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