In the comments to last Friday’s post about mobile computing, MaryAnn raised the inevitable point: How can you be sure that students will use the technology in appropriate ways? She also notes that a colleague busted a student looking at pornography in class, which suggests that not all uses of mobile computing are high-minded.* I can trump that story, however, as I know of an incident from several years back when a student took an upskirt photo of his professor while she was crouched awkwardly to troubleshoot the class’s balky multimedia station.

The ProfHacker writers are working on a collaborative post / series of posts around disciplinary issues of all sorts, technological and not, so I’ll save the list of “Top 5 withering comments to disruptive students” for later. Today’s post is really about thinking through an attitude, or even a policy, toward gadgets (mobile or smartphones / laptops / netbooks / iPods /whatevers). This too often gets framed as an issue of technophobia, or as old-school vs. these kids today, or in other unhelpful ways.

  1. Students are not the only abusers of mobile technology. Faculty/staff will frequently forget to silence their phones, or will take calls during meetings–sometimes even during class! Faculty/staff will keep their heads buried in their Blackberry or smartphone during meetings. Look to your own behavior so that you can model decent social norms, and, when you run meetings, set expectations around mobile technology. That way, you’re consistent: “I restrict cellphone use during all meetings, not just classes.”
  2. When thinking about this issue, there are really 3 different parties: the student with the cellphone; their classmates; and you. Each of them might have different issues at stake. The student with the cellphone is almost certainly distracting other students. My concern with cellphones isn’t disrespect as such, it’s that I’m easily distracted. Other people have different concerns.
  3. How you think about your classtime makes a difference. I talk about our classes as occasions to think together about a particular problem or text. We need to be able to engage with each other. And so it matters how you treat other people and how you focus.
  4. Being tech-friendly doesn’t mean “anything goes,” and it also doesn’t mean that you have an all-or-nothing policy. For example, I more or less never allow netbooks or laptops in class, because they’re profoundly distracting to other students, even if the person with it is on task. I also don’t allow mobile/smartphones or iPods during class discussions, although sometimes students are working with their phones. But: We almost always do a couple of different things during class, and I have no problem with students peeking at their device, or banging out a quick text, during a transition. The point is that it focuses the policy on making good use of time and being decent to those around you–that is, it cultivates better social norms. There’s always a minute or two of downtime in a class or meeting–take advantage of that, rather than flagrantly disrupt those around you.
  5. Finally, bad behavior is bad behavior, regardless of the medium. The student looking at porn in class might be subject to sexual harassment charges. (Certainly the student who took the upskirt photo was!) Mary Ann herself remembers reading Dracula instead of course material, and I can recall seeing several students reading magazines of various types during classtime when I was an undergraduate.** It’s true that the devices make some of this behavior easier, but cultivating students’ awareness of context seems more useful to me than absolute prohibitions or endorsements.

I almost said in comments on the absence policy thread, but will instead say here that most of my policies and such address myself as a 17-yr-old freshmen. I skipped a lot of class my first semester, precisely because there were no consequences for doing so until midterms. Similarly here: if I’d had a smartphone as a college student, the thing I would’ve needed was guidance in developing an adult relationship with it.

How do you deal with classroom gadgets?

Image by Flickr user alexik/ CC licensed

*Pace Byron: ” ‘Twas strange that one so young should thus concern / His brain about the action of the sky; / If you think ’twas philosophy that this did, / I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.”

** My favorite (G-rated!!!!!) story about college, porn, and the importance of context: I was on the debate team in college, and so we traveled a fair amount. I was nervous about flying, since I hadn’t done it much before. One week, my mother calls with a solution that she’d read about somewhere / seen on TV: “That’s why all the airport bookstores sell pornography. When you get to the airport, buy yourself a magazine, and read it during takeoff. You’ll be so distracted, you won’t be nervous at all!” Thus ingeniously putting me off both flying and pornography with one bit of advice!