etiquette_bookThis week, after reading Lee Skallerup’s excellent post “In Class Distractions Are Nothing New” at College Ready Writing, I sent Lee a message on Twitter that sparked a long and productive conversation among many people about laptops in the college classroom (I’ve embedded that conversation below). In short, I’ve never banned laptops from my classroom, but I will confess I’ve been tempted. My problem with laptops isn’t that they distract individual students—a student who wants to be distracted can do so with pen and paper—but that laptops can so easily distract all those around the students using them.

But laptops can also be valuable assets in the classroom (see Mark’s post about Going Paperless in the Classroom or Amy’s about Ditching a Textbook, for example), and so, no matter how frustrated I get with an individual student’s laptop use, I do not ban them. Instead, each year I hone a section of my syllabus, the “Digital Etiquette Policy.” This policy was developed in tandem with a Electronic Communication Policy like Ethan described in a previous ProfHacker post, and owes much to George’s thoughts in “Five Tips for Dealing with Gadgets in the Classroom.” I borrowed the phrase “digital etiquette” from a colleague because I think it signals a healthy attitude towards the possible pitfalls of technology. When a student visits Facebook in class, for instance, it’s not a technological failure. Instead, it’s a breach of the tacit social contract of the classroom—I expect my students to pay attention to me and their colleagues; in return I concentrate on facilitating their learning while we’re together (and, indeed, beyond our time together).

My policy certainly isn’t perfect. If anything, it’s still too punitively oriented:

Digital Etiquette

Phones &c.: This should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: you should turn off your cellphone and/or other devices (iPods, etc) before you enter the classroom. If your phone rings once during class this semester, we’ll all laugh and I’ll ask you to turn it off. If your phone rings again during class this semester, we’ll need to have a talk. I understand that your phones connect you with your friends and family, but the classroom should be a place apart, however briefly, from the outside world. You will learn more, in short, if you can concentrate on the course while you’re in the course.

Laptops: You may use a laptop to take notes during this class. Indeed, there will be times when I will call on students with laptops to look up facts &c. during class. Your laptops will also be useful during our Wednesday workshops. However, in-class laptops also present temptations that many students find irresistible. You should not use a laptop during class to follow a game, check your friends’ statuses on Facebook, play Farmville, IM, respond to email, etc. Such activities not only distract you (meaning you will be less able to participate meaningfully in the class’ conversations), they also distract anyone around or behind you. If you often seem distracted by what’s on your screen, I will ask you to put your laptop away.

Computer Workshops: We will occasionally meet in a computer lab to work on your writing. You should use this time to stay on track with our course’s significant writing load. During such labs, you should not:

  1. Check your email (or Facebook),
  2. Work on writing from another class,
  3. Twiddle your thumbs

I guarantee: we will always have some writing project that you can be working on during our labs.

After my conversation with Lee (and others) on Twitter, I plan to revisit this policy and try to help students think through the social and academic implications of the technology they use in the classroom. I particular, I hope to think more carefully through issues of “digital divide"—how to use the technology that only some of my students have to benefit the larger classroom, including those students who don’t have access to laptops or smartphones.


How about you? Do you have a digital etiquette policy, or something similar, built into your syllabus? Can you suggest ways to strengthen such a policy—to address the potential pitfalls of in-class technology without demonizing the tech itself? Tell us about your technical policies in the comments.

As promised, I’ve excerpted my long Twitter conversation about this topic below:

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Muffet.]