Electronic devices in the classroom

19 October 2017

Defining the parameters around the use of electronic devices in the classroom is an important part of setting course expectations. Questions about setting boundaries on appropriate use of technology, and how we convey those boundaries to students, are more challenging than simply banning or welcoming electronic devices. In some situations, access to technology may be pedagogically valuable, allowing students to work with software or simulations that permit them to explore the topics at hand, while other times, technology may undermine the goals of the classroom, such as engaging with peers in small group discussion or providing an opportunity for focused reflection.

What are some of the considerations with regards to electronic devices in the classroom? 

Concerns about electronic devices generally focus around three main issues:

  1. Distraction of the electronic device user. (See, for example, Hembrooke and Gay, “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments”, Journal of Computing Education.)
  2. Distraction of others in the class around the electronic device user. (See, for example, Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, “Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers,” Computers & Education.)
  3. Effectiveness of note taking by hand as compared to by computer. (See, for example, Muller and Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” Psychological Science.)

While research has demonstrated some of the drawbacks to technology in the classroom, the studies take place in a particular context and do not represent a universal prescription for the appropriate role of technology. For example, students who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia or dysgraphia or medical conditions that impair fine motor control do not benefit from taking notes by hand, and instructors should acknowledge that there is not one “best” way to take notes that applies to everyone.

One of the most thoughtful discussions I have seen about including disabilities more fully in the conversation about technology can be found in the Digital Pedagogy Lab post by Anne-Marie Womack and Rick Godden. In particular, they note the challenge that screen bans pose for some students with disabilities:

If an instructor honors official accommodation requests and lets the student be the exception with a screen, it forces students to out themselves as a person with a disability, which can come with considerable stigma. Ramona Paetzold et al. studied students’ perceptions of people with disabilities — specifically individuals granted longer test time — and found that “granting an accommodation was seen as less fair than not granting one” (27). With that kind of social pressure, it is unsurprising that many students don’t report, and as a result, instructors then think they don’t have many disabled students and don’t need to plan for their inclusion. 

How might one best manage classroom technology policies?

First, clearly articulate what your policy is and the motivation for your policy, taking into account the particulars of your classroom context. Share with your students research about the different contexts in which technology can be distracting or helpful, and thoughtfully acknowledge the complexity of the situation. Rather than shutting down conversations about technology and its impact on learning with a blanket ban, use this topic as opportunity for conversation with your students about approaches to creating a classroom community that promotes learning for everyone. Some students come from high schools with one-to-one computing policies, and students have experienced many different ways that teachers manage technology in the classroom. Asking students to share their experiences about what has or hasn’t worked for them in the past might provide some valuable perspectives. If you do want to limit technology, be thoughtful about how you describe your policy in your syllabus.

Additional resources:

If you have time, I highly recommend the book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen. The book highlights the science behind the limited ability of our brains to pay attention, emphasized the importance of individuals understanding how technology interferes with cognitive control mechanisms, and suggests ways to develop behaviors that minimize the distractions that technology introduces.