No Smartphones or Laptops in Class -- Campuswide

Faculty members at one small college think a formal policy restricting personal technology use in the classroom will cut down on distractions and improve learning.

September 19, 2018
 
Courtesy of Lander College for Men

Lander College for Men, a division of the private Touro College and University System in New York, has for years informally prohibited students from using smartphones during classroom instruction. Moshe Sokol, dean of the college and a professor of literature and philosophy, noticed in his classes that students weren't abiding by the rule, and other instructors described similar experiences.

So earlier this year, at a meeting of the institution’s faculty, Sokol proposed a more forceful solution: ban all smartphones and laptops from every classroom at the college, which enrolls 380 students.

Sokol expected a firestorm of negative reactions. Instead, he said, most faculty members were supportive. Two or three out of the approximately 25 instructors present at the initial meeting raised objections, according to Sokol.

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“It wasn’t so much that they wanted the use of laptops, but that they didn’t want to be told what to do about laptops,” Sokol said.

Several meetings later, after presenting research indicating that smartphone and laptop use during class can lead to poor performance, he ultimately secured a unanimous vote in favor of the policy.

Sokol believes his institution is a “guinea pig,” albeit a small and somewhat unusual one, on the possibility of restricting technology use institutionwide during class. The experiment follows years of heated debate, often litigated on Twitter, over the relative utility and potential for distraction that laptops and smartphones bring to the classroom. Studies on the matter haven’t reached uniform consensus, and passionate opinions fall on a wide spectrum, with some who believe digital technology can enhance learning and others who believe it only stifles it.

Lander College instructors have generally agreed for years that laptops and smartphones don’t belong in the classroom. But “nobody looked over their shoulders” to make sure they were enforcing the ban, Sokol said.

The proposal earlier this year drew some early criticism for appearing “too draconian” and limiting faculty autonomy, according to Sokol. The final version of the policy, adopted May 22, includes several exemptions:

  1. Classes in which student use of a laptop is fundamental to the learning experience, like computer science.
  2. Classes in which a student informs the professor of special circumstances that dictate the use of a laptop, such as a learning disability or an urgent family emergency.
  3. Classes in which individual faculty members decide to permit laptops at their own discretion.

Sokol assumed students would be adamantly opposed to the policy, but he thinks they’ve warmed up to it, especially given the few months that passed before it took effect. Sokol compares their reaction to vehicle passengers’ willingness to wear seat belts.

Follow-Up

Has your institution considered a similar policy? Let us know in the comments.

“It could be that since it was just a total across-the-board policy, students just accept it,” Sokol said. “I also have a hunch that students recognize it was in their interest.”

The May announcement of the policy rankled many students at first, according to Azzi Kimmel, a junior majoring in psychology and Lander’s student government president.

One student organized a petition against the policy but never circulated it, said Kimmel, who met with Sokol in May to discuss the change and came away less concerned.

“Over all everyone relaxed a little bit” over the summer, Kimmel said. “It was very smart of the dean to introduce it at the end of the semester. It gave people a few months to cool off.”

Kimmel has asked to be exempt from the policy because he has chronically “terrible” handwriting that required occupational therapy when he was a child. But despite the liberal exemption opportunities for both students and instructors, far fewer students are using personal technology during this class semester, Kimmel observes.

“There are still a little bit of complainers, but those people are general complainers about life,” Kimmel said. “Most people are OK with it and have learned to work with it.”

Sokol plans to survey instructors midway through the semester for a progress report on the policy’s implementation.

Thus far, he’s observed that students in his class “seem more engaged.” He has made one change to his teaching, though. In previous semesters, when his lecture arrived at a word that was unfamiliar to most students, he paused and asked them to look it up on their devices. Now he simply defines it out loud on his own.

Sokol doesn’t think this policy would be guaranteed to be popular among instructors on a bigger campus, where more faculty members means more possibilities for dissent. He did see support from numerous departments at his college, though.

“Scale makes a difference. Everybody would have to figure out for themselves,” Sokol said. “We’re kind of a mini experiment.”

What's Happening Elsewhere

Lander isn't the only institution operating from this standard. New York University's Stern School of Business, which currently enrolls more than 5,300 students, has for more than a decade prohibited the use of laptops, smartphones and other personal devices during class.

"It is easier for a faculty to allow laptops when the default is to ban them," said Jessica Neville, a spokesperson for the business school. "A good number of faculty do allow them. Some request those using laptops to sit in the back row, so as not to distract others."

Some institutions would struggle to find consensus on such a broad policy, according to Patrick Derr, professor of philosophy at Clark University. Derr sends students each semester a lengthy note explaining why he doesn't allow digital devices in the classroom -- but he says he would vote against a campuswide ban because it restricts faculty autonomy.

"Some people confuse a ban on smartphones in the classroom with a hostility to technology in general," Derr said.

Removing personal devices from the classroom isn’t the only approach to dealing with distraction and engagement. Alison Clabaugh and Erica Fortune, professors of psychology at Arcadia University, experimented last school year with enticing students with the possibility of extra credit in exchange for handing in their smartphones at the beginning of each class. Nearly all students chose to contribute their phones, with the promise of a coin flip at the end of each class period to determine whether those students would each get an extra credit point.

“Even if they have the temptation to use their phone, the beauty of the positive reinforcement condition is it’s just not available,” Clabaugh said. 

Clabaugh and Fortune compared that classroom with two others in their experiment. In one class, the instructor started each week by posting a PowerPoint slide indicating that it can be rude for students to use their phones during class, while the other students had no such intervention. In both, students at the end of each class period documented their smartphone use.

Extra credit proved an effective motivator for students to put their phones away, according to Clabaugh and Fortune. Several students said they liked not having their phones with them, and that the exercise led them to abandon their phones at other times in their personal life as well. But in this experiment, grade disparities weren’t statistically significant because students who used phones during class and those who didn’t.

Students in Clabaugh and Fortune's classes this semester won't be participating in a comparable experiment. But Clabaugh and Fortune said they will consider returning to restrictions on personal devices, particularly in introductory courses. The pair hasn't yet shown their research to administrators, but they think their findings could be thought-provoking on campus.

"I have had a fair number of faculty who have heard about it through the grapevine that did indicate they were interested in learning more," Fortune said. "I think in general it’s garnering interest."

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