Elite college newspaper The Harvard Crimson has noticed a trend: Sometimes during class, people play with Facebook instead of pay attention.

Noting that "Harvard students are, for the most part, intellectually curious," Crimson reporter Hemi H. Gandhi marvels, "Why such talented students choose to surf the internet over actively listening to their distinguished professors is quite the paradox." Whatever could be causing this confounding coincidence of divided attentions?

Intrigued by this paradox, I started asking my classmates "Why do you Facebook during class?" Answers were mixed, but generally a variant of the following responses. People say they go on Facebook under one of the following circumstances: A professor starts regurgitating exactly what they've read in the textbook; paying attention won't clarify confusion; a professor starts on a random tangent that is neither interesting nor relevant; students need a break to re-focus; students feel pressed for time and decide to multitask.

Deeper probing of these responses has led me to the following conclusions. Harvard students are generally pragmatic and hyper-concerned about maximizing their Return On Time Investment. During class, students will give their attention to whatever they think will give them the most utility in each moment. Past generations of students must also have wanted to maximize their ROTI during class. But technological innovation has provided today's students with more options to do so in real time, via their smartphones and laptops.

According to my Harvard-to-English dictionary, the above passage translates roughly to:

Cuz we feel like it.

Gandhi continues:

In a world that has been impacted by knowledge flattening, Harvard clearly is not alone in struggling to capture student attention. Rather than perceiving technology as a competing force in the classroom, our creative and distinguished faculty should explore innovative teaching methods that harness the same technological force to uniquely personalize class content and deliver it in a powerful, Facebook-type manner. Doing so, will not only improve education here at Harvard but also position the University to take leadership in improving education worldwide.

Harvard-to-English translation:

Also, Zuckerberg.

Veritas! [Crimson, image via Terence/Shutterstock]