The issue of whether students should be allowed to use their laptops, smartphones, notebook computers, etc. while class is going on has been a hot topic for many professors for a long time now. This is a topic for which there is no one perfect solution, as use of these devices can make total sense for some courses but not for others. While more and more professors seem to be finding ways to integrate the use of these devices into their classes in a way that is acceptable to both them and to the students themselves, it still remains a challenge.
David Gooblar recently published an article in his Pedagogy Unbound blog in which he cites a method used by two professors at the University of British Columbia. At the start of the semester, they have the students themselves collaborate on a usage policy that everyone in the class will be expected to follow throughout the term. This approach has the advantage of making the students be part of the solution to the problem, thus increasing the probability of their buying into whatever policies are decided upon. (The solution that seems to be least-successful is the one in which the professor dictates the terms of usage to the students. That seems to light the fire of student ingenuity as they then try to find ways around whatever you’ve dictated.)
In a lecture class of roughly 70 students, I prefer a more hybrid solution. I would address this issue on the first day of class. A colleague of mine who is a psychology professor had polled her students about what they found to be the top five most annoying classroom behaviors exhibited by fellow students during class. Number one on their list was “side conversations”, closely followed by “laptop and cell phone use”. For each point on the list, I asked my students to articulate why they thought that item was on the list. What made that behavior particularly annoying?
They determined that, in the case of laptops and cell phones, it was the distraction factor, I then gave them a few minutes to discuss amongst themselves possible solutions. They spoke up and in the end agreed to try to minimize disruptive use of technology.
I went on to tell them that they would have plenty of opportunities to use both laptops and smartphones during class time, as there were times that I would expect them to conduct in-class research or to participate in online polls, take notes, etc. But I also told them that there would be times when it would not only be inappropriate but unnecessary to be on their devices and that, at those times, I would require that they be put to sleep or turned off.
I am convinced that this kind of open conversation on the first day was the reason why the use of technological devices never became a problem in that class, despite its size. It also helped that I asked them to use their devices at minimum in every second class, even if only for a few minutes. This seemed to diffuse some of the pent up need to power up a screen and allowed them to focus better for the remainder of the class.