My Cell Phone Policy is to Have No Policy

InsideHigherEd.com’s John Warner had an interesting and thoughtful blog post today, writing about his struggle “to figure out what to do about cell phones and computers in class.” And aren’t we all? If you haven’t heard a faculty member complain about students texting in class, you haven’t been listening; this scourge of classroom decorum everywhere may well have supplanted parking, travel funding, and associate-provost-proliferation as the top grievance of academics. Laptops and smartphones are the bane of classrooms today in the same manner as hemlock was for those in ancient Athens, it seems.

Hold on, you guys. I need to live-tweet this.  #Idrankwhat
Hold on, you guys. I need to live-tweet this.
#Idrankwhat

Lately, I’ve noticed more and more faculty adopting a no-phone, no-laptop policy for their classes. And there’s an understandable logic behind that: we know that multitasking has negative effects on cognition, and we know that the student on Snapchat is distracting those around her as well. So if devices are diminishing both a student’s own and others’ abilities to be engaged participants in class, then perhaps the only alternative is a unilateral embargo. Warner has a more nuanced take, pointing out that the majority of his students are not device-distracted violators of classroom ethics. Rather, he argues, “there is a category of students who appear to have some kind of compulsion to be engaged with their phones,” a compulsion that “appears to be not entirely in the students’ control.” And that’s the group that has Warner reconsidering his latitudinarian policy towards devices in his classroom.

I get that frustration. I really do. But I refuse to modify my cell-phone/laptop/tablet/abacus/whatever policy in the slightest. And my “policy” (such as it is) is basically to have no policy at all when it comes to devices. When I started teaching, I took the opposite tack: I prohibited any device usage in my classes whatsoever. But I found myself reversing course rather quickly; within a few years, I became the advocate for a laissez-faire approach to technology that I still am today. There were a number of reasons for my switch, not least among them being the influence of actual experience working with my own students. I found out quickly that emulating the style and structure of others-even though they were excellent in the classroom-was not something I could do and be an effective teacher myself. Just because I TA’d for a class with a certain structure, style, and rules didn’t mean that was how I should teach my own courses. As I got my feet under me pedagogically, though, other parts of my evolving philosophy clashed with my diktat against devices. So I repealed the ban. When students ask me, then, “What’s your cell phone policy?” I tell them: there is none.

And a lot of them–as well as a lot of colleagues–ask me why. So here’s my policy about not having a policy:

Device-specific behavior expectations send the wrong message. The expectations that my students and I come up with at the beginning of the semester–and we do it collaboratively, so everyone has ownership of those expectations–apply across the board, device-related or no. Distracting people while someone else has the floor, whether it’s side-talk or Facebook, is verboten. Not participating and contributing in the work of your small group falls short just as much if you’re staring at your phone as it does if you’re staring out the window. I try to create an atmosphere of collegiality and mutual respect in my classes, and I want my students-and myself-to model that consistently, not just when they’re holding a smartphone.

To that point,the principal reason why I collaborate with my students to create a set of class expectations at the beginning of the term is that they have the responsibility-just as much as I do-to make sure the class is successful. I want them to feel empowered to engage, to question, to speak, to argue, and to wonder. I want them to take ownership of their education. But I don’t believe that they will accept and live up to that responsibility if I am also issuing blanket prohibitions that also imply punitive consequences. I can’t expect my students to help me create an open classroom environment by emphasizing what they shouldn’t do. They’re in my class, not in time-out.

I can hear the objections now: they abuse that freedom! Some of them aren’t ready for that responsibility! THEY ARE ALL HEATHENS WHO WOULD RATHER TWITTER THAN ENGAGE WITH THE STOICS AND OH GOD WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE. And while that may be true, it’s not true not for all-or even most-of them. Look: if your entire class is on their smartphone or laptop while you’re lecturing, maybe it’s not a “them” problem.

But if there are some, those who have what Warner sees as a “compulsion,” then yes, there can be difficulties with allowing devices. I ask myself, though, how I am preparing students for the post-graduation world if I don’t let them fight through distractions, or suffer the consequences of those distractions. And it’s not like we behave ourselves when we aren’t at the center of the classroom. The next faculty meeting I attend where no one is doing something else on their phone or tablet will be the first.

So I share the research I’ve linked above with students; I tell them, “Look, you may think you can multitask, but in reality you suck at it. I do, too-and here’s why.” I follow that with “not only would you be hurting your own performance, but you’re affecting the cognition of those around you.” I put it simply: If your devices are distracting your colleagues in class, you are stealing their time. Because that’s exactly what it is. So they have to figure out how to stay on target, and they have to check their own and others’ habits in class. They have to take ownership.

So what happens in my class when I see off-task stuff occurring? First, I note the overall dynamic. Am I over-lecturing? Is that student’s group finished with its task, and if so, do I need to follow up to make sure? Have I designed an application activity that took far less time and effort than I thought it would? Am I sure it’s Facebook and not the companion site for the textbook I use? (And I have actually suggested to a student that they put the phone down and refocus, when they were actually looking up a term I used in their online glossary.) Yes, there will be times when, no matter what I do, a student will be distracted and give into temptation to drift. It happens. I cannot stop it all or always, and maybe trying to do so would derail everyone else. But if I have mindfully designed classroom activities to engage students with one another, with me, and with the material in ways that hold their focus, then much of the distraction is mitigated. I’m firmly convinced that student-distraction issues are often indicators of larger pedagogical and instructional design matters that need attention.

One of the most amazing things about being an academic today is the way in which technology has absolutely revolutionized the life of the mind. Yes, the internet has brought banal, coarse, and bigoted material frothing to the surface. But it also lets me read digital images of 18th-century newspapers from the Library of Congress in my office in Iowa. It lets my students check the names of the Crusader States when we discuss medieval religious conflict. It lets them engage with primary documents and do scholarly research in ways that wouldn’t have even been possible a decade ago. We have devices that are less than six inches long and weigh under a pound that can connect to the internet instantly. Sure, that connection could be to a raft of selfies from last night. But it could also be to the document that we’re discussing in class. Which one is my classroom activity giving them the impetus to view?

I want my students to be Information Literate; I want them to be able to proficiently navigate the deluge of information available to them, and employ the best material for their intellectual endeavors. I also want my students to be Decision Literate; I want them to be able to proficiently navigate the deluge of options available to them in a given moment, and make the decision that’s best for their current endeavors. Just as Information Literacy is a core academic competency, so too is Decision Literacy. If I levy blanket prohibitions, I stunt my students’ growth in that area. If I police every dubious behavior, I don’t provide the opportunities to refine their Decision Literacy. If I’m “Thou shalt not” instead of “Let’s try…,” then they don’t even have the occasion to become Decision Literate. I’ve already decided things for them. So does a more open, and sometimes overly-tempting, policy produce better learning? I think it does. And that’s what matters the most.

That’s why I don’t have a cell-phone policy.

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11 thoughts on “My Cell Phone Policy is to Have No Policy”

  1. Excellent post and one much needed in current debates about this issue. I’ve taken a similar approach (though you’ve inspired me to refine it much further). My comp courses only focus on current events with readings that are sometimes a few days old taken from online sources I’ve chosen. I encourage students to access these with their devices. That way they always have their “books” in class. Sure, they may have Instagram up too but I feel this encourages appropriate classroom use of the technology so many profs have impulsively banned.

  2. Hi! You wrote about setting expectations with your students collaboratively at the beginning of the semester. I’m really interested in this idea, but I’m not sure how it actually works when you walk into the classroom. I teach a lot of calculus classes and hence teach a lot of first year college students who don’t know how college works, so I imagine trying to set expectations collaboratively would just get me a lot of blank looks. How does it work? What do you do to lead that discussion?

    1. Hi Alanna, sorry for the delayed reply to your question. I’ve actually done this with my first year students quite a bit, and they’ve been pretty forthcoming–after some initial silence, at least. They are first years, after all. ☺

      I think it’s helpful to frame what you’re doing by explaining why you want to set expectations collaboratively, and how that will help them by making the class a better experience for all involved. Sometimes I throw a sample one out there, if they don’t get talking. I’ll ask, for example, “Y’all want *me* to be here on time and ready to go, right? Well, that’s an expectation we can put down.” And then someone usually comes in with the observation that maybe everyone should be on time and be ready.

      I think it’s actually a great thing to do with students who don’t quite know how college works yet, because it models the type of ownership and accountability they’ll need down the road–and I share that with them, too.

      It’s worth setting aside 10-15 minutes to have this discussion, preferably after some introductory activities to break the ice. Then, whatever y’all come up with should be posted somehow to remain in the foreground during the semester. I put our set of community expectations on the announcements section of our Blackboard course page, for example.

      I’d be interested in hearing how this goes for you!

  3. Great ideas!! I have set expectations with my K-12 students before, not sure why I didn’t think about setting them with my college students in a similar way. Thanks 🙂

    1. Thanks, Lindsay! I’ve had good experiences with collaborative expectations, and I think they’ve really helped. I’d be interested to hear how things go if you do it in your classes.☺

  4. Hi Kevin. Do you have any examples of the collaborative expectations that your classes have settled upon after such a session? I would be interested to see what students have come up with.

    And a second question. Do you find that students enforce rules on their own?

    1. Hi Jim. Most of my classes, after bringing up a list of specific things they want to address, settle in on a few key general expectations: respect for everyone’s contributions and opportunity to contribute; avoid distractions or rudeness ( this is where they bring up cell phones ringing or off-task laptop use); and everyone should pull their weight in group or whole-class activities. And, yes, they’ve tended to do a pretty good job self-enforcing. It’s very interesting to watch how they are accountable to one another–I think that’s really the key.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    I teach history, will try this next week when my summer class starts. I’m about to go nuts with the cell phone thing. I had a prof tell me last semester that she gives each student five chances before taking off points. That person teaches five classes a semester, so probably 125 students. I didn’t point that out, but I did say, “You keep track of that with each student?” “Yes.”
    I don’t know how to comment on that without using the word “liar,” so will let that stand on its own stupidity and just say that I’m glad to find another idea to try out.

  6. Great post! I too adopted a “no policy” policy on all devices – phones, laptops and tablets – a couple years ago. I ask students to actually use these in my classes and I’ve had no serious problems. My favorite class is the one where half the students are reading Aristotle on their phones. Where we really need a ban on phones is in faculty meetings!

  7. Well done! My journey was similar. Most valuable component has been putting the research in their hands, making sure to treat it as a discussion-learning text, and connecting the findings to an ongoing (though quite new) self-assessment practice. Also valuable is distracting learning as community concern (while distracted learner is individual). The public discourse creates our social space and the commitments we make to our work.

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