Get off that iPhone (or else)

U Ottawa considers policy on tech toys in class


Photo by Laura Mills

A University of Oklahoma professor became famous two years ago when he dunked a laptop in liquid nitrogen and violently slammed it into the floor of the classroom to get his point across: “Don’t bring laptops and work on them in class.”

The stunt was followed by similar demonstrations by profs angry over noisy and distracting electronics. One took a sledgehammer to a fake phone. Another enforced his “strict policy about texting” using a simpler solution: a glass of water.

Clearly professors are frustrated. That’s why the Senate at the University of Ottawa is considering a proposal that would allow them to limit the use of portable music players, laptops and phones.

Christian Detellier, interim vice-president academic and provost, told The Fulcrum that the policy is needed so that students will respect each other. But Liz Kessler, vice-president of university affairs for the student federation, says students deserve to be treated like adults.

This is not the first time bans of electronic devices have been considered. Such a proposal created controversy at McGill University back in 2010.

The University of Waterloo has a policy that explicitly states professors may not ban laptops.

So it will be interesting to see if the Ottawa policy passes. But if it doesn’t, don’t be surprised to see more professors take matters into their own hands—and maybe even smash them into the floor.


Get off that iPhone (or else)

  1. As an educator dealing with these same issues in my grade 7/8 classrooms, the issue is not banning electronic devices, but educating our children at a young age. We must teach our youth to be good digital citizens when they are young. Banning digital devices in university is a poor solution that is the result of little thought. It is the 21st century and most of these devices are tools that can help learning, especially in a university setting. From my recollection of university, madly scrambling to copy down illegible notes from a chalkboard or overhead seriously stunted my learning. Had I had a computer to type out these notes or record the prof’s images, I could have focused on what was being said, instead of deciphering the mess in front of me before it was erased. Perhaps some of these unhappy profs should embrace the digital age and use these devices to educate their students, rather than shunning them and foolishly trying to ban them from the auditoriums. Just a suggestion, but lecturing like a robot in front of hundreds of students neither engages them or improves students’ learning!

    • Craig: I’m not a Luddite. In fact, I’m one of the most digital-forward people in my department (going all the way back to the relatively primitive options of the 1990s). The problem (again, please see Carr) is that while users *say* they can “multi-task” and use their devices to increase productivity, I see a totally different reality every time I step into a classroom. I completely agree that devices can be huge productivity boosts *in principle* — they bear this potential — but the actual situation in the classroom doesn’t in the least evince focused productivity. Very much the opposite. We need to acknowledge that our fiddling with devices has become addictive in a meaningful, non-figurative sense of the term (there’s empirical research to this effect). To repeat my earlier post, I now routinely have students who are physically present for a whole class session blank out and not know what’s going on from one minute to the next because they’re stoned out of their minds on digital devices.

      Grad student: So true. There’s an “everything on demand all the time” mentality that takes shape as crude “hunt and peck” information gathering. But as a university teacher, I don’t just dispense pellets of information — I want my students to think well, and that takes focus and patience.

  2. Read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Digital technology is literally changing our brains, and probably not for the better. The other day a student texted in class — as I spoke with her. She first answered a question (she was attentive enough for that), but then held up her phone in front of her face and texted as I addressed her response. Is “rude” even the word here? It’s almost psychotic in the literal sense of the term. We were interacting as a dyad in a room full of people at a public event! Many students exhibit signs of addiction, which is why devices need to be banned — they simply can’t stop themselves from playing. They’ll say everything is fine, but their actions tell a different story. Even laptops are usually employed for non-course purposes. I now routinely have students who are physically present for a whole class session blank out and not know what’s going on from one minute to the next. To me (an oldster), they appear stupid or brain-damaged (though I’m very sure they don’t see their own actions in this way). And what about the matter of (what used to be common) politeness for the presenter? When I see half the class zoned out of their minds on digital devices, I have to wonder why I’m even in the room trying to help them learn anything. There’s only so much I can do to compete for their attention (not that I should have to). The most basic mode of normal/traditional in-person interaction is now broken. (The Waterloo policy noted in the article is a whopping assault on academic freedom and educational standards, and mindlessly assumes that technology must be good — I almost think it’s a spoof.)

    • It is not only disrespectful to the presenter, it is disrespectful to everyone else in the class who is trying to pay attention, who may happen to sit behind the person who is on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever. It’s easy enough to ignore one person doing so, but when a sea of laptops in front of you is filling with non-course-related material, it can be hard to pay attention to the speaker at the front of the room. Yes, the solution (for some) is to sit at the front of the classroom, but not everyone can sit at the front, and if you are “just in time” for class (ie. had a class before it on the other side of campus and have to move quickly to get to class on time) good luck finding a spot where you won’t have plenty of laptops in front of you.

      I still take notes the “old fashioned” way (by hand) in the grad courses I have to take, and I have no difficulty in following what the prof is saying and engaging in the material *while* taking notes by hand. I think some students need to learn how to pay attention to what the prof is saying while taking notes. The answer is not in having the prof put all their notes online, or allowing the students to take notes on computer (since half the class is not using their computers to do so), but in educating students how to properly take notes (no, you don’t have to scramble to write down everything the prof is saying/writing, except in certain classes like chemistry, physics, or calculus). The art of taking notes has been lost by the majority of the students, who haven’t learned how to pick out what is important and just write that information down.

      • I couldn’t agree more with Grad Student and C. Kingsfield — computers and phones are not being used for any real educational benefit whatsoever most of the time, and this is an issue that needs to be addressed because it affects everyone else in the classroom too, including the professor. I have no problem with someone using a laptop to take notes, but if students really are “adults”, they need to understand that texting/Facebook/Twitter is not always an appropriate thing to do in every situation. If students choose to come to lecture, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they be considerate and mature enough to pay full attention, instead of just being physically present. Even as an undergraduate who is usually very happy and comfortable with technology, I have to admit that’s gone too far.

  3. I also have a problem with devices in class. I have had to speak to my students several times about this. There are several issues. First, as an educator, it’s my job to help students find and use strategies that will assist them to achieve their goals. One of them is to be attentive to the material we are studying, and that focusing on one thing at a time is a more successful learning style than is dividing one’s attention. If they haven’t learned those things yet, they should learn them now. Second, it is rude to the presenter. It’s the digital equivalent of reading the newspaper while someone is talking to you. Students should learn is that that isn’t socially acceptable. They might want to consider trying that in a job situation. Showing your boss that you really don’t care about what he/she is saying is an excellent way to find yourself with a lot of free time on your hands. Finally, it’s also distracting to others, especially if you are passing your phone around to your neighbors to enjoy the pictures of cats doing amusing things. I should point out that I’m framing this in the classroom context, but these points apply to lots of other places, too. Students aren’t unique in displaying unproductive or rude behaviours.

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