My brain reached overload and stopped functioning during an exhausting all-day seminar. I snapped out of my stupor in an instant when I realized my fingers were texting, almost automatically. I’m no digital native and resisted smart phones for years. However, I learned in that moment that I was unwittingly captivated by the technology. Restlessness, boredom, or fatigue now signaled the need to exit the environment in pursuit of stimulation. Experiencing the cell’s powerful pull re-confirmed my thoughts about technology in the classroom: it should be a largely device-free zone*.
No Cells Allowed
Before I started teaching, I read in a Princeton University tip sheet of the simple but somehow revolutionary idea that I could craft my own technology policy. So I announced in my first-ever class session that it would be an electronics-free zone. I literally heard a gasp.
Now my welcome-to-the-course email sent a week before school starts mentions my e-policy. A short break midway through the two-and-a-half-hour session allows everyone to catch up with the outside world. Technology’s tug, however, means phones surface on occasion during the semester. It’s rare, but at times I’ll see someone texting. Echoing my own experience of being hypnotized by the phone, these students describe themselves as prey.
“It’s my mom. She always forgets that I have class tonight,” one student told me. “My friends are always texting me,” another said. I ask them to put the phone away, mentioning my own experience and the need to keep cells out of sight.
I also added an e-policy review a few weeks into the term. I invite students to discuss the rule, asking them to think aloud about the rationale.
There’s no need for texting in my course, so there’s no need for cell phones.
Laptop Notetaking: Anecdote and Evidence
Though I avoid lengthy lectures, students regularly jot down ideas—on paper. I know other instructors endorse laptops for note taking. I do not.
Because of this discrepancy with my peers, I turned to the research conducted over the past five years to learn what the experts say. The peer-reviewed literature on electronics in the classroom is expansive. So, though by no means a proper review of the occasionally contradictory journal articles, here’s a short list of themes that caught my attention:
Though most studies rely on self-reports, researchers who measured classroom Internet use with a proxy server showed that goofing off was common, even when students know their use is monitored.
Average final exam scores of those assigned to classrooms allowing computers were lower than the scores of their e-free peers among randomly selected sections of a West Point introductory economics course.
“Even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing,” say researchers who conducted three studies.
I’m also in a group of key stakeholders that can be adversely impacted by classroom laptop use: instructors. I get clues about students when I can check their expressions for understanding, boredom, curiosity, or anything else I need to know. I also resist being tasked with policing computers. Monitoring screens—either actively or passively by accidentally noticing non-classroom use—and calling out the inevitable distracted user puts me in a taskmaster role instead of allowing me to focus on the subject.
My confidence in my evidence-based laptop policy was reinforced recently. I visited a class in which I was introduced by the professor as a proctor and grader. Though I was presented as an authority—and thus someone with control over part of their grade—a student in front of me browsed Home Depot in a dreamy state for most of the session.
Not Even A Blip On Student Radar
My students now take the e-free-zone in stride, even though I have to occasionally refresh their memory about the policy. Over the past four years, I received one compliment from a student who told me that nonacademic use of laptops in other courses was distracting. I also got one suggestion that laptops be permitted.
On my side of the desk, my rules have become less stringent. Although infrequent, I sometimes ask students to check the web for some factoid. At times they use laptops to take tests or do group exercises. Perhaps because I have a strict approach to technology, I’ve not yet seen anyone using their laptops for personal use.
Although I have a bias, the research I described and my own experience support a nearly e-free zone. My perspective also matters in this equation. If I believe computers negatively impact my ability to connect with students, it will. So, with a slight evolution in thinking about electronics over the past few years, I experience the e-free policy as a classic win-win: good for me, good for students.
* In the unlikely event of an emergency notification by text, my own discretely positioned phone is on. Further, school-sanctioned modifications for those with disabilities would supersede my policy, though I’ve never received a request for a student to use a laptop for note taking.
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