Digital Devices in Face to Face Classes

How should students use technology in the classroom?  Do laptops, iPads and cellphones detract from learning and create distractions or can they be used to enhance learning?  Thinking through these complex issues and creating a meaningful policy for the use of technology can maximize learning while limiting student distraction.

1. Determine the variables that you need to consider to set a technology policy for your class.

As you craft your course syllabus, think about the concerns that you have about technology use in the classroom.  For example:

  • Can students use digital devices for taking notes?
  • Are there some devices that you want to make off limits?
  • Will students who abuse the policy lose their right to use a device in class?
  • What type of technology use is prevalent in your field?
  • How will you support students whose accommodations letters permit them to use a laptop in class?
  • Do your students need to use technology in class to access the course textbook or assigned readings, PowerPoint slides or digital textbooks?

2. Set a classroom technology policy that makes sense given your course goals and the expected classroom activities.

Once you’ve identified the variables, set a policy that fits with your course goals and teaching style. Include your policy statement on your syllabus, and explain it on the first day of class. If you will be using specific technologies in class such as homework platforms, polling software, or tools for analysis, have a plan for how you want students to use the tools in class. Remember, too, that you’ll need to feel comfortable enforcing your policy consistently, and a zero-tolerance policy might not give you the flexibility you want in your interactions with students.

3. Identify and share your expectations for class behavior.

Professors often think of class as a “sacred space” for face-to-face learning and have expectations about how technology should and should not be used in class. However, students may not view classrooms in the same way and may not know their professors’ expectations. It can help to explicitly identify your behavioral expectations for your students and to continue to reinforce these expectations throughout the semester. Your expectations might include things such as:

  • Listen respectfully to your peers and to the instructor, and keep your attention on class material.
  • Turn your phone to silent and refrain from checking your phone during class. (Check your phone before or after class or during breaks.)
  • Only use technology for class-approved purposes.
  • Using technology in class for non-class approved purposes may become a distraction to your peers.

4. Ensure your policy works for all students – including those who may have accommodations to use laptops.

Your stated policy should give you enough flexibility to meet the needs of all of your students. For example, a complete ban on laptops and other devices would “out” a student with an accommodation letter. Similarly, some students may rent digital textbooks for lower cost than print textbooks, and a ban on technology would prevent students from accessing their textbook in class. Instead, consider a policy that allows students flexibility to use laptops responsibly for class-related purposes when appropriate. For more information on student accommodations, contact the Academic Support and Access Center at x3360.

5. Enforce your technology policy consistently.

Once you have chosen your policy, enforce it consistently. Inconsistent enforcement not only weakens the policy, but it also leads to a feeling of inequity among students. You might walk around your classroom, or lecture from the back of the class as needed and/or have TAs in a large lecture hall stationed around the room. Enforcement needn’t be confrontational, and can instead be very matter of fact. For example, “Please close Facebook” or “Please put your phone away.” With time, in fact, you may only need to give a student “the look” to put away his or her device or return focus to class activities.

6. Be transparent with your rationale for the policy.

Talking to your students about why you’ve set your policy helps students understand why the policy matters and how to abide by it. If you’ve chosen to limit laptop use in class, explain the reasons. If you’ve chosen to encourage laptop use in class, explain your expectations for appropriate use and any limits to that use.

7. Consider technology additions that might enhance learning in your course.

If you’re teaching a course for majors or an upper-level course, you might especially consider what technologies your students should know about in your field, and incorporate them into your course. For example, in a communications course, you could help students design surveys to collect real data using the survey software Qualtrics. Once students have collected data, you could then ask them to analyze that data using statistical software such as SPSS.

By integrating technology into your course where appropriate, you can model productive uses of technology and support digital literacy. Beyond introducing specific tools for particular majors, consider your course goals and student learning outcomes and ask yourself where might technology help to enhance student learning. Potential uses might include

  • Assigning note-taking platforms such as Evernote to help students take notes more effectively or collaboratively;
  • Asking students to conduct quick research in class or to look up relevant statistics and discuss in small groups;
  • Asking students to share ideas and feedback digitally during a class exercise;
  • Using an online platform for students to complete an exit survey question at the end of class;
  • Polling techniques such as Poll Everywhere to gauge student understanding during a lecture or class discussion or when students are completing problem sets.

8. Thoughtfully integrate appropriate technologies into your classroom practice.

If you do choose to allow or encourage technology use in your course, plan given class sessions with technology use or non-use in mind. During class, clearly demarcate when students should or should not be using devices. For example,

  • Working on problem sets in a math course may require students to use devices while solving individually, but when you want to regroup, you might ask students to put away their devices and focus on the front of the room.
  • Small group discussion usually does not require students to take extensive notes or refer to an online textbook. You therefore ask students to close their laptops and put away their phones to complete their assignment.
  • Full-class discussion might benefit from device use if you want students to use examples from course readings. You might remind students of behavioral expectations for using devices during discussion.

9. Examine the literature and know that attitudes and research on this are changing.

There are many fields of relevant research, including psychology, education, neuroscience, and information technology. The following is but a small sample of the wide range of available literature on technology use in the classroom.

10. Reflect on your own technology behaviors and practices.

Remember that device (over)use is a cultural phenomenon that many across campus can empathize with. Draw on the experiences of others and your own self-reflection to inform your classroom strategy. Consider what drives you to divide your attention during meetings or other settings where you use your devices. Draw on the experiences of your peers. Connect with colleagues across campus in the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning; the University Library; the Office of Information Technology; and the Academic Career and Access Center.