I had a great conversation with a teacher at one of my sessions a couple of weeks back. It was in the middle of my iPad Oddities session, and I had made a comment on the need to have expectations for effective mobile device use in the classroom. When I told the group of educators that I had no problem with students using personal devices at certain times during class, this teacher wanted clarification. For him, turning off a personal device was a matter of respect for the classroom, and what he was teaching. It’s a scenario that I hear about often when I am doing these talks, and so I took a few minutes to distinguish for him, and the group, an important distinction we are making when we ask students to turn off cell phones; and why it may not be in our best interests.
Cell Phones as Extensions of Self
Today’s students see their devices much differently than any generation previous. No longer are they items of convenience for many of them, they serve as items of personal extension and connection. So rather than being ‘relieved’ to turn off a device, as many of us might be, they feel cut off from their world. Though the merits of this can be debated, the truth is that not having a device on and near them may be as much or more of a distraction to some of our students than having them on and actively used. Our students want to be tapped in, and will worry about that connection when it is not present.
It also heavily concerns me whenever I have to put myself into conflict with a student. I abhor doing it, as my job as a teacher is to inspire and champion students. As such I don’t want to create forced compliance within the classroom, I want to have processes that are natural and make sense to everyone in the room. Also, simplicity in this process works wonders with students who need reminders from time to time.
My discussion partner mentioned that students have a responsibility to learn etiquette in social situations about the use of mobile devices, which I agree with. However, the difference may be that we need to instruct students on when to use devices instead of not using them. I likened the scenario to the session I was speaking in. Individuals were focused, attentive, and certainly not being rude as far as I was concerned. In fact, it was a very engaged group, yet I know many of them were using their devices in many ways around the room. It was up to them to decide if a given text message was important enough to draw them away from what was happening in the session, and I would hazard a guess that many of the attendees were still arriving at the learning they expected even with all the ‘distraction.’
This is not to say that students should have full reign with their devices, far from it in fact. What we need to understand is that just because their ‘off’ switch and impulse control may not be fully developed, doesn’t mean they are not engaged. I spent many years at the back of the classroom drawing in a notebook long before mobile devices were an issue in schools, and no one thought to take away my paper and pencil. I had teachers who would ask why I felt the need to draw and try to engage me in drawing things focused on what we were learning so it was a rehearsal of the message. Perhaps this is the better way to look at these devices in the classroom. How can we use our students’ constant connection for benefit instead of distraction? We also must remember that we need to strike a balance with this. There is a difference between a presentation on iPads in the classroom and learning how to deploy your parachute during a skydive. We have the right to require specific attention at some times, but we may find that gaining attention for those times comes easier if we meet our students halfway during times when the requirement isn’t as heavy.
I don’t propose to have all the answers on this issue, but I have had success with a rather simple process. Whether using school-owned or personal devices, students are to leave them face-down in front of them on their desk (I usually say top right.) I discuss with students the very issues I have already raised in this post, then tell them that they are allowed to use their phones in a reasonable manner, as long as they are engaged in the classroom. So, if their phone buzzes (not rings since it is on vibrate), they can pick it up, reply quickly and put it back down. As long as it isn’t pervasive, there is nothing wrong with that. Conversations are best left to other times, but just as many of us would in a meeting, PD session or many other circumstances, a quick text shouldn’t be an issue. I also ask out of courtesy that they use the devices above their desks. In this way, they self-monitor better as well because there is no hiding what they are doing. It makes a big difference when the use is a little less private to how much they are willing to engage in it.
Overall my goal is a happy classroom climate where we can all get to the exciting job of learning. I know I will never get 100% ‘compliance’ with cell phone use, but if that’s not what you’re shooting for then a functional and positive classroom simply becomes a nice place for everyone to work.
Thanks for reading!