End The Classroom War On Mobile Devices

Students believe smartphones and laptops can assist learning. Then why are so many teachers dead set against them in their classrooms?
07/01/2016 06:19 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2017
Graduation mortar board cap on one hundred dollar bills concept for the cost of a college and university education
Graduation mortar board cap on one hundred dollar bills concept for the cost of a college and university education

Students believe smartphones and laptops can assist learning. Then why are so many teachers dead set against them in their classrooms?

Smartphones, laptops and other mobile devices continue to produce lots of drama between students, teachers, and administrators in universities and high schools across the country. Although public schools in New York City, Chicago, and Atlanta, for example, lifted their ban on smartphones in 2015, students must still keep their phones in their lockers, only using them before or after school unless given permission by a teacher and/or administrator. Sneaking smartphones into a high school classroom often results in phone confiscation, and sometimes can lead to dangerous confrontations between students and school police officers like the one in late 2015 at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. Though the coverage of this incident sparked conversations on the role of school resource officers and even race, it was a single cell phone in the classroom that set off the chain of events.

University policies toward smartphones run the gamut from Missouri State and Winthrop University, which forbid students from using them in class, to Harvard University with no official policy but a recommendation that faculty consider prohibiting all classroom mobile devices and including this on their syllabi. A professor from University of Oklahoma became an internet sensation when he dramatized his rule that all digital devices were not allowed in class by submerging a laptop in liquid nitrogen and then smashing it to bits!

Despite the educational value of smartphones and laptops, many U.S. educators, and the universities they work for, believe that mobile devices are a distraction to attention, learning and participation and, if permitted in the classroom, must be closely monitored. Our recently published research with over 560 U.S. university students indicates that this view is contrary to what most students believe.1

University students are quite positive about use of smartphones and laptops in class and believe they can assist learning and are critical to their safety, so should be left on at all times. And when a cell phone goes off in class, students prefer that instructors ignore it, handle it light heartedly through humor, or talk to the student in private after class. In contrast, most U.S. faculty we interviewed had specific rules in their syllabi for utilizing all digital devices in class with penalties for rule violations.2 Surprisingly popular were total bans on students' phones and laptops.

Approximately 15% of the university instructors we interviewed use more extreme measures to manage students' digital devices, which include public humiliation, personal reprimands, and disabling wireless access. For example, one instructor disclosed to us that, when he catches a student peering at a website unrelated to the class, he jokes publicly that the individual is watching pornography in order to shame the student. A professor teaching graphic design in a mediated classroom said she projects on the classroom screen, for all to see, what's on the offending student's computer. Several professors told us that they confiscated the phones of offending students. Another professor attempted to use an illegal cellphone jamming device he bought in China, but it didn't work.

Some university instructors try to integrate laptops and smartphones into their classes, strategically redirecting their students' attention from their mobile devices to class content. This is a far more positive strategy, and one that seems to work well for instructors and students. One popular technique is using electronic resources in class, such as wireless clickers, to increase student participation. A second tactic is asking students' to use their smartphones and laptops in class for impromptu on-line searches. Some faculty just roam around the classroom, positively engaging students who are clearly distracted by their mobile devices.

On occasion, strategic redirection can be more forceful and less positive like instructors in our study who require any student engrossed in their electronic devices to browse something on the spot related to the class so it can be included in the lecture. Another instructor disclosed that when he notices a student buried in a laptop, he sneaks up behind her or him and comments on whatever is on the student's screen, which "mortifies" the student and extinguishes the behavior.

It's abundantly clear from our research that university instructors are not sure how to successfully manage students' mobile devices in their classrooms; there is certainly no consensus. Students may resent and resist instructor efforts to manage their phones and laptops no matter what instructors do, as technology is so embedded in their lives.

And the major complication is that university students just don't share their instructors' views that their mobile devices cause significant classroom disruptions.

So who's right - students or their instructors? They're both correct! Mobile devices can significantly enrich learning, according to myriad studies, as long as instructors carefully integrate them into their teaching and judiciously monitor their use. Positive uses of strategic redirection have a greater chance of successfully managing these devices than more heavy-handed techniques because they're in sync with the digital attitudes of today's students. To end the classroom war on smartphones and laptops, many instructors and universities need to change their negative digital mindsets and embrace mobile devices as powerful instructional tools, with the potential to revolutionize teaching and learning.

Robert Shuter is research professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, focusing on communication, culture and new media. Together with Pauline Hope Cheong, also professor at the Hugh Downs School, Shuter has co-authored and published two new studies on electronic media in the classroom. He can be reached at robert.shuter@asu.edu.

1Shuter, R., Cheong, P., & Chen, Y (2016). The influence of cultural values on US and Danish student digital behavior: Exploring culture, new media and social context. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 9(2) 161-178
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17513057.2016.1154183

2Cheong, P., Shuter, R., & Suwinyattichaiporn,T. (2016). Managing student digital distractions and hyperconnectivity: Communication strategies and challenges for professorial authority. Communication Education, 65(3) 272-289
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03634523.2016.1159317