When Cell Phones Are the Book: some observations on e-readers

cell phoneOver the past few years, increasing numbers of students in my classes have been using e-readers of different sorts. But this semester marks something of a turning point in that trend, as I’d estimate at least half of my students in each of my two literature courses this semester have been using e-readers. As I’m wrapping up the semester, I thought I’d share a few observations about this trend and its impact in my classroom.

The Classroom Context

First, I should make clear that I’m simply describing my own experience in two upper-level literature courses this semester. I teach nineteenth-century British literature, so all of the texts I teach are in the public domain and hence available for e-readers. These are specialized courses that do not use a survey textbook . I do order specific paperback editions of the novels and poetry for the course, and recommend them to students, but I do not require that my students use those editions. If someone already owns a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I’m not going to require her to buy another copy of the book. In fact, the differences among available paperback editions of some of the novels have often sparked useful discussion in my courses about textual editing, book marketing, and canon formation.

I strive to create an intellectually rigorous and socially relaxed space in my classroom and my main policy regarding electronic devices is that students not disrupt others in the class. (Rob Jenkins’s thoughtful Chronicle essays on class policy sketch out an approach similar to mine.) To accomodate different learning styles, I allow students to use electronic devices such as laptops or tablets to take notes in my class and I’ve welcomed students using e-readers as well. What was very noticeable this semester was the increase in the number of students using smartphones as e-readers. As long as the phones don’t ring or get answered during class, that’s OK with me. (Many of my students are working adults with childcare or eldercare responsibilities that sometimes require phones to be set to vibrate in the case of emergency calls; that, too, is fine with me, as long as students are not disruptive to others.)

Student Use of E-Readers is Variable

Too often, the discussions I’ve read about the use of e-readers tends to assume that the switch from paper to pixel is an all-or-nothing decision. What I’ve observed suggests otherwise:

  • Some students used electronic texts for every book in the course
  • Some students used electronic texts for some books and paper copies for others
  • Some students used multiple devices for reading course materials, switching (sometimes even during a class session) among a laptop, Kindle, or smartphone
  • Some students used both an e-reader and a paper copy of the text, sometimes simultaneously
  • Some students use the e-reader just for reading
  • Some students used the e-reader for both reading and taking notes

The Classroom Looks Different Now

Because these technological shifts are still ongoing, it still feels a bit disconcerting to see students pulling out their phones as class begins, rather than putting them away. Seeing students typing (whether on a laptop, e-reader, or phone) while I’m talking is still a bit more distracting to me than when they scribble in a paper notebook. But I know from my experience as a student and as a teacher that the device does not in itself enforce attention: you can daydream, write other things, or misread just as easily on paper as you can on a screen.

Some of my strongest students this semester were those who were using one or multiple e-devices. At times, they used their bookmark and search functions to bring key passages into the discussion that would have been difficult to locate otherwise. At times, it’s also probable that they sent some text messages while they were in my class. But I’m sticking with my open policy regarding electronic devices because it’s my job as a teacher to reach as many students as I can — and to recognize that their modes of engagement with the course materials may look different from my own.

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user liewcf]

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