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How Should Teachers Deal With Distracting Technology in the Classroom?

A new study finds students believe it is a teacher's responsibility to get them to not use technology for purposes unrelated to class.
College lecture

Ask any professor of a certain age about the use of laptops and phones in the classroom and prepare for an earful. Nobody is questioning the benefits that technology can bring to disabled students, but traditionalists believe that, in most cases, these devices undermine the quality of comprehension, insisting that, when it comes to retention, typing notes is less effective than writing them out by hand (the research on this point is divided). Others think that laptops disrupt the cohesion that professors aim to foster in small classes, with students hunching over screens rather than connecting with the collective. And still others believe that digital technology fosters cheating, rewards wealthier students who can afford better devices, and distracts other students from paying attention to lectures.

A recent study suggests that students are not terribly concerned with these objections. Examining attitudes toward "off task technology use"—the class time use of websites unrelated to class—Elena Neiterman and Christine Zaza, professors at the University of Waterloo, found that students believe the choice to ultimately be theirs alone. More notably, their study of nearly 500 undergraduates, all from University of Waterloo, reveals that, as Neiterman summarizes, "they saw it as the instructors responsibility to motivate them not to do it."

What seems significant about this attitude is that these same students were well aware that the personal use of technology in the classroom was a common distraction. Sixty-eight percent said they were annoyed by the use of phones in class—against only 32 percent for laptops—and nearly half believed that the visual presence of non-course material on students' laptops posed a significant distraction. Still, as Neiterman says, "some students said that instructors need to be more entertaining to keep students engaged in the classroom." With a University of Michigan study finding that students use over a third of class time surfing non-academic sites, one imagines a professor would have to put on pretty spectacular show to rein in the surfing.

Thirty-six professors were also interviewed for the study. They "largely agreed" that using technology in class was "an integral part of learning." Alongside the students, they also thought that the use of laptops and phones was essentially a personal choice that should not be violated by banning devices. "A ban means policing," according to Neiterman, which many educators believe works poorly in a collaborative classroom. Plus, with class sizes growing larger and larger, monitoring technology has, as a practical matter, become impossible.

The study identifies what students and professors believe to be the crux of the problem with students' use of technology in class: reconciling personal autonomy to use technological devices with the fact that such devices often distract other students, thus undermining their autonomy to learn without interference. Dealing with this challenge—or at least exploring who is best positioned to resolve it—involves a careful consideration of what an academic classroom purports to be. Is the classroom a place where individuals congregate to passively absorb information from a professor? Or is it a place where students and professors work together as a community striving to learn in a cooperative fashion?

Insofar as a classroom is the latter—and many educators think it should be—Neiterman and Zaza turn the tables on those strident students who think that professors should entertain them away from their laptops. They write:

[I]f we are striving to create a learning community, we ought to disperse the responsibilities for the rules of communication to other community members—the students. Sense of community in the classroom can improve students' engagement with the material and promote mutual respect and support. ... Informing students about the negative impact of their technology use on others ... may show them the interdependent nature of an academic classroom and pave a path for a sense of belonging to a classroom community.

In other words, the ubiquitous concern with "technology in the classroom" might have less to do with "technology" than the "classroom." Rarely do critics of classroom tech place the question of technology in the framework of what a classroom is trying to accomplish. As the authors conclude:

If all we are required to do is to "transfer" the knowledge from the instructor to student, perhaps we ought to take on the responsibility of competing with Facebook, Snapchat, and Netflix over students' attention (although with the exception of a talented few who could switch a career from education to entertainment industry, our efforts would be futile). If we assume, however, that our goal is to prepare our students to the workforce, then perhaps we ought to teach our students how they could take more responsibility for their own learning and restrain technology use even in the lectures that are less entertaining than their social media feed.