The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.
⁃C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
In the 1980s, one of my television heroes was the debonair Alex P. Keaton. My admiration for APK centered not just for his quick wit and conservative politics, but mostly because he had a watch that was also a calculator. I don’t recall at what age I first acquired the same watch, but when I did I remember some anxiety about whether my teachers would allow me to wear it to school or in class–lest they think I was covertly doing pre-calculus on my wrist.
How to handle media use in the classroom has been a topic of discussion among educators at all levels for the better part of the last two decades, or more. And, when our culture entered an era of annual technological upgrades and the condensing of multiple devices into fewer things to carry, the collective academic fretting only increased.
When I first started teaching and was not much older than the students, I resisted the trend of allowing more and more devices and sought to control and limit all use of non-class-related technology by professorial fiat. However, some time ago, I changed my thinking and chose instead to embrace this brave new world and try my best to redeem it for constructive (or at least entertaining) purposes.
Usually a few times a year, in academic journals or other outlets, the discussion resumes with various studies drawing conclusions related to the effects of media use in the classroom. In 2013, the Journal of Media Educationreported the findings of the survey, “Digital Distractions in the Classroom: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes.” The conclusion: almost 92% of the 777 student respondents indicate that they have or do use a digital device during class for non-classroom related activities.
Since then, there have been thoughtful arguments for how to address these diversions, some that even go so far as making a case for banning laptops from the classroom. Depending the grade level and maturity of the students taught and the institutional mission and setting, I think there is some merit to these ideas, but in the end, I still think it comes down to the professor leading the class and what he or she does with the time and students before them.
The students I teach are adults in a seminary setting. Over the years, I have found it far more enjoyable and productive to treat them like adults and then expect them to act in like manner. Plus, given the fact that I have a propensity to serve as a cause, though unintentional, for campus-wide chatter (i.e. ask about the time I fainted in class and started quoting Ronald Reagan jokes), I find it easier to go along and enjoy whatever social media attention may come rather than build the reputation of “The Gloomy Professor.”
What I have found is that appropriate balance has settled to serve as the norm. Yes, there are always some students who sit in the back of a large class that are hard to reach and seek distraction whether paper or digital. But, overall, my current approach has led to more student engagement and even outside of class interaction. In some cases it has led to the recruitment of students who are considering my school as their virtual observation of in class banter or actual content has helped them see what life is really like on campus. Overall, I would say in my classes we have more fun and less actual distraction than one would think possible in the current technological climate.
Here is how I address the matter in my statement from my syllabus on “In Class Media Use”:
Computing devices are permitted during the lecture hour for the purpose of taking notes. Use of these devices to access the Internet, make telephone or video calls, text messaging, updating social network statuses, etc. is discouraged unless something really funny, historic, life changing, or unusual happens in class. If there is an emergency requiring the use of a cell phone, the student may take the call and leave the class, but out of respect for fellow classmates, not return until the break.
In short, as long as a living, breathing student with a mind ready to learn is present, laptops are welcome. Alex P. Keaton and his calculator watch, of course, are welcome too.