Conversation: Phones in the Classroom?

classroom management, conversations,, student behavior

I’m young enough that I’ve had a cell phone my entire adult life and much of my adolescence. Sure, my first one was a Nokia that required Morse-code like skills to send a simple text message and contained only a pixelated Snake game for entertainment, but I still got in the habit of being constantly connected (well, as constantly connected as rural phone service would let my teenage self be).

Now that I’ve got a more sophisticated phone, I love the ability to browse the news when I’m stuck in line at the bank, shoot a quick Facebook message to a friend while I’m walking to my car, and map my route home when I take a wrong turn. I am not anti-cell phones.

Like most teachers, though, I am frustrated by their presence in my classroom. My syllabus outlines a strict policy of “NO ELECTRONICS” unless approved specifically for a particular use (like a laptop while working on drafts). In practice, though, my policy is not as strict. If it sets students’ mind at ease to check a quick text letting them know their kid made it home okay, then I think that improves their ability to learn. If we’re doing an in-class activity and someone who finishes early takes a few minutes to check Facebook, I don’t really care that much. Even if someone is sneaking peeks (badly, we always see) at their phone throughout class, my personal teaching philosophy says that student will face the consequences of distraction in the quality of their work. I think it’s unfair to the other students to interrupt class and handle a cell phone violation. Still, I teach developmental classes, so these students sometimes need a little guidance in making sure good habits form and stick. Sometimes I do stop class to call them out. Other times I mark it down and factor it into participation points or talk to students about it individually during office hours.

Fighting against cell phones in the classroom, though, is probably as futile as fighting against them anywhere else. They’re a ubiquitous presence on the bus, in line at the grocery store, in the park, and practically any public sphere. We may rail against the cultural shift, but we can’t deny it.

That’s why I was interested to see this article from Inside Higher Ed. In it, Jed Shahar explains how he came to accept some limited use of cell phones as a pedagogical tool. He had students use their phones to record themselves reading their papers aloud, giving him a way to check to make sure they’d taken this important proofreading step and giving the students a way to satiate their technology craving in a productive way.

Mashable reports that Shahar is not alone in this adaptation for our digital landscape. The majority of teachers are trying to find ways to bring technology into the classroom, but it’s not without its complications. One of those complications is an apparent disconnect between what we practice and what we preach:

Pew’s study highlights a notable find within teachers’ Internet use. A majority of educators use the same tools they discourage students from using, such as Wikipedia. Ninety-nine percent of teachers use search engines, and 87% look to Wikipedia for information online.

Another problem is that the apparent ubiquity of technology can make us forget that it is not, in fact, universal:

While the report highlights educators’ increasing comfort and familiarity with these tools, 84% of teachers agree that technology is leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools. Those with low-income students are much less likely to use digital tools. To further emphasize the divide, 15% of teachers whose students come from upper-income households say their school is “behind the curve” in digital learning, compared to 39% with low-income students.

While recognizing the disparities using technology potentially highlights, I also know that not giving my students these skills will make the disparities even more pronounced once they leave my classroom for the professional world. With that in mind, I try to incorporate as much technology into the classroom as I can, and, yes, that sometimes means cell phones.

I’ve occasionally used cell phones in the classroom to have students look up an unknown word or to text in their answers to an on-screen survey using Poll Everywhere. I also have an assignment on perspective that requires students to take pictures using their phones and then display them for the class. These occasional uses of technology have gone well.

I’ve considered using cell phones to have Twitter chats or other, more involved, classroom experiences, but the daunting nature of teaching students who are unfamiliar with the delivery systems a new platform on top of the class material has kept me from making the leap.

Maybe that’s the wrong attitude, though. After all, if teachers and professionals are using these technologies, shouldn’t our students be learning them, too? Just as those 87% of teachers who use Wikipedia might better serve their students to teach them the proper way to navigate it rather than banning it, the majority of us who are tied to our cell phones might better serve our students by teaching them to make sure they use their tech addictions productively.

What do you think about cell phones in the classroom? How do you enforce your policies? Have you incorporated them into classroom lessons? Do you want to? What challenges do you face?

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2 thoughts on “Conversation: Phones in the Classroom?

  1. This is a great topic. I also have an electronics policy in my syllabus, but my perspective on phones/e-notebooks in the classroom is that instructors and students must learn to adapt to them because they are now part of our culture. Helping them learn to self-manage is probably a better strategy so that they learn to complete responsibilities and goals with them or in spite of them. For example, how many times do we attend professional meetings where colleagues have phones and e-notebooks nearby? Almost always, these days. My classroom solution is to have goal-oriented class activities where students must complete a discussion group exercise, writing exercise or something else prior to the end of class and post on Blackboard. A few participation points are awarded for completion. This helps with phone use and with absences because it is up to the student to manage his/her time and not lose points. I do walk around the room during these activities, but I like to reinforce the concept of self-direction in learning. I remind young students that they are adults and that we have to all learn to meet our goals despite distractions in and out of the classroom. Talking about the issue with students helps because we discuss the challenges of distraction, in general. That way, I'm not acting as a parent, but as a facilitator of their learning. I'm always on the lookout for new ideas, though.

  2. You're making a great point that they will likely be in situations (meetings, conferences, etc) in their professional lives where they have to manage that balance without a policy to guide them. I think that's another reason a blanket “no electronics” policy (even though that's what I currently have in my syllabus) might be lacking. It's much more about figuring out how to use these tools constructively (or at least not obstructively) than to police them.


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