached to this?

A. I was a little embarrassed at first. And some of my friends saw it, and said, "Nothing about this surprises me, you would have definitely kept this list." So once they said that to me, this was just me owning what I already do. As far as things could be attached to in social media, it’s a very harmless one.

This will give at least some students an idea of, you know, that as graduate-student instructors, when we’re told we’re supposed to be watching for these things, we really do see a lot of this stuff. Your screens are big, and we do notice it.

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.