Setting Responsible Limits on Technology Usage in the Classroom

Brian Rock
I'm a teacher, a photographer, and a writer. I publish a blog about educational technology at Tech and Teaching, and I also maintain a curated list of webquests to help teachers incorporate technology in the classroom. My latest project is a blog about digital photography - Rockin' Photogs.
Brian Rock
Brian Rock
Brian Rock

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Brian Rock
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Girl holding an iPhone in both hands typing a text message

“Texting” by Jhaymesisviphotography.

We’ve all seen it. Students consumed by technology.

Walk into the back of a college lecture hall, and you’ll see a dozen laptops open to Facebook or Twitter. Walk into a high school classroom, and you’ll spy some kids trying to text on the sly.

Trying to ban technology from classrooms is futile; students are going to sneak devices in. It’s also shooting yourself in the foot. As a teacher, I want my students to have access to technology, and I want them to be able to use cell phones, tablets, netbooks, or some other kind of mobile computing device to enhance their learning.

The key is to establish norms about productive and acceptable uses of devices, and to help students recognize what are not acceptable uses for these devices. This is a group effort. It begins with parents, it needs to be built on by teachers, and ultimately it needs to be owned by students, so that when they grow up and go off to college they can monitor their own behavior and use their technology responsibily.

So, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or a student, here are a few examples of productive uses of technology, acceptable uses of technology, and unacceptable uses of technology in a classroom.

Examples of Productive Uses of Technology

Technology use is most productive when it is used directly to support a student’s learning. Either it’s being used to find information, to save information, to create a product for class, or to communicate about a course. Here are three examples of what productive uses for technology look like.

  1. Classrooms used to be stocked with dictionaries and encyclopedias. Now we don’t need them. If you’re reading a book and you get to a word you don’t understand, pick up your cell phone or tablet and use an online dictionary to find a definition for the word.
  2. Good students are curious. Feeding that curiosity leads to learning. If you have a question, you might raise your hand and ask your teacher. If you don’t think it’s really relevant to the rest of the class, though, a better solution would be to pick up your tablet and do a quick Google search.
  3. You’ve set up a study group with some students in another class period. While you’re working on a project in class, you need to ask one of your study buddies something that you were studying the night before. It’s related to your project, and it’s on task, so you pick up your cell phone and text your friend for a quick answer.
In all three cases, you’re using your phone or tablet in a productive way that directly supports your learning. These are great uses for mobile devices in class.

Examples of Acceptable Uses of Technology

Some teachers try to strictly enforce the “no cell phone, no exception” rule. I think that’s silly and self-defeating. My guiding principle is that cell phones, tablets, and mobile devices are ok, as long as they’re not a distraction. With that in mind, there are some cases where a device isn’t necessarily being used productively, but it’s also not being such a distraction that it warrants disciplining a student or confiscating the device. Here are three examples.

  1. You’re sitting in class, listening
    to a Power Point presentation. Your phone is on vibrate and it buzzes in your pocket. You quietly take your phone out to check if it’s an important message. It’s just your friend saying “Hi,” so you say you’re in class and put the phone away.
  2. Your phone starts ringing, and you see it’s your mother. You ask the teacher if you can answer to see if it’s an emergency, and you step outside in the hallway to pick up the phone.
  3. You’re working on an independent assignment, and you like to listen to music. So you put one headphone in and you listen to some music on your iPod or your tablet. You keep the volume low enough that you can hear when someone is talking to you.

In none of these cases are you using a cell phone or tablet in a productive way to help you learn. However, you are doing so discretely and respectfully, and the technology is not causing an undue distraction to you or to other people in the classroom.

Examples of Unacceptable Uses of Technology

Unfortunately, students don’t always recognize these boundaries, and it’s up to teachers and parents to help them realize when technology use is not appropriate. Just because you are allowed to use a mobile computing device in class doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to do anything you want with it. In some cases, it is not only not productive but it is also extremely distracting – to you and to your classmates. Here are a handful of real examples from classrooms that I would consider unacceptable uses of technology. Any of these actions would prompt me to discipline a student in class.

  1. Your friend texts you. You hold your phone out on top of your desk and carry on a full conversation for several minutes, never looking up from your phone to make eye contact with the teacher. You are clearly distracted and not paying attention to the teacher or to your work.
  2. You feel like checking your Instagram or Twitter newsfeed. You whip out your tablet, open up your app, and absentmindedly start scrolling through the recent posts. This is something you do when you have nothing else to do; you should never be “killing time” in class. That means you’re not engaged in whatever you’re supposed to be doing.
  3. Your phone rings while you’re in class. You pick it up without asking, and you start talking to the person on the other end. You’re not too loud, but you’re still distracting the teacher and other students from what they were doing.
  4. You’re supposed to be working on a writing assignment. You put both headphones in, crank up the volume, and “rock out” to some music. Your pen never touches the paper, and you’re just listening to music. You don’t even realize when the teacher says something to you from the other side of the room.

In each of these cases, you’ve crossed a line. Some of these actions – reading a text, listening to music, answering the phone – would be acceptable in one form or another. However, the way they are done here is extremely distracting and potentially disruptive to the class. As a teacher, I need to set clear boundaries so that students know where this line is. But as a student, you need to also be aware of these boundaries, respect them, and internalize them. Some day, there won’t be a teacher to look over your shoulder. And no one wants to fail out of college because they spent every lecture class staring at their Twitter feed.

Share Your Stories: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

What about you? Have a good story to tell about using technology in the classroom?

I’d be interested to hear them – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sound off in the comments below and let me know. 


  1. Twitter:
    even though technology has improved a lot for every product there will be good usage and bad usage. mainly the product success rate depends on the usage of the product nicely with out harming any one
    sai recently posted..What are Concatenate Strings in C?My Profile

  2. Twitter:
    Technology is essential in a classroom setting. But it should not be used in a way that disturbs other people in the class like you mentioned under Examples of Unacceptable Uses of Technology. I have see students watching videos, talking to friends on the phone, and playing games when they are not supposed to do that. Technology can in many ways can be used to make the whole process of learning more efficient and enjoyable.
    Chang recently posted..HTC First to Launch Facebook Phone on AndroidMy Profile

  3. Twitter:
    nice article Brian..,
    being a college student I can understand what you are saying.., most of the students refresh their Facebook page cheeking for new updates from their friends and sometimes the technology helps us to Digg about a particular topic in the class room but most of the times is spoils us..
    you’ve written about very nice topic here… I really appreciate your writing.. :)
    Rohit recently posted..Top Budget Smartphones under 10K price range | 2013My Profile

  4. Twitter:
    Yes the limitation should be applied over the use of technology in the classroom. Nice post thanks for sharing it.
    Prakash recently posted..Best Media Player for Android | Video and Music Player for AndroidMy Profile

  5. Twitter:
    Hey Brian,
    Nice post and Thanks for sharing this post with us. Nowdays technology becomes an important part of or life and it really helps when ever we are confused with some topic but also lots of use of technology creates distraction.
    Sudipto recently posted..Best Android Phone Under 10000My Profile

  6. Twitter:
    Brian what a post really based upon students like us as a student of engineering i m also use laptops and mobile phones in the class room and this is very intresting when class is carry on.
    when i do not carry the phone in classroom then it is boring.
    thanks Brian :-)
    santosh recently posted..New Micromax A115 Canvas 3DMy Profile

  7. Twitter:
    Well …
    Nice post with nice topic.As you said , it doesn’t matter how technology grow, but the roll if a teacher is always very important.It doesn’t matter how the technology advanced.Thanks for this nice sharing.
    Mahendra recently posted..Most useful keyboard shortcuts-vlc media player:must knowMy Profile

  8. Hi Mark,
    i totally agree with the three categories of technology use and these do not only apply in the classroom setting but also in any other social gathering that has a common goal. when technology is abused and misused, it becomes more of a curse than a blessing. thanks for pointing this out.

  9. Twitter:
    Today, everyone has smartphone with lot of apps in it. Every people not only men and women but also children are addicted of smartphones. So, it’s better to restrict some facilities atleast in the classroom or study-room.
    George Miller recently posted..Developing Mobile Websites for iPhone and iPadMy Profile

  10. Twitter:
    If schools implemented a program that only allowed computer to access school related sites while on the internet then productivity would be high
    Leslie Edwards recently posted..Tips On How To Make Electronic MusicMy Profile

  11. Twitter:
    Similarly, teens should be educated on acceptable forms of cell phone use while driving. It can be important to use a cell phone’s GPS technology to look up directions to a destination, but that does not mean that looking up directions is worth the risk of causing an auto accident. I hope that parents around the country make an effort to talk to their teens about the right times to use a cell phone in everyday life.

  12. Twitter:
    I personally believe that the technology is the future, but it is very hard to find a fine line of when it stops complementing a learning process and becomes a destruction in a classroom. The students will go back to their phones and ipads outside school hours, no matter how strict your policy on those devices is in the classroom. The only way to guide them in the right direction, in my opinion, is to teach the students to see both sides and more importantly, keep them involved in the class activities and encourage desire to learn.
    Aliaksandra recently posted..Java Programming. Working With VariablesMy Profile

  13. Twitter:
    Bad effects must be avoided and this can be done by the limited use of technology. Ad in classroom it should be avoided.
    Prakash recently posted..Fotor Photo Effect Studio App for Android, iPhone, PC, MACMy Profile

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