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Before the coronavirus pandemic pushed all higher education online, we used to think of our class as the students who sat in the lecture hall where we taught. We worked hard to craft engaging lessons for these students. Class sessions were interactive, with discussions, debates and role plays. Students participated in in-class polls and quizzes with a smartphone or response device.

To minimize distraction to others, we prohibited tablets and laptops. Course evaluations were strong. Students praised the interactive nature of the class.

Of course, our assumption of a classroom as a bounded space of learning was wrong. The generation of students now filling our classes grew up with iPods, iPhones, iPads and other digital devices. The psychologist Jean Twenge calls them iGen. They are hyperconnected digital natives.

Their online interactions continue in the college classroom. A 2012 survey of over 700 students at six universities found that 86 percent texted, 67 percent emailed and 66 percent were social networking online during class times for nonclass purposes. Experimental research shows that smartphone use for nonclass purposes hurts students’ note taking and performance on exams.

Nevertheless, many faculty members now permit cellphones in their classes, but without integrating them into instruction. Consequently, distractions abound. Since we incorporate smartphones into teaching, we wanted to find out what our students were doing with their devices during our time together.

In the closing minutes of our Introduction to Sociology class last November, we gave students a blank sheet of paper and asked them to (1) write their gender, (2) list the people or groups they texted during class, and (3) list the websites or apps they accessed. Out of 209 students in the course, 182 (87 percent) dropped off their anonymous papers as they exited. Respondents were 61 percent women and 39 percent men, identical to the full class.

It turns out that the walls of our classroom were porous boundaries and students brought to class with them a wide range of people and activities. In this short article, we introduce the unexpected guests in our class, discuss the complications they pose to learning and present our plans for improved teaching with technology when we return to the classroom.

Unexpected Guests

Nearly everyone was on their phone during class, and not solely for educational purposes. Only six students, four men and two women, did not text or access the web in class. The vast majority of respondents texted someone (87 percent) or visited at least one website or app (95 percent). On average, students texted 3.4 people (range 0 to 14) and used four websites or apps (range 0 to 15).

Men and women were equal offenders. The number of text recipients and the number of websites/apps used did not significantly differ by gender. Certainly, these lists are undercounts. In over one hour of web browsing, who can remember how many different websites they visited? Some students acknowledged this on their lists. Under websites, one woman wrote that she visited “online webnovels (multiple),” “random news articles” and “shopping sites.”

The word cloud in Figure 1 shows the text recipients of two or more students. Larger words indicate more frequent occurrence. We see that a multitude of friends were vicariously in class. Two-thirds of students texted a friend. More accurately, they texted friends (plural), up to 12 different friends for one student.

The second most prevalent text recipient was a parent. Mom received texts from 35 percent of our class, while 17 percent texted Dad. Over a quarter of students (28 percent) were involved in one or more group chats. One kind student reported the number of people in each of the five groups she texted. The total was 728, not counting a boss and five other friends whom she texted individually.

Romantic partners, siblings and roommates were other recurring text recipients. A smaller number (two to three students) texted a coach, trainer, athletic adviser or pharmacy.

Figure 1: Text Recipients During Class

Smartphones connect students to more than friends and family. Figure 2 portrays the websites and apps used by students during class. Once again, the word cloud includes websites or apps mentioned by two or more students. Little did we realize that Snapchat was such a prominent guest. Seven out of 10 students (69 percent) were on Snapchat at some point during our class session. It seems that we should similarly save a seat for Instagram, since it was a companion for 62 percent of students.

One-third (32 percent) checked their email. Thirty percent visited Twitter, 19 percent used GroupMe and 15 percent played an online game or two. Although we had a class Facebook group, only 14 percent of students visited Facebook, and none of them posted anything to our Facebook group.

Women were more likely than men to be on Instagram and Facebook, while more men were on games and ESPN. In fact, nearly a quarter of men (23 percent) played an online game during class, as compared to less than 5 percent of women. Favorite games were Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, Cut the Rope and Pokémon.

It made us a little happier to see names like Canvas and TurningPoint on students’ lists. Canvas is Baylor’s learning management system. Sixteen percent of students visited Canvas. TurningPoint is the audience response system we use in class for attendance, polling and quizzes. Twelve percent reported accessing the TurningPoint website or app. Students could also use a TurningPoint response device to participate, which did not require contact with the company’s website or app.

Among the other online content appearing in Figure 2 is messaging apps (iMessage, Messages, WeChat and WhatsApp), web browsers (Google and Safari), and social media such as Pinterest, Spotify, TikTok and YouTube. No one admitted to viewing pornography in class, but two students were seeking romantic partners using Bumble and Tinder.

Figure 2: Websites or Apps Used During Class


All of this is happening on smartphones. Perhaps this is a small consolation for us. Texts, Twitter or Tinder on a smartphone screen represents private distractions, whereas a TikTok or YouTube video on a 15-inch laptop screen becomes a source of distraction for the viewer and classmates seated nearby. Still, the distractions are plentiful. Our findings affirm several characteristics of iGen or Generation Z that complicate learning in a classroom context.

FOMO. Our students exhibit a fear of missing out. Students are keeping up with friends and family via text or social networking sites. And these conversations do not end when class begins. It is as if a 75-minute break in interaction might jeopardize these relationships. It puts conscientious students in a quandary. They are aware of the expectation to be attentive in class, but they are seemingly unable to detach the tether to their iPhone or Android device. One student summarized the irony poignantly on her nearly empty paper: “I am simultaneously proud and embarrassed at my lack of a social life.” She had sent no texts during class and only visited one website, TurningPoint.

Myth of multitasking. Our students believe that they can aptly engage in varied, disparate activities simultaneously. Most are not using their devices solely for academic purposes. A minority of class members were using their smartphones to access the learning management system or audience response system. Ironically, some of the key people concerned about the academic success of students may inadvertently contribute to their distraction in class, as evidenced by text messages to parents, coaches and athletic advisers.

In addition to online conversations, students played games, shopped, remembered the past and planned the future. While mostly men played online games, men and women were shopping online. One man was searching for a dune buggy to rent. A woman visited websites for a liquor store and a jewelry store, in that order. Multiple students spent time in the cyber-megamall, Amazon. Five percent scrolled through their camera roll or viewed photos online. Others texted or used apps to schedule work shifts, doctor appointments or dates.

Returning to the Classroom

FOMO and the myth of multitasking are too deeply ingrained in the psyche of our current students for them to willingly set aside their digital devices. Before COVID-19, students disliked bans on laptops, tablets and cellphones in class. We suspect even less tolerance for such restrictions when students eventually return to college classrooms.

The idea of setting aside digital devices in order to learn may now strike students as oddly anachronistic. After all, for months these devices have been the principal way that they’ve learned. During this time, students have been free to binge-watch Netflix while completing a problem set for calculus or a persuasive essay for English. Likewise, muted microphones and turned-off webcams subject synchronous instruction to the same propensity for distraction.

So, when face-to-face classes resume, what should we do? Rather than police smartphones in class, we have decided to give students more opportunities to use them for class. Here are some of our intended strategies.

  • Back channel. A back channel can be a valuable medium to promote participation with smartphones in class. Students can text questions or comments without ever having to raise their hand.
  • Virtual participants. Recognizing that friends, parents and coaches are only a text away, we are considering ways to involve these unexpected guests in class discussions. Minor modifications to the think-pair-share activity could turn vicarious visitors into classroom conversation partners.
  • Audience response technology. There is more that we can do with audience response technology beyond polls and quizzes. Interactive games are a feature that appeals to us.
  • Social media. We want to capitalize on popular social media. Already students post, text and tweet as part of class. It is time to expand our pedagogical reach into Snapchat, TikTok and other emerging social media platforms.

Taken as a whole, our efforts focus on giving students a compelling, immersive experience in class complemented by technology. We strive for students to be so captivated by our time together that they are afraid to miss out and forget to multitask. We have not always been successful, as revealed in our findings.

But when we are, digital devices light up in a way that turn our classroom into a global stage, as we discovered when a student’s video of a class activity attracted 400,000 views on Instagram. This is a type of shared learning that we celebrate.

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