More on Mobile Devices in the Classroom

This is a reply/follow-up to the November 9 post that raises important pedagogical questions about the role of mobile technology in the classroom.

I’d like to back up and ask a basic question. The number of students who now carry iPhones or Blackberries is noteworthy, not to mention those who text from standard cell phones. Given this level of potential distraction, has anyone developed a list of best practices for managing mobile devices in the classroom? What do you say in your syllabus? What is the appropriate response to a ringing cell phone? How about the student who sends text messages or the evening MBA who steps out to answer work-related calls? I want to give courtesy/respect, but the collective effect of 24 executives with 24 Blackberries is becoming downright disruptive.

Mobile phone jammers are illegal under the FCC’s Communications Act of 1934 (as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Scratch that idea.

I’ve been watching with interest Broadway’s struggle with changing etiquette. Did you see Hugh Jackman’s response when a ringing cell phone interrupted his late-September 2009 performance of “A Steady Rain”? According to the WSJ, Jackman is among a growing number of performers who are breaking from their characters to confront cell phone users, rogue photographers and videographers. How many times did you break from your script this semester?

In addition to handheld devices, I’m also wondering about best classroom practices for notebook computers. We installed wireless networks in our classrooms and occasionally see a disciplined student who effectively manages a paperless classroom experience. You’ve seen the student: several open windows for lecture notes/slides, Excel spreadsheets, PDFs of case studies, an internet browser for on-the-fly research, and a word processor for additional notes.

The problem is that when students switch among all these windows, as our CIS colleague Raquel Benbunan-Fich and coauthor Gregory Truman wrote in Communications of the ACM regarding a study presently undergoing peer review, the majority of their computer activities are not consistent with the lecture. They installed tracking software on 67 volunteers’ computers to monitor activity during a core lecture for an entire semester at a private business college and found that “76% of computer-based task switching centered on distracting activities while only 13% focused on compliant activities. This finding is consistent with previous anecdotal and survey-based reports about a preponderance of computer use directed towards personal or leisure interests during face-to-face meetings.” [1]

I guess this April 27, 2008 Doonesbury comic was right on the mark.

What do Buhanan-Fich and Truman recommend?

“1. Explicitly establish etiquette rules that simultaneously communicate the objectives of having laptops at meetings and govern appropriate computer use at such gatherings. 2. Impose technology restrictions to discourage distracting activities by disabling or restricting specific network services or applications. … 3. Integrate technology use into meeting activities in order to encourage compliant uses.” (See details in [1].)

So I did an informal experiment this semester and talked to my undergrad and MBA students about how mobile devices are—in my opinion—eroding the classroom experience for everyone, including citations to current research on the human brain’s inability to multitask. (See for example Dr. John Medina’s “Brain Rules” book and videos.) Similar information was added to the syllabus. Results have been mixed with kudos going to my undergrads; it seems to be a losing battle with MBAs who sit in evening classes at the same time they are on call at work.

In my field—service operations management—it’s well known that a firm wants to squelch customer behaviors that detract from the overall experience of all customers. But do mobile devices impact others, and, could the technology be embraced in ways that enhance the experience for all? Honestly, I don’t know. Consider Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales’ speech at Columbia’s Social Enterprise Conference. The moderator (Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something Inc.) encouraged audience members to submit questions from their mobile devices so that she could screen and prioritize in real time, creating an interactive discussion where questions were answered in order of pertinence, not the order hands were raised. In general, conferences on teaching with technology are suggesting other ways that mobile technology can add value, but I’m struggling to separate fad from research-driven improvement.

How should we educate students about appropriate use of mobile devices? We’ve been asked to prepare them for a society where such technology is becoming the norm, especially in business. I don’t know that this means we must accept current directions in etiquette, but perhaps we should have a say in what those directions ought to be.

(Special thanks to E.R., R.B.-F. and K.D. for useful conversations that contributed to the above.)

[1] Benbunan-Fich, R. and Truman, G.E. 2009. “Multitasking with Laptops During Meetings.” Communications of the ACM, 52(2), 139-151.

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8 Responses to More on Mobile Devices in the Classroom

  1. Arthur Lewin says:

    I do not have an answer for this specific question. I am dealing with it myself. But I do have a comment. The proliferation and constant use of communication devices signals a seismic shift in the nature of communication. Rather than only thinking about how to contain this change, we need to also think about how to work with it, within it, alongside it, and most importantly how to get this change to work for us.

    We must incorporate these devices into the format of the lesson. This is what academia will ultimately do it is own officially directed dinosaur like slow fashion. However, those solutions, or accomodations will come from people like us, who are in the trenches, that is, the classroom.

    Note, how tv, the record industry and newspapers are dealing with the new communication environment by attempting to use the internet as part of their operations. Yes, newspapers are being swallowed up by the internet, while the record industry and TV are holding their own. Either fate can happen to academia. It depends on how we meet the challenge.

  2. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    The idea of integrating ubiquitous devices in our classrooms is certainly interesting. I imagine that cell phones could be used for quick informal surveying, and the Internet for fact finding, web design analysis, and such. This being said, most of my classes are based on student interaction, and I’m using the following note on my syllabus to keep students focused on their classmates:

    “If you bring a laptop, close it before the start of class. You can use the laptop for lecture note-taking, but during other class activities (including discussion and interactive exercises), your laptop should remain closed so that you don’t create a barrier between yourself and others when the focus is on communicating.”

  3. Susan Chambre says:

    I have reprimanded two students for texting/using Blackberries. I do not monitor the use of computers in non-class activities.

    However, my syllabus includes a series of statements indicating that students ought to be concentrating on course work during class time.

    As for ringing cell phones, I’ve sometimes forgotten to turn mine off. I mention that turning it off is good etiquette in the syllabus. I would, if necessary, reprimand a student gently after class if it is a repeated event.

    I am increasingly feeling that students who don’t concentrate on classwork will have lower grades. So, let them do as they wish during class as long as they don’t distract me (but texting is annoying in a small class).

    There is another issue though: texting as a way to cheat.

    Hope this is illuminating.

    Thanks for the query Will.

  4. Leah Schanke says:

    I find this post very relevant as those of you who have attended my “Civility and Violence” workshop can attest to. Here’s a link to a good article written by P.M. Forni who directs the The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins:

    For more information on P.M. Forni’s work, his “Civility Web Site” can be found at:

  5. Arthur Lewin says:

    Leah, thank you for recommending that article. However, I would disagree with it on many points. But the main thing is its overall approach to the issue. The author appears to have a fortress-like mentality. Early on, though, it states the crux of the issue, “just as our new breed of students is not prepared for college, we are not prepared for them.” That’s the point. Too bad they only addressed one half of the equation.

  6. Pingback: Multitasking, revisited : Teaching Blog at Baruch College

  7. I’ve been an adjunct for the past 10 years, and my electronic gadget policy has evolved over this span (and will likely keep doing so). Clear, up front, expectations are key.

    I respect the student. But, explain my reasons for the policies. Vibrate only. If you’re not talking to a person in our room, you must leave the room. No texting, no exceptions. You’re welcome to use laptops, but expect me to direct a question or two toward you each class you do use a laptop (keep them engaged — laptops prevent a great deal of eye contact I’ve learned). No electronics during exams, period.

  8. Milagros Casillas says:

    I agree with you! These mobile phone are becoming very distracting. Our youth aren’t using these mobile for contructive purposes and they are a distraction in the work place. My friends redicule me my phone doesn’t have the capablity of accepting/sending text messages. Friend and family members, no longer call you because of the texting fascination.

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