Technology Use in the Classroom

Faculty continue to ban student-owned devices, but is there a middle ground for effective learning?

Have you ever talked with a colleague who doesn't quite remember VCRs, fax machines, phonebooks, or the dot matrix printer?1  Well, consider this: Generation Z2  has never known a time without smartphones, and their device habits follow them into the classroom.3  This likely lays the foundation for the debate over mobile device use in the classroom. Many students want to use them ("it helps me learn"), some faculty discourage their use ("they're digital distractions—grades suffer"), and some faculty try to leverage these devices to aid in students' learning. We do know that the use of technology in the classroom is not going away, perhaps simply because these devices have become so ingrained in the fabric of students', faculty's, and, well, everyone's lives. Research has suggested that the debate over students' use of devices in the classroom center more on students' digital literacy skills (including the ability to access, manage, and evaluate digital resources)4  than on students' need for autonomy or instructors' needs to manage the classroom.5  And faculty should be provided with tools to effectively integrate mobile devices into their classroom.6  With that said, this year we found that faculty are still largely discouraging mobile device use in their classrooms (figure 4).

Bar graph illustrating faculty classroom policies on mobile devices
Figure 4. Faculty classroom policies on mobile devices

Fifty percent of faculty encourage or require laptops. But about half of faculty don't want smartphones and wearable technologies in their classrooms. Some empirical data support faculty's bans. We know students may use their devices to cheat on exams,7  and unstructured use (e.g., texting, using social media) of devices (laptops, smartphones) is associated with lower grade point averages and lower grades for in-class assignments.8  Even receiving messages during class affects academic performance.9 

Among faculty who receive professional development regarding the use of technology in teaching and who rate that training as good or excellent, 47% ban smartphones. By contrast, 63% of faculty who did not receive this professional development ban those devices.

But faculty appear to already have the solution for us. This year around 50% of faculty reported that greater skill in integrating smartphones and laptops as learning tools for course-related activities would make them more effective instructors. And they are right. Professional development on using technology in the classroom can aid faculty in harnessing the tools already in the hands of their students. Faculty who are able to take advantage of professional development opportunities to facilitate the integration of technology into teaching ban or discourage student mobile technologies in the classroom less than faculty who don't receive such training. For example, among faculty who engaged in professional development in the use of technology for teaching and who rated that training as good or excellent, fewer than half (47%) banned or discouraged the use of smartphones, compared to those who did not receive this training (63% banned or discouraged smartphones). Even faculty who rated those professional development experiences as poor or fair reported implementing policies that ban or discourage smartphone use in the classroom less often than those who did not receive such training. It would appear, then, that any professional development that helps faculty learn to integrate technology into their teaching—even professional development that isn't rated highly—is better than no professional development at all in terms of changing classroom technology policies.

For example, a faculty member suggested to us, "Have consistent expectations of all professors to integrate technology in a way that enhances student learning and is done in a planned way, not just to use technology for technology's sake."

"Have consistent expectations of all professors to integrate technology in a way that enhances student learning and is done in a planned way, not just to use technology for technology's sake."

Promotion of the on-task use of devices10  can offer opportunities for class discussion by asking students to perform specific assignments, such as using classroom response systems that rely on students' mobile phones. Instructors can also allow students to use their devices in ways that work best for them, and not solely under the instructors' direction and guidance.11  Faculty may experience tangible benefits in the classroom, such as increased student engagement, when allowing the use of devices rather than eliminating them.12  Most students recognize the need for restraint when it comes to devices in the classroom, but outright bans may be perceived by students as limiting their autonomy, which creates an unnecessary conflict.13  Across-the-board bans may also single out students with accommodations, who might need the use of a mobile device for their learning. Increasing faculty skill sets and engaging students with the technology in their hands is a way out of this heated debate, even if it means faculty (and students) need to concede some ground. We can look at mobile devices in the classroom as a positive if we harness their potential for learning. We just need to support our faculty in leveraging the tools currently in their students' hands.

Notes

  1. Adrian Willings, "33 Obsolete Technologies That Will Baffle Modern Generations," Pocket-Lint, March 4, 2019.

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  2. Michael Dimock, "Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins," Fact Tank, January 17, 2019.

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  3. D. E. Schneider, "Unstructured Personal Technology Use in the Classroom and College Student Learning: A Literature Review," Community College Enterprise 24, no. 2 (fall 2018): 10–20.

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  4. Helen Drenoyianni, Lampros Stergioulas, and Valentina Dagiene, "The Pedagogical Challenge of Digital Literacy: Reconsidering the Concept – Envisioning the 'Curriculum' – Reconstructing the School," International Journal of Social and Humanistic Computing 1, no. 1 (January 2008): 53–66.

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  5. Baiyun Chen, Ryan Seilhamer, Luke Bennett, and Sue Bauer, "Students' Mobile Learning Practices in Higher Education: A Multi-Year Study," EDUCAUSE Review, June 22, 2015.

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  6. Ryan Seilhamer, Baiyun Chen, Sue Bauer, Ashley Salter, and Luke Bennett, "Changing Mobile Learning Practices: A Multiyear Study 2012–2016," EDUCAUSE Review, April 23, 2018.

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  7. Frances Perraudin, "Ban All Watches from School Exams, Cheating Inquiry Recommends," The Guardian, September 10, 2019.

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  8. Schneider, "Unstructured Personal Technology Use."

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  9. Ibid.

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  10. Mark Lieberman, "'Students Are Using Mobile Even If You Aren't,' " Inside Higher Ed, February 27, 2019.

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  11. Douglas A. Parry, Daniel B. le Roux, and Laurenz A. Cornelissen, "Managing In-Lecture Media Use: The Feasibility and Value of a Split-Class Policy," Journal of Computing in Higher Education (June 2019): 1–21.

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  12. Schneider, "Unstructured Personal Technology Use."

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  13. Ibid.

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