Managing Distracting Technology in the Classroom

Two people using electronic devices Do you frequently attend meetings where technology is banned? I don’t. In fact, technology plays an important role in most of the meetings of which I am a part. On laptops, each participant can view the agenda and related documents. On cell phones, we can text a committee member who’s running late without interrupting the whole group. Using shared documents, we can co-create outlines or projects. Using online project management tools, we can develop a detailed plan.

And yet, when I teach, I respectfully request that my students leave cell phones silent in their bags and request that laptops are generally closed (there are exceptions to these requests, but this is the general expectation).

Why such a dichotomy? First, I teach a seminar-style, discussion class. If I were teaching a project-based class, I might have a different opinion. Secondly, I’ve read a lot of studies that indicate how terrible humans are at multi-tasking, how distracting someone else’s technology can be to a fellow learner, and how notetaking by hand seems to have better outcomes than notetaking on a laptop. And third, I was a student once! I know how hard it can be to maintain focus on a new or difficult topic, and how easy it is to zone out; zoning out with engaging distractions would have been even worse for me!

However, technology certainly can play a role in the classroom, and, when put to good use, it enhances the learning.

Therefore, I have found it useful to frame my own thinking about technology as either distracting or enhancing the learning experience. For instance, as just one example of an enhancing technology, I have tremendously valued the addition of Poll Everywhere (think iClickers on steroids) to engage students (not only can they respond to multiple choice questions, but they can also write open-ended responses, create word bubbles, etc.). But I’ve also seen the downsides of distracting technology, usually in the form of incessant text messages to cell phones!

I want to focus the rest of this post on ways to address distracting technology in the classroom, and invite your ideas in the comments below.

I’ve typically talked with my students at the beginning of the semester, when we set classroom expectations and norms, about the research related to learning and technology. Most semesters, the students have appreciated flipping their thinking to consider the classroom as a refuge from the onslaught of digital notifications and nudges, and they are willing (sometimes even eager) to put their devices away. Students who are parents often have the legitimate worry about being unreachable if a child has an emergency; I’ve provided them with a number to phone the college (who will contact us in the classroom) in the case where immediate response is needed.

One approach I’ve read about is taking planned “Tech Check” breaks throughout a class period. These are brief pauses where students are given full permission to disengage from class and burrow into their electronic devices, then returning to class ready to focus.

Some faculty use humor or “novelty” approaches to challenge students to curb their cell phone use:

Excerpt from Faculty Focus Blog Post:
Cell Phone Policies: A Review of Where Faculty Stand

“If it rings, you sing. So be sure and pick out your favorite song and be ready to belt it out in front of the class.”

“If your cell phone interrupts class or you participate in any non-class related activity during class, you will be responsible for bringing cookies for the class to share during the next class period (or forfeit your highest homework score). Definition of “non-class related” is at the discretion of the instructor.”

“For every minute I use my cell phone during class, you may use yours for two minutes.” I teach economics. This sort of sassy approach opened a discussion about incentives (it provides an incentive for me to avoid using mine). My section are 20 to 30 students.

Questions about novelty policies: What does being novel add to the issue of cell phone use? Does something like humor put the problem in perspective or diminish its seriousness? What if a student refuses to comply with a policy that requires some action?

I’ve been intrigued by this instructor’s use of positive behavior modification (although I think this would only be manageable in smaller courses) to award tiny amounts of extra credit for students who “turn in” their deactivated phones at the beginning of class.

Is this a multi-sided issue of self-control and/or trust (I don’t check Twitter during meetings because I am invested in my job; do I trust that my students feel similarly in my class)? Is this an issue of appropriate time and place (transparency with students about the ways technology can enhance/distract can allow for strategic infusion of technology when pedagogically warranted)? What are your thoughts? Please share your ideas and strategies below in the comments.

FURTHER READING

Laptops and Phones in the Classroom: Yea, Nay, or a Third Way?

Technology and Student Distraction

REFERENCES

Barlow, R. (2017, November 14). Surviving class minus your cell phone: BU lecturer made students do that. Surprise: They liked it. BU Today. Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/today/2017/surviving-class-without-your-cell-phone/

Burkholder, P. (2017, September 11). Helping students make the right call on cell phones [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/helping-students-make-right-call-cell-phones/

King, B. J. (2017, October 19). Should college professors give ‘tech breaks’ in class? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/10/19/558751178/should-college-professors-give-tech-breaks-in-class.

Weimer, M. (2018, March 6). Cell phone policies: A review of where faculty stand [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/cell-phone-policies-review-faculty-stand/

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