Portable electronic devices in the classroom

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education post, David Gooblar suggests that we should let students decide whether or not–and, if so, how–to use smart phones in the classroom. Citing Simon Bates and Alison Lister, who allow their students to collaborate on an acceptable use policy for technology in the classroom, Gooblar writes:

Bates and Lister introduce the concept on the first day of class. They direct students to a collaborative online space, where they have posted a basic document with a number of guidelines for the students to consider. The students are given a set amount of time—say, a week—to contribute to the document and to edit the rules as they see fit. A vote is then held in class to decide the fate of any rules that the students are divided on. In this way the class works as a unit to devise their own guidelines for what is (and isn’t) appropriate.

This strategy is an ingenious way to navigate the tricky terrain of technology in the classroom. And discussing what is acceptable and unacceptable in class may also get students thinking about what you’re trying accomplish as an instructor. Or it could prompt them to consider some valuable questions: How do we think our class time should be spent? How does learning best occur? How do we create an environment that accommodates everyone’s needs?

This may even lead students to think about their role in the classroom, become more conscious of their own learning styles, and take on some measure of responsibility for what occurs over the course of the semester. Best of all, it also absolves you, the instructor, from having to police the students—by allowing students to define the policy, you invite them to police themselves.

This happens to be something I’ve tried recently, minus the drawn-out collaboration in an online forum.

In every one of my classes this year, I’ve included a provisional statement on “Portable Electronic Devices” in the classroom. (The phrasing is stolen from the language of flight attendants. I suppose that means I fly too much or lack imagination.) But that statement is basically a placeholder and a platform for an important discussion.

As a class, we discuss the rationale for allowing the use of laptops, tablets, and phones, citing their advantages. We also discuss the rationale for prohibiting their use, citing their disadvantages and, often, what research suggests about their impact on learning (for the individual using the technology and for others around them). I then allow them to choose between 1) prohibiting the use of portable electronic devices (making exception for students who gain some advantage from them in dealing with a learning difference) or 2) allowing the devices for course purposes only, with the expectation that they will police themselves and that I will prohibit the use if anyone uses the devices for non-course purposes.

About half of my classes have just chosen to prohibit the use of electronic devices. The other half has chosen to allow their use. In both cases, they “own” the policy in a way that they otherwise would not. And, for the first time in years, I’ve had zero classroom disruptions because of the use of electronic devices. (I know there’s a long way to go until May, but….)

Is it possible, even likely, that someone has violated the agreement at some point this year? Well, not in my small classes that agreed not to use electronic devices at all. But, yes, it does seem likely that someone, at some point, probably used an open laptop, tablet, or phone for non-course purposes. But it seems to be there’s been less of this behavior, and I know it’s been less disruptive.

Bottom line: This practice has worked well this year and I plan to continue it next year.

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