Setting Responsible Limits on Technology Usage in the Classroom


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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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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.