THE BLOG
10/24/2012 12:20 pm ET | Updated Dec 24, 2012

College: Are Cell Phones More Fun Than Class?

In the last few years, anyone who has walked the hallowed halls of ivy while class is in session has seen it. Professors have and still do try to fight it. This it I refer to is the blatant, public, and brazen use of cell phones by students while an instructor or fellow classmate is teaching or speaking. It doesn't just stop at small smart phones either. As I conclude my classes and leave to exit the building, I pass classrooms with open doors where I see the backs of students working on laptops -- their bodies aglow with blue from the reflection of their Facebook pages. They're not taking notes; they're posting a status about how boring class is.

In the students' defense, I sometimes don't blame them for being on Facebook or using their phones to check text messages. I have seen my colleagues do some nasty-boring things with PowerPoint. If I were a student today and forced to sit through death-by-PowerPoint, I'd rather stand in warrior-one and watch wintertime Florida grasses grow. It has gotten that bad. Pushing the space bar 144 times to get through a three hour lecture and its material isn't teaching -- it's torture.

In full disclosure, two of my recent research studies have been on the topics of PowerPoint and also cell phones and immediacy with the intent of better understanding how to connect with students in today's digital world. How do professors connect with a student who is so outwardly and already connected? Just today in the freshman seminar I teach I had to ask for the second time in two weeks for everyone to put their phones away when their fellow classmates were talking. It's crazy.

Here's what I do know. In my 2010 cell phone study I asked my respondents this question, "Are cell phones more fun than class?" Of the nearly 500 undergraduate respondents, 44 percent answered "yes." In the same study I asked, "When in class, do you care if anyone sees you while using your mobile device?" Sixty-six percent answered "no." So, nearly one half of the class thinks their iPhone is more fun than English, and nearly two-thirds do not care if anyone sees them use it -- which means they do not care about the image they are portraying. Crazy!

Here is what else I know, study after study repeatedly proves that multitasking is not nearly as effective as solo-tasking. In multiple studies, students who are asked to do two things at the same time repeatedly make more mistakes, or do those tasks slower than if they did them separately and at different times. I also know that students are living in a world of excessive stimulation, heck, it isn't just students -- I sit in my office checking my iPhone, my Facebook, for cheap airfares, texting my friends at their jobs, and stopping every so often to check the latest Very Mary Kate blog video. It's all so exciting. I can only imagine what it is like for today's student to go from this stimulating multi-media environment to a classroom where someone is lecturing. Bleh.

When I present on this topic, I usually conduct a faculty workshop about immediacy-increasing (engaging) teaching techniques we can employ to better connect with our students. For the purpose of this post, and the sake of time, instead of a workshop I want to pose a few questions to ponder -- no matter who you are: student, former student, teacher, parent, human.

My first major question is: if cell phones are more fun than class, then why go to class? Seriously? I'm not kidding when I say I walk by classrooms of 20 folks and I will see 10 on Facebook, Google, text messaging, or using some other entertainment-based website on their phone or computer. I do know that sometimes students are looking up definitions or searching for background information on the class topic. But how often is this really happening? Let's be honest. On top of that, let's also recall that little multi-tasking factoid. So, I ask, why go to a brick-and-mortar college at all? Why not get a degree online? There are some good online degrees out there and one could play on Facebook and cell phones all day -- even at the same time!

My next major question is: who are you texting for 60 minutes? I have sat through colleague's classes and watched students text for the entire duration of a class -- even during engaging lectures. My first thought is always, where and what are these people on the other end of those text messages doing at 2 p.m. on a Thursday? Texting your significant other all day isn't a good idea because there's nothing to talk about when you see each other. Texting mom and dad back home all day isn't a good idea because they're not going to get their money's worth when their co-ed flunks the midterm. Texting new friends you just made isn't a good idea, because relationships shouldn't be based on sms's alone, and sexting anyone from a college classroom is a bad idea in that rare case a professor snaps and confiscates your phone. So, who is left?

My final question is: at the very least, what about simple and polite decorum? Depending on who you ask, some folks will think that texting and talking to others is the new normal and acceptable, and some more traditional folks may see it as flat-out rude. My thought on that is, yeah -- maybe to some; but maybe not other texters.

What I call for is an attention to context. The cell phone companies (see AT&T) have gotten it "right" with their anti-texting and driving campaigns. It didn't take long for legislatures, corporations, and the general public to realize that driving just isn't a good context for texting. How weird would it be if I taught my classes while texting and Facebooking on my iPhone all while at the front of the room? That would seem out of context right? Can you imagine the student evaluations I would get for that?

By using context to dictate cell phone and laptop etiquette behavior, one could never go wrong no matter student, faculty, or family member. Picture it; you're a student home for winter break. A small group of your family members has gathered around the table and is catching up; if you are the only person using your phone -- then maybe this isn't the right context to text your friends from school. Or, if you're a graduate student in a class of 10, wouldn't it make sense to stay off your phone while the professor has you seated around a table? Some may argue that college kids these days just don't know these social graces, or that they've grown up with cell phones and laptops and using them during interactions and class is simply their culture. I call bull!

It does not take one generation of kids, five years of the iPhone and a few more of Facebook to wipe out eons of chivalry. This just isn't true. Phones are fun. MacBooks are fun. These things have replaced the school newspaper and Cosmo magazine as a distraction in a boring class. People haven't changed; rather the means by which we suffer through endless lectures and PowerPoints have changed. Students have shifted to it. This it we speak of is the blatant and brazen use of cell phones and laptops in classrooms. Maybe they're sending professors a message -- we can't take your 1,000-slide, 1,000-word PowerPoints any longer. While my questions to ponder may open even bigger boxes of questions, the one thing I would ask any chronic cell user is to at least consider the context in which you are using your phone and laptop. Perhaps it will be more fun if we simply hang up or log off and enjoy the person in front of us, for one day they will be gone -- and you won't be able to text them in heaven (especially if you have AT&T).

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