Cell phones, laptops: Useful tools or distractions in modern classrooms?

Posted April 26, 2016


“Guys, please put your cell phones and laptops down” said University of Miami Prof. Brent Swanson a faculty member from the Department of Musicology to his class. “I know you can’t stay apart from them for too long, but please put them down.”

This situation happened at the University of Miami during a session of the class Understanding Music, when Swanson was trying to get the attention of the class to listen to a song he was going to play while the students were extremely focused on their phones and laptops.

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More and more students are using cell phones and laptops for other purposes in classes (Photos by Maria Luiza Lago).

Swanson’s problem with his distracted students happens regularly. The practice of using cell phones and laptops during class is not uncommon.

Some students in the “Understanding Music” class were even hiding their phones behind the laptops to text, like they had something to hide in an environment where everyone is considered an adult and the policies should be followed at all times.

“The policy in UM is that each professor defines if it’s reasonable to allow the use of technology in class or not,” said Sam Terilli, Journalism and Media Management Department chair and associate professor of the School of Communication at UM. “I don’t allow my students to use laptops and cell phones in class because they are too distracting.”

Some classes at UM need the use of laptops and computers as part of the course but others don’t, like lecture classes or smaller classes where students only need to take notes or simply pay attention to the discussions. Since the policy varies from professor to professor, there are lecture classes where laptops are allowed, like the Climate and Global Change class taught by Prof. Igor Kamenkovich from the Department of Ocean Sciences.

“In this class, I allow the use of laptops to take notes on them, but no cell phones. To be honest, I regret to have made this decision. I can see that everybody is on their laptops and most of the times students are not taking notes on them,” said Kamenkovich.

He also said that laptops, just as cell phones, are very distracting to the students and the ones around them.

Dr. Monica Page, a professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies at UM, says that she doesn’t allow laptops or cell phones during class. She sees that the only positive aspects of technology in class is that she is able to show students how to find research articles and access online resources.

The policies of UM are acceptable, Page said, since they can’t be too strict due to the benefits of technology.

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A lecture hall in the Cox Science Building. Students use laptops to take notes even though the content is displayed in front of them but others used their devices for other purposes.

“This isn’t high school. It should be up to the professor to decide the policies. College students are more responsible with their phones, they are not always texting,” said Diannis Barban, student majoring in Creative Writing at UM.

Barban uses her phone only in cases of emergency, so for her cell phones are not a distraction in class. Daniella Haym, majoring in public relations, feels the same way. She thinks it is the responsibility of each student to manage their own anxieties since students are considered adults and respect the professor who is trying to pass on his or her knowledge.

Gabriela Sophia-Hernández, student majoring in English literature and psychology, said that if once she receives a text or a notification she immediately reaches for her phone to check if it’s something important and feels anxious if she can’t see what it is at the moment. In her opinion, the rules are not very strict at UM concerning the use of cell phones in class, but she doesn’t want them to be any stricter either.

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Cell phones are not allowed in classes at University of Miami, only in case of an emergency, and some classes allow laptops.

The book “Tools for Teaching,” by Barbara Gross Davis, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and vice-president of Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, says that simply banning the electronic devices from the classes is not the best solution.

“You can’t force students to pay attention if they don’t want to. And even if you forbid all electronic gadgets, students will still daydream, whisper, and pass notes,” she argued.

The best solution to the problem, suggested Davis, is to interact with technology and with students at the same time, using the tools and the benefits that they bring so the students can be engaged on the class too.

At the University of Florida, the cell phone usage policy is also defined by the professor. A study from the University of New Hampshire shows that students check their phones during class between one to five times and 88 percent of them text when the professor writing something on board, during group activities or during in-class work time.

Another survey by researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 2013 analyzed six universities in the U.S. and 777 students, showed that an average student used an electronic device 10.9 times to text or access social media and 80 percent of them affirmed that they did that to “fight boredom, entertain themselves and stay connected to the outside world.”

The research also indicated that 66 percent of students from 18 to 29 years old own a smartphone. “I think there is enough policies in UM but my attention is always compromised if I access social media or start texting in class” said Haym.