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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why NOT have cell phones in the classroom?

If you've read my last few posts about PollEverywhere with skepticism (or skipped them entirely) because you just can't imagine ever letting students use their cell phones in class, my question for you is WHY NOT? Or more specifically, is your aversion to cell phones driven by concerns about helping good students or reining in bad students? By 'good' and 'bad', I'm not talking about those who get good and bad grades; I'm talking about those who care about learning, who want to be there, and those who don't. I've been thinking a lot lately about how much I tend to focus on the latter group, and how often I tend to forget about the former group, and how backward that is...

"Students will cheat"
For example, I know that for some teachers, the biggest problem with a service like PollEverywhere is concerns that students will use their phones to cheat. At a meeting to discuss options for a new clicker vendor for our campus, a few faculty flat out said, "I don't want to use PollEverywhere because I think students will cheat (either by texting their friends for the answers or perhaps by submitting answers when they aren't in class)". There were some student representatives at the meeting who were understandably offended. One of those students responded (in a somewhat indignant tone) that she would be more focused on getting her answer submitted on time, not trying to text friends for the answer. Her answer made me think about how much energy we faculty sometimes expend to prevent cheating, and how much of a disservice we may be doing to all the other students. I'm not saying there aren't plenty of students who cheat, and of course we don't want to make it too easy or tempting for them, but if students really want to cheat, they are going to find a way. I don't think I should compromise pedagogy just to try to stop them.

"Students will pay less attention in class"
A related concern is that if cell phones are out, students will use them for non-class-related things. This is similar to concerns about allowing laptops. Over the last few years, I have become less sympathetic to faculty who ban cell phones or laptops from their classrooms entirely in the hope of retaining their students' attention, partly because I believe it's a futile tactic and partly because I think it's misplaced blame. With regard to the futility, I was recently talking to a couple of my students and I asked them what they thought about PollEverywhere. They both thought it was better than clickers because they preferred using their phones. I specifically asked them if they used their phones more, or noticed people texting a lot during class (I should add that these were two of my better students). One said that she did text her friends in class, and knew others did as well, but a) instead of doing it while I was lecturing or there was class discussion going on, she did it when they were working in their teams, and b) she didn't text any more or less than in any of her other classes, but she appreciated that she didn't feel like she needed to hide the phone. Her next words really struck me: "If there's one thing you learn in high school, it's how to text without getting caught." Her classmate nodded vigorously in agreement. So if you're banning cell phones because you think it means students will pay closer attention, you may be fooling yourself.

Where does it end?
I have to say that the comment about texting during groupwork instead of other times made me kind of happy; I interpreted it to mean at least that particular student found my lectures and the class discussion to be interesting and useful. But others might see it as an indictment of team-based learning - after all, I can't ensure that they spend every single minute of team discussion time actually discussing the assigned problem. But students who are engaged and want to learn will be engaged, even if they also still try to multi-task (just as I can still contribute in a meeting where I'm also surreptitiously checking my email periodically). If students are totally disinterested, taking away their cell phone or simply lecturing all the time isn't going to force them to engage - they'll just pass notes, doodle in their notebook, fall asleep, or not come to class at all. While I do know that many college students are still immature enough that we need to give them some extrinsic incentives to do what we know is 'good for them' (especially in lower-level classes with mostly freshmen and sophomores), I guess I'm wondering how far we really should go? If we avoid pedagogical innovations that could improve engagement because they also give students more freedom, and we are worried about the handful of students who may not be mature enough to handle that freedom, isn't that a disservice to the students who are mature enough to handle it?  At what point is being paternalistic just counter-productive?