Time to read: 3 minutes

Dear Faculty Commons,


This semester I’ve seen it all- students dutifully taking notes on their laptops, shopping on Amazon, annotating course PDFs on tablets, getting excited about a Kahoot competition, texting like crazy, and zoning out with a pen and paper in their hands. I just don’t know what I can (or should!) do when it comes to technology in the classroom. At the end of the day, I want students to be engaged in my class, but when I think about technology usage I have more questions than answers. I know there is no easy answer, but what are students and faculty saying about access to technology in class these days?




Digitally Dubious

Dear Digitally Dubious,

We hear you! And you are not alone. This was the most popular topic from the 2018-2019 schedule of First Friday Roundtables, and over 70 of your colleagues signed up to explore this issue together. Like you, we wanted to get a sense of what attitudes were out there, so we asked students: “Does having access to technology (e.g. laptops and cellphones) in the classroom help or hinder your learning?”  Here’s a short overview of what students had to say.


Some students felt that access to the technology improved their learning:

“Very much a helpful situation. Having the slides and supplementary info facilitates learning!”

“I think it helps because if I’m confused, I can look up something without disrupting the lecture “  +1, +1”

“It helps in the context of being able to take notes with ease.  It really just depends on how much self-control a student has, and how willing they are to learn in class.”


Other students had the opposite reaction:

“It rots your brain, numbs your imagination, deadens your libido, and muddles your wits.  It is the most stupefying invention since the phonograph.”

“It causes a distraction!”  → “Yes, this.”

“Hinder”.  —> “100% yes!”

“Phones distract me”


And some students had some advice for those who teach…

“Total Distraction. I feel like students go on their phone because some professors don’t have the passion for the subject they are teaching or the ability to keep students engaged”

“Some profs utilize phone apps for extra learning or classwork opportunities. How we each take notes should be within our own right, but I suppose internet access is another thing.”

“Some profs have used phone apps to take attendance, but I find this distracting- now I have my phone out! Overall, I find it distracting for the most part.”  → “Yes. this.”


We also asked some faculty to share their approaches to technology in the classroom, and we heard some common themes. For starters, communication and clear expectation are keys. If you have a clear policy for laptop and phone usage in class, it is imperative that students know what it is and what the consequences are. One faculty member includes detailed information in her syllabus and quizzes students on it within the first week. Some other instructors have students create the “rules of engagement” for use of classroom technology, as well as the consequences when technology is a distraction.

As you might know, there are LOTS of tools out there for students to participate in-class using their phones or laptops, and some of our faculty report using those to great effect. In particular, roundtable participants mentioned using Kahoot, Mentimeter, Quizlet, and FlipGrid as ways to conduct in-class quizzes and have students complete short multimedia assignments like word clouds and video interviews. But these tools mostly utilize cell phones, and cell phone use in the classroom is a hot-button issue for nearly all instructors. Multitasking in the classroom is a myth [https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046], but students still claim they can text, type, write, and listen all at the same time.

One way to frame the discussion with your students that was popular in our roundtable is to talk about how individual technology decisions can impact your classmates. In many classrooms, the students behind and next to a technology user can see exactly what they are doing on their computer or phone. The choices our students make can affect their classmates, plain and simple. One popular suggestion, that ensures that students who need laptops or devices for accommodation purposes can access them, is to have “laptop zones” in the last row of the classroom. This keeps other students outside the “cone of distraction” and allows those who need laptops or devices to use them.

There is a lot to this issue (including lots to read!) so we’ve put together a google document with resources, sample statements, and notes provided from colleagues across UD. Access the document here.

The viability of laptops in the classroom may be a murky area, but there’s one piece of advice that always holds: Use the learning outcomes and pedagogical goals for your course to guide your decision making processes, and explain them to students!

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