Classroom distraction: the device vice

Combatting smartphones and laptops as distractions in the classroom 

In her defence, she did get a high score. (Courtesy of Ervin Cho)

In her defence, she did get a high score.
(Courtesy of Ervin Cho)

Resistance is futile.

That’s BCIT social media instructor Rebecca Coleman’s advice to teachers.

She’s talking about student use of electronic devices in the classroom for Facebooking, texting, or tweeting during class.

And according to Coleman, students’ personal use of cellphones and laptops to socialize in the classroom is here to stay, so teachers should embrace it.

“I think that social media is something we can integrate into all of our classes,” she explains. “Every single class that I teach, I create a Facebook group for.”

Coleman, who is also a social media strategist, tells a funny story:

“The other night I was teaching a class and one of my students [who I am also Facebook friends with] posted on

Facebook during my class … and other people in the class were responding. I was kind of amused by it,” Coleman recalls.

Coleman feels that since post-secondary students are grown-ups, it’s up to them how they spend their class time.

However, if Coleman notices students on their devices for the entire class, she’ll dock participation marks.

[pullquote]”Resistance is futile.”

— BCIT social media instructor Rebecca Coleman on combatting device disraction in the classroom[/pullquote]

“I think as a teacher sometimes it requires that you either work harder to get people’s attention and to make it interesting and engaging,” says Coleman. “Or it requires you to put your ego aside because you’re not getting 100 per cent of the attention focused on you all the time.”

Joe Squire, a 32-year-old recent MBA grad from Vancouver Island University, says having a smart phone in class for today’s business students is disruptive but also critical. As a real estate agent, his phone allowed him to conduct business in school.

And Squire doesn’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all approach. For some people, phone or computer use in class for things other than note taking doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention.

“If [students] are playing on devices, they may still be listening, or just looking for a few seconds of a break,” Squire argues, “Having the device might keep them in class and more engaged overall, despite the appearance otherwise.”

To avoid abuse of devices in the classroom, one of Squire’s professors sent out a technology agreement to students at the beginning of the semester. In the agreement students were required to list the devices they wanted to use in class, and the reason why.

And it’s not just post-secondary instructors taking measures like these.

Christine Pogue, who teaches elementary school in Richmond, tried putting a technology agreement with her class in place, too.

“This was experimental, with the intent of eventually allowing these devices to be used for other purposes such as calculators, calendars, research, email, et cetera,” explained Pogue. “However, after only one week I caught “several students texting each other during class. I immediately banned the devices.”

[pullquote align=”right”]”For some people, phone or computer use in class for things other than note taking doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention.”[/pullquote]

She says at the end of the day, it comes down to trust established between students and teachers about device use in class.

Michael McBurney, a high school English teacher in Richmond, doesn’t allow any electronic devices in his classroom, consistent with school policy. And his students listen. At the beginning of this school year he told students if he caught them with an electronic device he’d take it away. By enforcing this policy he’s had virtually no problem with students disobeying him.

However, McBurney does feel that there is a time and place for electronic devices in the classroom and says during a class discussion he may ask students to look things up for him.

McBurney also describes the disparity between the technology students own and that which the schools can provide.

“The computers that we have available in our labs are generally slower than the phones and iPods the kids have,” said McBurney. “When we are doing research I will give students the option of using their phone.”

So from the tween-aged texter to the thirty-year-old professional, teachers and students alike have some decisions to make about those darn devices in the classroom. And if anyone is unsure, there’s always Rebecca Coleman for some device advice.


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