Dealing with devices


Distractions in the classroom are a problem.

Digital devices are often a huge distraction.

Therefore, to manage distractions in the classroom, we need to manage devices.

I know some instructors who are cool with students using devices during class, even if some are not focused on the lesson. If you’re one of those people, then I envy your confidence and security.

If I leave devices unchecked, I worry that some students are not focusing on the lesson. If my students aren’t focusing on the lesson, that’s a waste of their time and my own. My students are not in the room to transcribe information; they are there to think originally and to be challenged. This is not easy on a good day. Throwing external distractions into the mix doesn’t help.

I’ve heard the notion, “If your lessons are engaging enough, then students are not any less engaged than they were in the pre-digital era.” I guess that’s true, maybe, but so many people are addicted to checking their devices. I suspect that a phone-free room is a more focused room. I need to plan engaging lessons, but I shouldn’t have to compete with instagram. Many people are addicted to the internet, getting itchy if required to go without access for more than fifteen minutes. I realize that an hour without consulting one’s phone can be a big challenge. This is a sad state of affairs, but that’s reality. When I ask my students to go cold turkey, I realize this is not a small deal for some of them.

I can think of three kinds of classroom policies that could be adopted:

  1. Unrestricted use
  2. Devices allowed under certain conditions
  3. No devices in use (except for disability accommodations)

My approach floats between 2 and 3, depending on circumstances.

In every class, there is a good chance that, at some point, a student will be using a device in a disruptive manner. For example, a student might be texting non-silently, or having a conversation on the phone. Because I foresee that I might be in a situation in I want to ask a student to stop using a device, I put an unambiguous policy on my syllabus that digital devices may only be used with the permission of the instructor. (This permission is sometimes tacit, but I don’t put that in writing.)

Nobody likes the enforcement of rules that constrain behavior, so I try to avert this situation. On the first day of class, I open up discussion about “behavioral norms.” And yes, I use this term, which sounds a hippy-dippy but that’s really what it is. I don’t want rules, I just want everybody to behave respectfully. Yes, I put the rule in writing in the syllabus, but I hope to never have to refer to it. I want a common understanding about what is respectful and what isn’t. It doesn’t take a long discussion for everybody to agree that spending time on devices, on matters not related to class, isn’t respectful of the instructor and of one another in the course. So we establish that, unless there’s kind of major personal situation or crisis, that we only use devices to look up information as required by the lesson.

I try to emphasize mutual understanding and respect, which means that — out of respect for my students — I am quick to respond to disruptions. When individuals don’t respect the community’s behavioral norms and disrupt the learning environment, it’s my job to intercede. If one person is overtly distracted by something non-curricular, I ask about it. “Do you have something to share with the class?” can be cliché and heavy-handed, but I hope that I pull this off in a way that students think is respectful. Phones ring all the time and get silenced. That’s an entirely forgivable error. But answering the phone call at the back of the room and whispering while taking the call? That’s when I walked back there and asked, with some genuine concern, if someone is gravely ill or in labor. When the student said, no, then I asked the her to take the conversation outside and return on another day.

A few months ago, there was a paper that made the rounds about how you learn better by taking handwritten notes instead of using a laptop. Sure, I’ll mention this fact to my students. But I’m not going to pretend that my policies are based on this research. I’ll tell them that in my experience, most students with an open laptop are doing everything but taking notes. I say that I find the open laptop to personally distract me from teaching, and I’d like to focus on the lesson.

I admit that an open laptop creates a problem for me as an instructor, because it leads me to doubt that a student might not be focused on the lesson. I rarely forbid any student from using a laptop, but I do ask that anybody with a laptop sit in the front row. Because I move around a lot during class, I will readily be able to see whether the laptop users are genuinely taking notes. And even if I’m not strolling back that way, the distracting power of their alternative activities will be easily seen in the faces of the students sitting behind the laptop bearer.

I ask students to silence phones and put them away, just like in the theater. They should let me know before class if they’re expecting a baby or have a relative gravely ill in the hospital, or something of equivalent urgency. If this is a lab setting or some kind long-term group project work, then I let them know when it’s okay to access devices. Sometimes, during class, it becomes pedagogically useful to encourage students to look stuff up on their phones. This works rather well. When they’re done, I ask them to put the phones away, and that works well too.

Whatever I do, I make sure it gets established at the start of the semester. If students are used to some privilege, implementation of restrictions partway through the semester will result in big-time resentment.

2 thoughts on “Dealing with devices

  1. Interesting post, Terry – I agree it’s a real struggle – and one that all instructors face. I have generally allowed ‘unrestricted use’ and haven’t really put in place any policies within my classroom. I haven’t had significant problems, but I also seldom post my notes on-line, so students need to write notes during lecture – which leaves little time for devices. This ‘strategy’ is really context dependent, however, and a quantitative ecology class lends itself well to being talk with chalk and other ‘low tech’ approaches. In contract, we totally embrace devices in a field biology class, in part because social media has become part of the course. I encourage students to use devices but provide guidelines about such use.

  2. I think your strategy of having the laptop users sit in the front row is interesting. As a student myself, all of my Professors ask that laptop users sit in the back of the room, and if I’m late and get stuck at the back of the class, it can be difficult to pay attention because the atmosphere of laziness and distraction. I wonder what my classroom would be like if all the computer users sat in the front…

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