Emma, a sophomore at Boston Bay University, is seated in the second row of her Introduction to Psychology class. Her laptop is open and she is actively typing notes as she listens to the professor. Yesterday, she arrived at class to find her laptop battery drained, but was able to use her smartphone to take critical notes, references, and assignments. Today, when the professor gets to a difficult part, she taps the record button and captures the professor on audio. She had considered recording him on video, but was not sure whether video recording is permitted and would rather not draw special attention to what she is doing.
Sheila, a student at Adams College, looks toward the front of the classroom. The professor is droning on about Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations. Sheila is up to date on the assigned readings, so she takes a short mental break and dashes off a text message to Lee, who is sitting three rows up, about the party last Saturday. Lee responds with a photo from the event. What neither of them realize is that the professor just said, “and this is not in the text, but will definitely be on the mid-term.”
Olivia stands at the side of a room full of 6th graders at Shermer School. Her students all have their Chromebooks open. Olivia asks them to fill in their answers on a form that has appeared on their screens. Based on the results, the students are assigned to small, collaborative groups. The groups will work on shared documents that they can all see on their individual screens.
Smart devices are having a profound impact on teaching and learning. The technology enables a new level of personalized learning. At the same time, the classroom distractions created by personal devices can, many times, be worse than the ancient ritual of passing notes. Is the upside of the technology offset by the downside of distraction it can cause.
Wherever there is new technology, there will be side effects. Given all the benefits of the technology that we rely on every day, there is certainly no rational desire to abolish it throughout the world, were it even possible. So we clearly need to cope with its distractive power, at least outside of the classroom. As students prepare for life in the real world, college may well be the appropriate time and place to master its distractive power.
K-12 and Higher Education Call For Different Approaches
There is a clear distinction between K-12 and higher education in regard to student devices in the classroom. In this context, the differences involve distractibility, motivation, attention span, level of personal responsibility, and general supervision required. K-12 calls for a more restrictive approach, while it is appropriate and beneficial to offer more freedom for higher education students.
In theory, why would college students who are paying a high price to attend class want to waste their money by texting or reading email during a lecture? They are in class because they choose to learn and prepare for their career, not to be entertained. To the motivated college student, a laptop or tablet is a means to rapidly take notes for later editing, reformatting, and sharing; a process much more efficient than transcribing hand-written class notes.
Or is this asking too much from our college students? Is allowing personal devices in class akin to passing out candy or even heroine with a warning not to taste it? Do all students fundamentally require strictly-enforced classroom rules to help them get the most from their education?
Methods of Managing Distraction
For K-12 classrooms, rigid rules can be set, teachers can issue the “lids down” command and monitor student behavior closely. Outright banning of all student cell phones may go too far, though. New York recently lifted a complete ban on student cell phones in school, after the new mayor admitted that his own son had ignored the rule. Edudemic also believes smartphone bans are counterproductive in their 7 Ways to Deal With Digital Distractions in Class.
At the college level, a 2014 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology found that 70% of schools ban or discourage use of smartphones in class. The University of New Hampshire rules for Attendance and Class Requirements state that “students may not use cell phones, PDAs, pagers, digital music players, laptops and other electronic devices during class unless designated by the course instructor. If use of any of these items is permitted by the course instructor, these items are not allowed to be used for non-class activities.” According to Christen Palange, an Extreme Networks intern, who is also a UNH student, almost no students are aware of this rule. The one professor in Christen’s experience who enforces the “no devices rule” ironically teaches computer science.
If you believe that special rules or procedures for student devices in the classroom are required at the college level, here are some possibilities:
- Some schools, like Penn State and California State University, offer students a food incentive to stay off their cell phone in class.
- A York University professor enlists student snitches to battle digital distraction.
- Doonesbury creatively addresses the challenge with a paintball marksmen at the back of the lecture hall who takes aim at any student using a smart device for the wrong purpose.
- Former Penn State professor Maryellen Weimer recommends delivering a demonstration lecture followed by a short test on the major lecture topics. The students’ results are then compared. Were the best performers distracted by their personal devices, or were they excellent note takers who used their devices to their advantage?
- The BYOT Network has these recommendations: The Distraction Myth of Learning with Technology. Developing a positive learning community within a classroom can go a long way toward achieving the benefits of technology while minimizing the distractive side effects.
- Tools like Extreme Networks Purview can be used to see which applications and which Web sites are being accessed in classes.
What do students themselves think about technology in school? Surprisingly, the answer is not unanimous, unwavering zeal, but rather a more wary support according to Sarah Garland of the Hechinger Report in What Students Really Think About Technology In The Classroom. Christen Palange, Extreme Networks intern shares her views on technology in the classroom.
The concept of digital citizenship originated with K-12 education, but can be applied to the concept of digital distractions. The idea behind digital citizenship is that as students learn how to properly engage in online computing, especially social media, and demonstrate their responsibility, they are given ever-increasing online freedom. Similarly, students who show that they are able to use personal devices in class without becoming distracted can earn the freedom to do so.
Emma is back at her dorm studying. While working on a psychology class problem she struggles with the concept of operant conditioning. Remembering it was a class discussion topic earlier in the week, she performs a search on her electronic notes and finds the insight she needs. Her friend Sarah is also struggling with the concept and texts Emma for help. Emma pulls up her notes, reformats them slightly and emails them back to Sarah. Later in the week, Sarah and Emma will be joined by Nicole to collaborate on a psychology project, which will include video snippets of a guest lecturer that they recorded earlier in the semester.
Conclusion: Help Students Gain Mastery Over Technology
The benefits of properly-used personal technology can vastly outweigh the drawbacks and risks. By making note taking more efficient and enabling rapid on-topic searches, more attention can be applied to class discussions. Furthermore, there are life lessons to be gained through the mastery of personal technology; lessons applicable to all types of distractions far from the classroom. But it may be naïve to assume that students, even at the college level, can avoid the distractions of personal technology without coaching and assistance.
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