Professor Obama's Warning on Social Media in the Classroom

Obama Hampton Social Media
Obama Hampton Social Media

In his commencement speech Sunday at Virginia's Hampton University, President Obama suggested that social media and the devices on which they are accessed distract students from learning. The president does not hate your precious freedom to isolate yourself in a cocoon of music, videos and text messages. He just realizes that if students are going to realize their potential, they need to focus more on the classroom.

As a part-time professor, I agree with him. I have to fight students' natural desire to keep an eye on Facebook during class. (I may be a really bad teacher, but Bloomberg Businessweek ranked my Babson College Business department second in the country for teaching strategy to undergraduates.) According to academic newsletter FacultyFocus, 96% of college students surveyed use Facebook on a typical day, and 84% use YouTube. Heavy users claimed to spend over an hour a day on the sites.

While no Apple (AAPL) iPads have found their way into my classroom yet, there are plenty of iPhones and laptops offering my students the temptation to tune me out. I've considered banning laptops and hand-held devices from my classroom, but I've decided instead to use their presence there as a learning tool.

Devices Can Help

How so? Before class, I select a topic that's in the news that day and use it as the focus of class discussion. When I walk into class, I assign questions about that topic to groups of students, and give them 10 or 15 minutes to go online, get answers and report what they found to the class. Then we discuss the pros and cons of different policy options.

Yes, social networks can be a distraction for students, but the devices that students use to access them can help with learning, if used properly. But the most insidious aspect of allowing those devices into classrooms is that they make it easy for students to appear to be paying attention while they're really focusing on who just friended them or who just changed their relationship status on Facebook.

While the most ambitious students are dedicated enough to participate actively in class and ignore the lure of social media, those on the margins will lose as a result of access to social networking sites in the classroom.

As a former professor, Obama ought to know that. And he does.