Talking to the backs of their monitors. (Or: How to teach in a computer-lab)

This semester  I made a scary decision: I scheduled my class in a computer lab. I’ve very rarely had good classes in computer labs, mostly because my instructors get snappier and snappier the more they tried to control what their students were doing on the computers.

I have a natural rhythm when working on a computer:

  • I start a task,
  • wander off to check the news,
  • get back to the task,
  • wander off to read some email,
  • switch tasks for a bit,
  • wander off to write an email,
  • get back to the original task,
  • finish the original task,
  • wander off to check Twitter,
  • review the finished task,
  • decide I’m fully done with the task and
  • watch some TV on the computer.

I think this is how most of my friends work, and it is certainly how most of the people with whom I worked in professional offices handled themselves (without the TV or possibly the Twitter, for the most part).

The four times I wandered off-task in the above example weren’t me having no interest in the task or control over my wandering fingers. They were necessary wool-gathering expeditions, important think-spaces which recharge me and help me be creative. Staring at the same webpage, open notes page, or presentation page is numbing.

My experiment by holding my class in the cluster is to try and design a class around this natural way of handling computers. I told my students they are welcome to be on Facebook during class (a majority of jobs are filled through networking, so strengthening connections on Facebook might be the best way for them to get jobs in the long-run), welcome to tweet and check email and take notes in whatever way they want to.

I give them suggested activities during my lectures:

I suggest you finish up your LinkedIn profile, remember to give recommendations before asking for them.


I suggest you apply the edits I gave you on last week’s job application, I’ll go over any questions during gossip-time*.


I suggest you get started on next week’s application. Remember: two applications are due by 9am on the Monday we have class.

The first two weeks, all I saw were the draw-backs of having all of my students logged-into computers. I got even less eye-contact than I did when they were sitting at desks staring at their notes. They didn’t look at each other when we were going around the room, describing the jobs we applied to that week. I couldn’t see one of the shorter students behind her monitor.

Four weeks in, I’m pleased with my choice. To increase their connections to each other, last week I made a spreadsheet with all of their names on it and had them review each other’s resumes and cover letters as I projected them, only giving them 10 seconds to do so (the approximate amount of time recruiters spend on any given resume). This week I had them role-play interviewers and interviewees. Once I saw that they were improving their applications based on what I said in lecture, I decided to be confident they were paying attention even if their eyes weren’t on me. And to see the shorter student, I just needed to walk up the aisle.

I am still resisting the impulse to tell them to turn off their monitors and give me their eyes–my ego is not so small that I don’t prefer eye-contact when I’m public speaking. But last class when I had them interview each other, everyone turned away from their monitors and focused on each other without any lingering gazes.

Teaching without restrictions on my students’ use of the technology in front of them is an act of faith, but I think they’re worth it.

*”Gossip-time” is what I call the last 10 – 30 minutes of class where I sit with each student individually to go over their returned job applications, answer any questions, and generally get to know them. It’s my favorite time in the class.

Inspirational Quote:

“Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.”–Casey Stengel

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