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I’m still trying to figure out what to do about cell phones and computers in class.

I wrote prior to the start of the Fall semester about how I was going to try to change my cell phone and computer policies to bring them more in line with my teaching philosophies. While I still had a strong personal preference that students refrain from these distractions in class, and the policy expresses this, it no longer dictates an outright “ban” and instead encourages students to make the choice that seems best for their learning, while reminding them that becoming a distraction to others, regardless of the cause, is not allowed.

With about a month remaining in the academic year, I’ve been assessing the impact of the change.

Some observations:

1. In previous semesters, even when I “banned” phones, some students were still using them, though they usually tried to be sneaky about it, so when they did use them, it was often fleeting[1].

2. Many students, probably a majority, almost never look at their phones or use their computers in class (outside of designed activities), regardless of having the freedom to do so.

3. However, there are also students that seem inextricably connected to their phones and/or computers for all or at least significant portions of the class period. It is not that they are tuned out of the class entirely, but are instead constantly switching between what is going on in class and what is happening on their phones.

4. Most of the phone activity appears to be texting or Snapchat. The non-school, computer-related activity seems to be mostly social media of various kinds.

5. I have not gathered this data in any kind of rigorous way, so this observation is provisional, but I’m reasonably confident that there is a correlation between less phone/computer use, and better performance in the course[2]. My belief is that this is correlation, rather than causation, as the lack of focus or possibly impulse control is indicative of broader academic habits, rather than they’re missing tons of vital material in our course[3].

6. Cell phone use is heaviest not during lecture or discussion, but when I have set aside time for in-class work, individual activities, or small group activities. The switch-tasking during these periods is significant. As one example, I observed one student in class move between their computer (on which we were working on database research), and their phone, (on which the student appeared to be texting), 15 times in a single minute.

7. While most students are actually quite skilled and careful about not creating a distraction to others (again, something the policy does not allow), there is sometimes a “viral” quality to phone use, where some students seeing others on their phones will feel compelled to do the same.

8. In class, while students are doing independent work, rather than attending to them, I have checked Twitter or Inside Higher Ed on my computer[4].

From these observations, I’ve drawn some inferences. One is that for many students, the policy doesn’t really matter all that much. They may succumb to phone temptation occasionally, but they have little trouble attending to whatever is happening in front of them.

There is another category of students who treat class the same way I treat certain television shows that I’m interested in, but not enough to give them my full attention. For those shows, I’m often on my computer, either surfing, or doing non-intensive work-related tasks. Neither the TV show nor whatever is on the computer is interesting enough to hold my consistent attention by itself, but combined, they seem to pass the time.

Then there is a category of students who appear to have some kind of compulsion to be engaged with their phones. I don’t know enough of the field of psychology to call this an addiction, but it appears to be not entirely in the students’ control[5].

I am wrestling with how to deal mostly with this last category, and I wonder if I am failing them with my pro-freedom policy.

In a lot of ways, freedom’s just another word for being given enough slack to screw up.

Where do I, as their instructor, draw the line, and what does it mean if I draw the line in different places?

My concern is that I have a growing percentage of students who have underdeveloped abilities to focus on their work, free of distraction[6].

Except the more I think about this, the problem is not likely to be addressed by any possible change in my cell phone policy because I strongly suspect what’s happening is not necessarily rooted technology or its temptations.

If students are drawn to their phones, I believe it is because they do not see, or have not experienced value in what is going on in class. I do not believe this is because nothing of value is going on in class (especially my class) , but is instead rooted in much deeper attitudes towards school and learning.

I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that the students who are most likely to be drawn to the distraction of technology are also more likely to view their own educations as purely transactional, a system in which hoops are jumped through and hurdles cleared in return for a credential that will allow them to move on to whatever is “next.[7]

I believe these attitudes are forged in a system that treats students as products and indeed, encourages them to view education through a consumerist lens.

It seems to me that reinstating the ban has the potential to reinforce this belief, as I become the authority laying down a restriction to be followed for no reason other than I am the authority. I have done nothing to help students take ownership of their choices.

Students who are something like addicted to their phones will continue to sneak their looks, and they will expect me, as the authority, to crack down on them, and when I don’t (because I don’t really have any interest in spending class time policing the behavior), what have they learned?

On the other hand, a non-negligible percentage of students are, to some extent, engaging in academic self-harm abetted by these devices.

Is it my role to eliminate this harm, at least during the periods we’re together in class?

How are others negotiating[8] these issues?


[1] As context, I teach small courses, maximum 20 students in rooms that couldn’t fit another human in the space. We are, to put it mildly, intimate.

[2] For the last three or so weeks, I’ve been taking the occasional “snapshot” of the class and trying to note how many, and which students are using technology, and those impressions are reflected in this observation. To be certain would take a much more rigorous and time consuming process.

[3] I think of it the same way I consider my poor attendance habits I college, which didn’t lead directly to substandard grades, but were instead an indicator of lack of motivation/ambition, and general laziness.

[4] Mea culpa.

[5] My hunch and assumption is that these same students demonstrate these patterns outside of class as well, i.e., these are the people who may be sitting down for a meal with a group of others, but are spending a significant amount of that time looking at their phone.

[6] I, personally, have trouble with the distractions of technology, but I also retain the ability to know when to either tune it out or utilize the “self-control” app to turn it off.

[7] I would love for someone to run this study because I’m not going to do it. Just give me a little “inspired by” credit somewhere in the write-up.

[8] For next semester, I’m going to try something along the lines of the suggestion made by commenter mburke73 seven months ago.




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