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I'm at a North American, state-run university (not an elite institution), which is relatively modern in terms of supporting mobile devices. The school is proud of its WiFi coverage in every classroom, and recently rooms were updated to have electrical outlets at every student's seat (even in auditoriums), so they can charge their devices. All courses are three-hour periods, once a week.

This mobile-friendly environment is great when integrating mobile technologies in class. I make use of Mentimeter (real-time quizzes), the students can follow the PDF lecture notes and/or electronic copies of texts, take notes on their laptops, look things up on the web when I ask questions or when they do exercises, etc.

However, it makes for a challenge during courses when students use these devices in distracting ways. Definitions of "misuse" are situational, but for this question, I'll call it any use that detracts from a healthy learning environment. Concrete examples include watching a video or playing a game on a laptop (distracting neighboring students), texting, using Facebook rather than working an exercise in group, etc.

Laptops and smart phones in class are not new; in the past I was able to deal with their "misuse" relatively easily. A student would be easily embarrassed and close his laptop if you called him out when you saw that 5 students around him were all looking at his screen and smiling. I ask a lot of questions during my classes, so I could "pick on" students who caused disruptions with their mobile device (or otherwise). Drawing attention to one student in large groups is an effective way to change behavior, usually.

However, last semester was more difficult than ever, with 40+ students in an newly-electrified auditorium. During one class interruptions occurred 3 times, and I had to talk to offending students during the break about it. During the mid-term, I had one student argue with me at the start because he wanted to keep charging his iPhone at his desk in front of him. He insisted he wasn't going to use it during the exam to cheat, but I cited the policy barring mobile devices during exams and mentioned he'd have to explain that to a discipline committee - he complied. Needless to say, those "correctional" situations don't win points for the professor in the course evaluation. On the other hand, I learned that if I don't intervene (early in my career I would ignore these behaviors), students who feel distracted will complain during evaluations (most are too shy to say something during the semester).

The solution it seems is to add yet another item in my already lengthy syllabus and explain the desired behavior during the first lecture. My school has no official policy as far as I know regarding mobile device use, apart from an IT security policy that doesn't address the distraction issues. I did some searching on the web and found that some schools have policies, e.g. McGill. What is not clear is how effective the policies are in large classrooms, how easy they are to enforce without becoming the "text police", how well they work in non-elite universities, etc.

I contrast all this with the fact that my students almost never misuse the "phone" part of their devices (they don't ring during lectures and they don't talk on them except at the breaks). None of that is in my course plan and I never have to explain it at the start of the semester or take action.

So, how to reduce misuse of mobile devices in large classes while maintaining a friendly atmosphere?

EDIT see this article for the students' perspective of the problem, and why it's not like other classic forms of distraction. In the conclusion, they state it could be useful for institutions to define policies about proper behavior in the classroom regarding mobile devices. enter image description here

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This mobile-friendly environment is great when integrating mobile technologies in class. — Honestly, this sounds like a recipe for disaster. –  JeffE Feb 9 '13 at 22:30
    
@JeffE can you explain why? –  Fuhrmanator Feb 9 '13 at 22:33
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You're requiring students to have an distracting device open in front of them during class, and then you're surprised that they're distracted? Humans really aren't that good at multitasking. –  JeffE Feb 9 '13 at 22:41
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@JeffE My school/I don't require mobile devices, but we accommodate them (I decided it was the wrong approach to try to ban them years ago, especially since the admin put in WiFi and electricity). The recipe for disaster occurs if there are no "rules of the road" for their use in class. –  Fuhrmanator Feb 9 '13 at 23:53

3 Answers 3

up vote 22 down vote accepted

There is nothing new in what you describe. As a student who oft got bored during lectures, I have done some distracting things during them, even though I didn't have access to any electronic device at the time (I'm young enough that they existed, but it wasn't accepted practice to bring them to class). We did crossword puzzles (collaboratively), we played cadavre exquis, we read newspapers and discussed them, we flirted, we worked on other stuff, … What makes you think the situation you are experiencing is specific to mobile devices? The cause of the distractions is different from other situations, but I think the issue is the same and the solutions are, too.

So, what I would suggest is: warn your students that while what they do is their business, you expect that their behavior does not interfere with other's study or the general class atmosphere. Tell them that mobile devices are useful, but that they should be careful not to abuse them. Handle non-compliance as you would a typical incident: talk to them, give fair warning, but clearly set the limits and enforce them if it comes to that.

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What makes this specific to mobile devices? See my edit including the reference to a study that gathered feedback from the student's perspective. I agree that communicating the expectations clearly and early is important. –  Fuhrmanator Feb 9 '13 at 22:35
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There's an old joke about the student who pulls out a deck of cards and starts playing solitaire in the middle of lecture. When the professor calls him on it, the student says "Oh, I'm sorry, I forget my laptop." –  JeffE Feb 9 '13 at 22:35
    
+1 for "while what they do is their business, you expect that their behavior does not interfere with other's study or the general class atmosphere" - it's university, so whether they're paying attention to the lecture really is their business, and it's more productive to focus on just preventing disruptive behavior. –  weronika May 6 '13 at 5:16
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As well as preventing disruptive behaviour, I think it is also unacceptable for students to behave rudely/disrespectfully towards their lecturers (whether they are paying to be there or not). Openly signalling disinterest to the lecturer by overt inattention is rude/disrespectful. Rudeness towards people who are just doing their job is rarely acceptable in other sectors, so I don't see why it should be acceptable in academia. Discrete inattention is fine, at least it shows some consideration for the lecturer as a fellow human being! ;o) –  Dikran Marsupial May 18 '13 at 14:57
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@DikranMarsupial I think the other side of that is that it's disrespectful to give a lecture that doesn't command attention / is so un-interesting that a large portion of students turn to distractions. It's not a clear thing, there's plenty of grey area .. just sayin', profs who give good lectures on interesting topics deal with this issue a lot less. –  hunter2 Sep 2 '13 at 12:01

Your problem is quite a common one and one that I face all the time. It is easy to see the benefits brought by laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc. and for those of us who were focused students, it seems like a benefit we want to give the younger generation. However, there are a lot of non-focused students who do use these devices to distraction, both their own and others.

For me, I try to make the class more interactive, less stand-and-deliver. That is, I tend to call on students all the time and I asked one student to comment on the opinion of other students. If the students are unable to give any meaningful answer (e.g., if they simply say 'yes, I agree with his point') then I dig until it is clear that the student was not paying attention. If that's the case, then one warning if I'm in a good mood and none if I'm not.

I make it clear that they have the choice to be there or not. University is not for everyone. If they don't want to be there, get out. If they do want to be there, then act like it.

I usually don't have to do it too often but I do have to do it from time to time to remind them that school is not relaxation time. Keep the classroom a little tense...it will keep them on their toes.

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I would be interested to know how you usually get evaluated by your students. From your approach it seems that you are tough with them and that usually means that they will mark you down for it. Could you expand on that and are there patterns that you have noticed in student evaluations given your class behavior in different terms, etc? –  blackace Feb 10 '13 at 2:24
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@blackace I am quite strict but not the strictest in my department (but stricter than most). I generally have the highest student evaluations in my department. I believe students like 'tough love' and I do love them and they know it...but I'm tough and they know that too. I believe they tend to learn more in my classes than from the average lecturer...and they do end up appreciating that. –  earthling Feb 10 '13 at 5:20
    
+1 for a tough love approach. How selective is admission to your university/program? The "university is not for everyone" is more or less true depending on that factor. –  Fuhrmanator Feb 10 '13 at 18:09
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Admission is actually quite easy. The fact is that there are many people in this country (in Asia) who never get a university education. –  earthling Feb 11 '13 at 2:17

Here's the policy I will try in my course next semester:

Policy for the use of electronic devices

To promote a better learning environment in my classes, I established this policy of using electronics devices (EDs). Allowing EDs in my classes is a privilege and not a right. That is, until my university establishes its own policy in this regard.

Goals

EDs offer several advantages in my classes. The lectures may be richer and more dynamic, you can perform Internet searches, answer questionnaires given by the teacher to validate comprehension immediately, do exercises with UML tools, take notes in an electronic document, etc.

However, there is a less positive side of the use of EDs in a lecture.

  • Several studies on multitasking [1] [2] show that students who focus on a single task in a course to learn more and have better results than their colleagues who work on multiple tasks simultaneously.

  • Another study [3] shows that the time to read a text is greater when responding to text messages during the reading.

  • According to surveys at several universities [4] students find laptops distracting during lectures. I have personally received comments in written evaluations for my courses that showed students were disturbed by other students who attended the course with a computer, but who used it to do other tasks during class.

Code of conduct

  • You should minimize the use of EDs for tasks not directly related to the course.
  • You must not access (or leave plugged into an electrical outlet) EDs during any kind of evaluation (quiz, exam, etc.), without my permission.
  • You must put your ED in a "silent" mode during the course.
  • You must place the screen of your ED to allow eye contact between you and me and other students.
  • You must close your ED when I ask, for example when doing team exercises.

Enforcement of the policy

Here are some indicators of possible non-compliance with the policy that are easy to detect and for which I have given several warnings in the past:

  • A student with his hands between his legs who looks down occasionally, smiling...
  • Many students staring at the a computer screen of a colleague...
  • A laptop fan running at full speed...

In case of non-compliance with the policy, I will give you a warning. After a warning, you may lose the privilege of bringing your ED to class.

References

[1] Hembrooke, H., and Gay, G. "The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments." Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 2003, 15 (1), 46-64.

[2] Young, J. R. "The Fight for Classroom Attention: Professor vs.. Laptop. "Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2, 2006, 52 (39), A27.

[3] L. L. Bowman, L. E. Levine, B. Mr. Waite and Mr. Gendron, "Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading, "Computers & Education, vol. 54, no. 4, p. 927-931, May 2010.

[4] Joan A. Williams, Helen Berg, Hannah Gerber, Melinda Miller, Donna Cox, Nancy Votteler, Carwile Dixie, and Maggie McGuire, "'I Get Distracted By Their Being Distracted': The Etiquette of Texting In-Class" Eastern Education Journal, vol. 40, no. 1, p. 48-56, 2011

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+1 for providing references at the end of your answer. –  Enthusiastic Student Jul 19 at 8:30
    
More than one year and around 150 students later, I can state this makes a big difference. Students are still easily distracted, but enforcing the policy is easy and mostly free of drama. The back row of class is where the worst offenders migrate, but it's much easier to manage. –  Fuhrmanator Aug 8 at 12:01

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