On laptops and cell phones in the classroom

The academic side of my Twitter feed has been abuzz recently over this New York Times article, in which a University of Michigan economics professor explains why she bans laptops and other personal electronics in her classroom.  Laptops, she explains, are a distraction, both to those using them and to the students around them.  She also references an idea that has been around for a while, backed up by some research studies: that people retain more information when they write notes by hand as opposed to typing.

Much of the criticism of this article’s attitude focused on its treatment of students with disabilities.  The author allows laptop use as a disability accommodation, admitting that it singles out students who need such accommodation.  It also assumes that no student without a formal diagnosis would ever benefit from typing notes or Googling an unfamiliar term on the fly.

Me, I take notes by hand, because my brain likes it.  I have a very visual memory, and seeing words laid out on a page is much easier for my mind to deal with.  I kept handwritten research notebooks for my dissertation; I keep a physical day planner; heck, I wrote an outline for this post by hand.  I read the research about handwritten notes being good for learning and it makes sense to me.

But not everyone’s brain works like mine, a fact that is obvious in a multitude of ways.  Some people enjoy talking on the phone, some people like music without words, and some people learn better by typing notes.  So while I think it’s fine to encourage paper-based note-taking, university students should ultimately be allowed to take notes in whatever way works best for them.

The distraction factor is a trickier issue.  The internet is awfully distracting, and large screens spread that distraction around.  And it is kind of rude to be obviously on Facebook when someone’s trying to teach.

That being said, here is a partial list of internet-free things that I have done in university lecture halls: doodled; brainstormed projects; read the textbook; read journal articles; read the newspaper; done crossword puzzles; done Sudoku; done homework for that class; done homework for another class; planned my schedule for the next day/week; wrote notes to the person next to me; and tallied how many times the speaker said “um.”  It is incredibly difficult to maintain full focus through an hour-long lecture, even a good one (which, unfortunately, many are not).  It is especially difficult when you’re taking medication that makes you drowsy, as I was for several years.  I could doodle and read and whatnot, or I could straight-up fall asleep in the second row.

I had finished all my required grad classes by the time I became a parent, but was still attending various seminars and colloquia.  My cell phone came with me then, because I needed to know right away if something happened at daycare.  I am now firmly against “no visible cell phones” policies (exams excluded), because keeping my silent phone in view next to my notebook was less disruptive than tucking it away on vibrate.

In an ideal world, we could just trust university students to be adults, take responsibility for their own learning, and be politely discreet about texting.  I did very well in all my classes.  Occasionally I didn’t pay enough attention at the beginning and had to course-correct as the semester progressed.  However, I wasn’t always terribly discreet about doing stuff in class, and I can assure you from my experience as a TA that other students aren’t either.  We aren’t all as good at self-regulating as we’d like to think.

So I’m sympathetic to professors who just want students to stop playing on their phones already.  It’s not necessarily about ego and respect for them, either: plenty of instructors genuinely want to help their students learn and believe (probably correctly much of the time) that cutting back on internet distractions would help.  Instructors—especially those employed as adjuncts rather than full-time faculty—also face various pressures about grades and class performance.  And it’s frustrating when students seem to be ignoring you.  I get it.  Nevertheless, it’s not appropriate to completely ban devices in the classroom.

What has your experience been with laptops and cell phones, as a student and/or instructor?  Which classroom policies work really well?  Which don’t?

My baby has a smartphone?!?

My husband bought our Little Boy a smartphone.

OK, it’s not a real phone.  It’s a toy.  It has a panel of touch-screen-like buttons and lots of flashing lights and music.  Touch the weather “app,” and it will tell you that it’s sunny.  Click on the “camera,” and the phone cheerily instructs you to “say cheese!” Basically, it’s the kind of toy that’s going to be awesomely obnoxious on long car rides.

My baby's "smartphone."

I haven’t even figured out what all the buttons do yet.

I had a wide range of reactions to the arrival of this toy in my house.  This is roughly how my thought process went:

What?  Little Boy doesn’t need any kind of smartphone—he’s not even a year old!

OK, calm down.  You had a toy phone when you were a baby.  (It was one of those classic Fisher Price rotary-dial phones on wheels—remember those?  They’re still making them, although they’ve changed the design a little.)  This is just what phones look like nowadays.

But… I don’t want Little Boy thinking that smartphones make good toys.  Or wanting one of his own.

Let’s face it, a toy phone is going to be the least of your worries in that regard.

Fair point.

Little Boy is going to grow up in a world of hyper-connectivity.  He’ll see his father texting on his phone, his mother on browsing on her iPad, and his friends watching movies in the car on their tablets.  There’s no way he’s not going to want a smartphone / smart watch / smart pair of glasses /  implantable chip / whatever is popular in 5–10 years.  And he’s almost certainly going to want it long before we think he’s old enough.

As a generation, we’re forging new parenting ground here, and it’s a little nerve-wracking.  I mean, all of parenthood is about making stuff up as you go along.  But at least with something like newborn care, you can take comfort in the knowledge that humanity has been doing this for thousands of years.  Innumerable generations of mothers and fathers have managed to keep their babies alive without massively screwing them up in the process.  We have no cultural history for managing our toddlers’ web use.

I got my first email account when I was in middle school.  My parents never demanded to know my password or read my messages, mostly because I was a goody two-shoes, but also because I was old enough to understand that there were some things I just shouldn’t click on.  It was also incredibly easy for them to monitor the time I spent online—this was back in the days when you had to yell a warning at the whole household every time you dialed up.  “NOBODY PICK UP THE PHONE, I’M GONNA GO CHECK MY EMAIL.”

Consequently, I can’t draw on my childhood experience when it comes to Internet connectivity.  We are really going to be making this one up as we go.  I guess I better start reading up on parental control settings.

Readers, at what age did you start using the Internet regularly?  What are your thoughts and experiences on giving kids access to cell phones and the Internet?  Does your child have a musical smartphone toy?