How much tech in the classroom is too much?

Primary school students display their phones.

Earlier this year, I audited a computer-science course at Pomona College, my alma mater. And I was shocked, when on the first day, the professor told us it would be a closed-laptop class. Computer science without the computer!

That's how concerned some teachers are about distractions created by digital devices.  But the  temptation to text, email and play Candy Crush isn’t the only concern. It’s digital note-taking itself.  A recent Princeton University study showed that students remember information more effectively through handwritten notes.

LearningCurve surveyed teachers and professors from kindergarten through graduate school to learn about their policies on laptops, tablets, smart phones and other technology in the classroom.  

Very few teachers had a blanket-ban on tech in the classroom: only 13 out of 219. By contrast, 102 said that students are allowed to freely use technology,  and 104 said they allow it "under limited circumstances."

Many college professors felt it was not their place to tell students to shut down their screens.:

College students can make the decision about whether or not it is worth their time and money to attend class, pay tuition, and then spend the class period browsing through Facebook. - Lee Cornell, professor, Computer Information Science, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

The first night of my policy analysis class, I demonstrate with a comparison of possible classroom policies on laptops and their potential impacts on learning and other outcomes.  Students get the idea! - Marieka Klawitter, professor, Policy Analysis, Social policy and Statistics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Some teachers with open-use policies had mixed results:

Theoretically, I allow my 8th graders to listen to music in their headphones if they're working, but have found it almost impossible to stop them from going onto other social media aps and playing games on their phone, so often have to retract the privilege. - Gina Beavers, 8th-grade teacher, Art, Brooklyn, NY.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I am always surprised that students will text, or leave their ear buds in during a lecture. - Janet Peterson, professor, Nutrition and Exercise Science, Linfield College, Newberg, OR.

There were strong feelings on both sides of the issue:

Frankly, I find restrictive device policies ridiculous.  If we expect college students to become mature adult thinkers, then holding them to prohibitionary rules seems to undermine that effort. - Tim Mahoney, professor, Teacher Education, Millersville University.
We allow laptop/device usage only with direct, explicit teacher permission. Otherwise, students are expected to keep them closed.  Frankly, any other policy, in my opinion, would be complete foolishness, no matter the educational level. As it is, the teachers at our school must police diligently the student use of devices. - Craig Copeland, teacher, Humanities, McDonogh School, Parkton, MD.

Some teachers got creative:

Laptops and tablets can be used by students only if they sit in the front row. My teaching style is to walk around as I teach, so if they are in the front row, I can see the screen from time to time as I pass their desks. - Sylvia McGeary, professor, Religious Studies, Felician College, Lodi, NJ.

I know they will use them, and frequently for something that is far from chemistry.  I don't wish to foster ill will; therefore, instead of banning them, I "commandeer" them using the wireless network by sending them questions that they can answer for extra credit points. - Vanessa Castleberry, professor, Chemistry, Baylor University.

One teacher feels his classroom is a good place for students to learn the life skill of appropriate technology-use behavior:

The kids need to learn when and how to use their phones appropriately. High school is the perfect place for this. If a student is clearly playing a game or having a long conversation via text, I remind them that it's disrespectful, and potentially detrimental to their learning. I frequently say "If you need to use your phone, then use it. Don't make a big deal about it, and don't take too long." - Jeff Castle, teacher, Graphic Design, Film Production, Computer Science, Albany High School, Albany, CA.

A few teachers just felt their subject was not one where technology should be used at all:

Philosophy classes call upon people to listen and discuss. It is not information driven. Technology tends to divide people's attention and draws them away from active listening and participating. Thus, it actively works against the very habits necessary to critical and philosophical practices. One might as well be holding a smart phone during ballet training--it's that diversionary - David Hildebrand, professor, Philosophy, University of Colorado Denver, Denver, CO.

Others though, argued that all teachers need to give students access to classroom tech:

It is a moral imperative, not only to provide equal access to all students regardless of socio-economic background, but also to prepare students for the technology skills expected in the world today.  - Jerred Erickson, teacher, Social Studies, Spanaway Lake High School, Puyallup, WA.

If you are a teacher, parent or student, we want to know what you think. Tell us if you think technology should be used in the classroom in the comments section below, or tweet at us @LearningCurveED.

About the author

Dan Abendschein is the digital and data reporter on our LearningCurve team reporting on tech and education.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...