Electronics in the Classroom

I was part of a twitter conversation over the weekend about student use of electronic devices in the classroom. My thinking about and practice around this issue has changed over time. I’ve started using it as an opportunity to engage in, and think about, democratic governance in the classroom. What follows is a bit on the weekend’s conversation and the background on my situation, and then a discussion of that practice.

The conversation started with Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) tweeting about the hard line he plans to take on cellphones:

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Perhaps not surprisingly, this got some pushback. Robin Nagle (@rznagle) linked to a piece by Michael Oman-Reagan, which makes the case for uninhibited student use of technology in the classroom quite strongly. It’s quite a thought-provoking article (but do we really need that many rhetorical questions?) Oman-Reagan points out that a few studies about student tech use have been widely but uncritically circulated. Like the one done at McMaster University a couple of years ago, which found that the most harmful effects of student laptop use were on non-laptop using students, who were distracted by the screens around them. Alberto Roca (@MinorityPostdoc) pointed to this study, which seems to come to somewhat different conclusions (the article is paywalled; I’ve only read the abstract). Paper note-takers did better on exams than laptop note-takers, but it didn’t matter whether students were in a classroom where laptop use was restricted to a particular “zone” (presumably less of a potential distraction for non-laptop-users).

My own thinking and practice on this has evolved over time. I teach at a university that pioneered digital tech in the classroom, and our faculty contract stipulates that we have to “explor[e] the use of information technology in developing effective means to meet pedagogical needs.” This was in place before I arrived in 2002, and while not a total tech booster, I dutifully learned how to use powerpoint, our CMS, etc. In this environment, laptops in the classroom just seemed to be a fact of life (students had paid quite a bit for them, as part of their tuition, so it was difficult to make the case that they shouldn’t bring them to class). It was argued that they could take notes more efficiently, and of course, without leaving the classroom, they had a world of information at their fingertips. (During my job interview, a senior administrator bullish on the program basically described it as giving students the ability to fact-check the professor in real time.)

Cellphones, on the other hand, well, that seemed to be a different issue. Those annoying ringtones were just a distraction, something that interfered with the creation of a pedagogical space where we all had a common focus. Lines were (or seemed) clear, and I was comfortable putting a statement like this in my course syllabi:

Students are encouraged to bring their laptops to class for note-taking and similar course-related activities… Catching up on email, messaging, updating your Facebook page, gaming, random net surfing, writing papers for other courses, etc. should NOT be done during class time. Attempting to multitask seriously impairs your ability to process new information and to engage in meaningful dialogue (i.e. to learn and do well in this course). And it is rude. Similarly, while in class cellphones should be turned off or silenced and ignored.

And then: cellphones became smartphones, capable of doing just about anything that laptops do. And laptops became smaller. And tablets, ipads, e-readers, etc. filled in that gap between “computers” which can have a positive function, and “cellphones” which are just a distraction. Worse: I had the increasing sense that I was totally clueless about how students actually use these various technologies. The first time I heard “I use my phone to take notes,” I was skeptical, but had no way of actually judging whether it was true, or what to do about it. The psychology of learning is a big field that I am not trained in, and in any case technology use is a fast-moving target.

Admitting that I can’t become an expert, I do a couple of things. 1) Revert to traditional, old school pedagogy in cases where I can and think it’s worthwhile, 2) find ways to avoid the vexed question of whether students learn better with computers or paper, and 3)

  1. In seminar-style classes, I have either outright banned or at least strongly discouraged tech use. In these classes we spend class time in discussion, often working through difficult texts or ideas, and we all need to be focused on the same thing (text) in front of us. I tell students that it is a discussion class: I won’t lecture. And these classes are small enough – rarely more than 15 students, often more like 8-12 – that I can get all students involved in the discussion. Within certain parameters, I let the students set the agenda for discussion: they decide what is worth talking about (important, interesting or confusing) in the texts. And if they don’t have any questions or comments about it, we’ll sit in awkward silence for the three-hour block. Fortunately this hasn’t happened yet.
  2. In larger classes, I’ve tried to incorporate more active learning in class time. This really started with a Contemporary Political Theory course in 2014 (first time I explicitly completely banned electronics), and some of those ideas are documented here. And I did some more in a Politics & Mass Media course (40 students) last year (two things storified here and here). And increasingly in my Intro politics class (one thing storified here). Intro classes in my department are capped at 65, and 2nd and 3rd year classes are smaller. So “larger classes” is obviously a relative term, and it would be harder to do at least some of these things in a 200-person lecture (but see here).
  3. Finally,in my Intro class, for the last three years I have let students determine the electronics policy in our class. Untitled1 copy

I tell students that I do this out of my ignorance of what you darn kids do with your newfangled gizmos. But I do it for other reasons, as well. My initial thought was that it would give the policy a kind of legitimacy that it wouldn’t have if it was imposed by some clueless old dude who just wants to get your cellphones off my damn lawn. I’m less sure about legitimacy now, but I’ve found other reasons to continue doing it.

The class is, after all, an introduction to politics. This exercise, which they are told about on the first day of class and do on the second day, gives us a concrete example of deliberative democratic decision-making as a starting point for the course. And it also fits with one of my aims for the course (in which a majority of the students are non-majors), which is to introduce students to democratic citizenship and think of politics as an activity that they engage in, as well as an object of study. The process invariably involves not just getting students to construct logical arguments, refer to evidence, think critically about the arguments presented – the kinds of things teachers want students to do in all kinds of classes. But it also forces them to engage in the specifically political activities of articulating their needs in ways that make sense to others, listening to the articulated needs of others, and negotiating a solution that everyone can live with. Politics, as I mention in the course syllabus, is fundamentally about answering the question: “how should we live together?” At least for one aspect of how they will live for three hours per week over a semester, this gives them a chance to explicitly figure that out.

I’ve done this three times now, and the results have been pretty similar each time. A number of students are committed to the idea of paper note-taking. A number really want to use their laptops. And a few will, with varying degrees of sheepishness, admit that they really don’t want to go 50 minutes disconnected from the world outside the classroom. They realize that generalizing their own preferences can have negative implications for others, and they try various forms of argument to persuade others. When these fail, they end up with as much of a live-and-let-live policy as they can find, usually with laptop users relegated to the back of the classroom so their screens won’t distract people behind them. If things like texting are allowed, they have to be done “discreetly,” so as not to distract others. This emphasis on maximizing individual choice without impeding others’ freedom isn’t a surprising result in a liberal society. And it provides a good point of contrast when we talk about non-liberal approaches to politics (like Plato’s idea that there is one best way for human beings to live) later in the term.

One somewhat surprising result is that students have tended to demur on the question of enforcement: what to do when someone breaks the rules? I tell them that policies need enforcement mechanisms, and the limits we have to work within (no expelling offenders from class, for example). I had thought they might come up with creative forms of social sanction. But they seem to not want to deal with this problem, and if anything, leave it to me to deal with offenders. I’m torn between two contradictory conclusions about this. More pessimistically, this can be seen as evidence that we (or at least the subset of “we” that finds itself in my Intro Politics class) don’t really trust ourselves with institutions of democratic self-governance. Maybe this is because we are so thoroughly constructed as liberal individualized subjects that we don’t trust collective processes, even when we are a part of them. Maybe we are post-political and don’t trust that we non-experts can make the right decision. Maybe in liquid modernity we are too uncertain about our future selves and their desires.

The more optimistic reading of it, is that it represents an intuition that institutions of coercion are only necessary in large groups, with relative strangers interacting in systems that aim at the (re)production and legitimation of inequality. At least ideally, university classrooms don’t fit that description.



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