The main problem with the use of mobile devices in class is their potential for distraction. Though humans may be good at one type of multitasking – say, doing dishes while having a conversation – humans are not so great at the kind of multitasking which sometimes occurs in class – say, checking Facebook while doing whatever else they are supposed to be doing in class. We can talk while doing dishes with no problem because those tasks are not competing for the same resources: washing dishes requires little cognitive attention and is mostly a procedural task, freeing up most of your mental resources for the conversation. But checking Facebook and participating in class require the same resources: attention and language processing chief among them. Attention focused at the device is necessarily attention that is not focused on the class material. And if your brain is busy interpreting the text on the screen of your phone, your brain has a greatly diminished capacity to interpret the text on the board in class, or the words coming out of the teacher’s mouth, or the words coming from your peer who is asking or answering a question.
One position a teacher can take is to make students aware of the dangers of attempting to multitask in class, but ultimately respect the agency of their adult (or emerging adult) students and let them use devices if they want to. Since mobile device use can be a distraction to people other than the user, you may want to institute a policy of having device users be on one side of the room, or perhaps in the back where distractions to others can be minimized. Mobile devices can be used productively, for taking notes or finding additional relevant material, though almost certainly many students will be engaging in unproductive uses. But this method offers your students a choice.
Lena Hann from Kinesiology and Community Health has had great success banning the use of electronic devices in her class. She bans them because of the overwhelming evidence that shows the presence of such devices in a class is detrimental, explains the reasoning behind the ban to students, and is serious about enforcing the ban. Lena’s slides include some evidence showing that electronic devices are distracting, some student feedback comments showing that students actually appreciate the device-free learning environment she creates, and some things to keep in mind should you decide to ban electronic devices in your course. She uses i>clickers to allow for student participation in class, and likes the fact that you cannot use an i>clicker to access the Internet or send a text like you can with a mobile device. She has also offered the results of a quick search of the literature on mobile devices as distractions in class.
A third position, neither banning nor allowing all uses of devices, is as follows: there are times in your class where mobile devices would be nothing but a distraction, perhaps during the lecture portion or small group discussion portion of class, and during those times you may ask that devices be put away, and enforce that. There may be entire class sessions where devices remain off. But there may be times where mobile devices are incorporated into the class for specific purposes, perhaps by responding to a poll using Socrative or Poll Everywhere, or perhaps using Twitter or something else to collect questions in the middle of class, or even a short activity where students go on the Internet and look for relevant examples or perhaps evidence to support a position they are taking. At the conclusion of such an activity, the devices can be put away so attention is once again focused on the next portion of class. Such a position may allow for productive use of mobile devices to do things that are difficult to do otherwise (you can’t send them to the library to research something in five minutes, and it can be hard to collect anonymous data quickly using pencil and paper, especially if the class is large), but it minimizes the distractions that mobile devices can cause. Potential problems remain, such as the desire students may have to use their phone inappropriately during the activities, or the potentially confusing nature of the policy – devices sometimes allowed and sometimes not.
Both Lena and I encourage you to make sure the position you take on mobile devices is consistent with the way you teach. If it is critical that students take down what you say essentially word-for-word, then banning laptops can put students at a severe disadvantage. But if you are trying to get your students to engage with the material at a higher level, then devices may do more harm than good. And if you ban mobile devices, you should definitely take steps to teach in such a manner that the students won’t miss them – for example, don’t offer a boring lecture on the exact same material that is covered in the textbook. Actually, you shouldn't do that regardless of your device policy. Students might as well check Facebook when you do that, because they can always refer to the textbook later.
Here are Lena’s slides again.
Here is Lena’s quick lit search results again.
Here are some potentially interesting apps to incorporate mobile devices in class:
Poll Everywhere: www.polleverywhere.com
Here’s a short post by Maryellen Weimer on the Teaching Professor Blog outlining some of the evidence that students can’t multitask.
Here is an interesting study showing that taking notes on a laptop is generally less effective than taking notes by hand (UIUC library offers the full text online):
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological science, 0956797614524581.