Over my years of teaching, one thing has always been a pet peeve of mine: laptops, phones, smart watches… etc. As someone who doesn’t necessarily believe that controlling every little thing students do is necessary for a good learning environment, I don’t like devices in my classroom for a two main reasons.
- Devices are distracting: In addition to the beeping, buzzing, and (most recently) flashing that LED technologies are capable of emitting in the middle of a class, they are also a source of distraction because of what they connect students to outside of the learning space. Some people fault the studies done claiming that laptops are not good in the classroom for being biased and not broadly applicable. Regardless of the studies, my personal experience as an instructor is that I am distracted by them.
- Using devices inappropriately during class is disrespectful. While some might exercise self control, more often than not, even the presence of a phone on someone’s desk is enough to get them to pay more attention to the device than to the learning environment. Frankly, I find it disrespectful to me as the instructor and to the other students that someone feels the need to answer messages, calls, chats, or worse (online shopping, watching TV, watching games, playing games) during a class that they have paid to attend, that I have prepared for them, that other students count on to be a place where they can engage with other students.
Devices are distracting and tempt students into disrespectful behaviors. Distracting students and the instructor in and of itself is disrespectful. My policy in my in-person classes is that laptops can only be used if they are part of an accommodation plan for students with disabilities. And because of this, I have gotten emails back from students. They say that they learn better by typing. They tell me that they don’t like to hand write their notes. This brings up a huge dilemma: Should I believe them or should I do what I need to do to teach without being distracted?
Here’s where I will get even more real: is it more important for the instructor or the student to be comfortable in the classroom? Can the instructor teach effectively if they feel disrespected, ignored, and distracted? Is the level of annoyance at taking hand written notes more pressing than my need as an instructor not to feel like I’m talking to a wall? This is a tough thing to work through because it gets to the heart of what pedagogy is about. If pedagogy is about effective learning, then what factors are most important in bringing this about? As the instructor, I don’t think I need to bow down to this new pressure to be “chill” and let students do what they want, just hoping they are getting what they need to get out of the course. That is not what they are paying for, what I signed up to do, or what my job description requires from me. In order for me to be an effective instructor, I need to have students that are not being engaged by outside sources during my lectures. Several of my students have backed up my opinions on this, as they are grateful that I am not counting on their classmates to “do the right thing.” By taking the inevitably distracting and disrespectful choice off the table, they can just focus on the material and the space they are in. As instructors, we should also be aware that the hour we have with our students might be the only hour of concentration they can give to the subject for the week. We are setting everyone up to fail by not creating optimal learning environments. In some cases, this might be impossible to enforce, like when we are all online. However, I think it is worth preserving this special and focused learning environment once we are back to in-person classes.