Every Tuesday, I sit down to write a new blog post. Some days, I struggle to come up with a new topic. Other days, topics find me. Today, it’s the latter. It seems that NPR published an article today on its nprED website on increased efforts to silence cellphones in collegiate classrooms. The article features a professor from the University of Colorado Boulder who gave students a daily participation point for shutting off their cellphones and leaving them on a table in front of the class. The strategy went into effect after 100% of the class voted for the participation points for cellphone silence plan. Asked how the class discussions went after the cellphone silence plan went into effect, the professor remarked, “we had an exceptionally engaged class.”
I’ve explored the interaction between technology and classroom environments in this space before. I’ve written about research on the distraction caused by laptops in lecture-based classrooms and how taking notes on laptops isn’t as effective as taking notes by hand. But the cellphone silence issue is a different entity. Cellphones are primarily a communication device. While some people may use them to take notes, research the Internet and collaborate on documents, ultimately they’re still phones. They’re primarily used for communicating with people from a distance. Whether through texts or Facebook Messenger posts or phone calls, cellphones are still used to communicate. And that’s where the issue lies. If a student is trying to engage in a classroom discussion, how can they fully participate if they’re being distracted with texts or calls or Messenger posts? If they’re using their cellphones to communicating with people from “there,” how can they fully be engaged “here?”
Reading through the comments on the page, I’m struck at the conversation occurring over the issue. Some folks have pointed out that their universities have done away with phones in classrooms and use cellphones as the primary emergency. The classroom policy could potentially impact weather emergencies and active shooters on campus. Others are recommending jamming the cellphone signals, leaving the devices inoperable in the classroom. Some discuss the challenges of cellphone addiction and complain about “these kids today” and their ability to participate in meaningful face-to-face communication. Like most comment sections on a webpage, there’s a diverse set of opinions being shared.
So, where do I stand on this issue? Should instructors ban students’ cellphones? Should we reward students who willingly shut them off during class? Or should we set up technological systems that interfere with the cellphone signals? Honestly, none of these options seem all that palatable.
When confronted with issues like this, I find it useful to focus on my instructional role on campus. Sure, we’re all hired to teach content. But more than that, we’re hired to teach students. Sometimes, we’re teaching them about the awesomeness of the Michelson-Morley experiment or the wonders of Maxwell’s equations. Other times, we’re teaching them about life. Through our work, we help students learn about broader, more transferable concepts like persistence, hard work, dedication, motivation, passion and so much more. Maybe it’s time to teach them about self-regulation. Students need to learn that in order to participate in the here and now, they have to be present. Here. And now.
While this lesson will help them participate in the activities in our classrooms, it will also help them beyond those walls. These lessons will serve them better than introducing incentives or instituting police states into our classrooms. While teaching the importance of self-regulation and the power of presence can help them become better learners, it can also help them become better spouses, parents and co-workers. And that’s a lesson that deserves to be taught.