As cell phones, tablets and laptops have become integral parts of our students’ lives, many faculty are struggling with how to handle the presence of these devices in the classroom. On one hand, students using these devices for ‘extracurricular activities’, like texting friends or checking Facebook, is a distraction (both for the individuals using the device and anyone sitting nearby who can see their screen). On the other hand, banning mobile devices outright is probably futile. The ‘right’ policy will depend greatly on an individual instructor’s personality and style but here are some suggestions for thinking about what approach might work for you:

  • Keep them engaged! Students who are actively engaged in their learning are far less likely to be checking Facebook on their phones or watching YouTube on their laptops. Even in large classes, keeping students on their toes by asking periodic clicker questions or having them work in groups can reduce their temptation to reach for their phone. If you see too many students on their devices, it may be an indication that you need to find other ways to engage them and re-focus their attention on learning.
  • One way to engage students is to turn those devices into tools for learning. There are an increasing number of services (such as Polleverywhere, Socrative, Coursekey, and many more) that replace handheld clickers and allow students to use their mobile devices to respond to questions in class (often called “Bring Your Own Device” systems). You can also have students search the information for information relevant to class discussions, contribute to a class wiki or google doc, manipulate data, or discuss class issues in an online backchannel. Mobile devices can be particularly useful in facilitating group work as students can collaborate using Blackboard tools or other web-based sites.
  • Regardless of your policy, communicate with your students about their use of mobile devices. If you restrict their use, compliance will likely be higher if you explain why, and if you allow their use, you can reduce inappropriate use by having a conversation with your students about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. Think of this as an opportunity to teach them important skills that to go beyond the classroom. That is, for many faculty, what bothers them most about students using cell phones in class is that it simply seems rude but keep in mind that for many millennials, their norms may differ from yours. That doesn’t mean it isn’t rude for them to be on their phones but it may mean they don’t quite realize how rude you may perceive it to be (since their peers would not consider it rude in the same way). You could even consider allowing the students themselves to determine the device policy (you might be surprised at what they come up with!). Whatever the specific policy, talking to your students about your expectations is important for establishing a culture of respect and trust in your classroom. Also, note that this is probably a conversation you will need to have more than once throughout the semester…  
  • Back up your position with research. Many students are already aware that their device use may distract others but talking to them about the research on the impact of phones and laptops on learning can be a powerful tool for getting them to think twice about their own behavior; see the links in this syllabus example and below for some places to start.

    See example syllabus language:

    “Classroom Etiquette — Unless I indicate otherwise, all electronica are banned from this classroom. If you can turn it on, it stays off, and that also means laptops for taking notes. There are many reasons for this policy. First, computers of any sort in the classroom are an invitation to distraction, and you cannot learn if you are scanning Facebook, Twitter or Reddit. Also, despite the hype, there is increasing science on how computers can hinder rather than help. The New York Times recently reported on a 2012 study proving that kids who learn to write on a keyboard are at a distinct disadvantage to kids who learn handwriting. The Times study focused on preschool, but another study by researchers at UCLA and Princeton University proves that when college students take notes by hand, they learn a lot more, because “the act of taking notes on a computer actually seems to interfere with their ability to remember information.” A recent article in The New Yorker by a computer scientist at Dartmouth makes the same points. The notion that lecturing to students is “passive learning,” and so the “sage on the stage” is a relic of the past, turns out to be completely false. Listening to a teacher and then summarizing the lecture as it goes along turns out to be entirely active, because you have to evaluate the material, decide what is important, and write it down in your own words. Taking notes with a laptop encourages kids to record the lecture verbatim. More words, but less learning. So in sum, computers are great, and the web offers countless opportunities. But there is a time and a place to unplug, and the classroom is it.” — used with permission from Peter Herman, English 
  • If you restrict usage, consider taking a break periodically for a ‘tech check’ where students have one or two minutes to check their devices. This can alleviate the anxiety many students have about being ‘disconnected’, even for just 50 or 75 minutes. Knowing that they will have an opportunity to check in after a shorter period can make it easier for them to abstain from looking in the meantime.

In addition to the links embedded above, these may be helpful: