At the start of my summer class this year, a quiet and diligent student asked a seemingly innocuous question. “Do you allow use of laptops in class?” Sure, I said, as long as they’re on task. I had my TA sit behind her a few times and double-check — she was indeed simply using the online lecture material and taking notes as she went. I was satisfied. And she was the only student bringing a laptop to class.
But somehow, around week 2 or 3 (out of 5), something changed. It was so insidious, I didn’t even realize there was a problem until it was too late. While I had been distracted by the rigors of teaching a summer course, somehow more laptops had snuck their way in. I was writing on the board, and looked up and realized that about a fourth of the class wasn’t looking at me. They were looking down, at their laptop or their cell phone. I became more emphatic, gesturing to items on my slide, or saying, “as we can see here” as I worked a problem on the board. But despite the fact that I knew that my gestures and board work could NOT be included on the online lecture notes, they did not look up to see what I was doing. In the final week of class I had a guest lecturer, and I noticed that one of my students was focused on his laptop screen rather than this energetic, award-winning instructor. I quietly went and stood behind him, and indeed, he was looking at something completely off-task. I whispered to him to please focus his attention on the lecture.
What is even more shocking, at least to me, was that this was in a small class (only 18 students) where there is no hope of anonymity. I’m standing right there in front of them, I know their name, and yet somehow texting and laptop use “crept in” behind my back. Also shocking was the fact that this was no ordinary lecture class, where I was simply reading off the lecture slides and working through example problems from the book. I had made great efforts to make the course interactive, with clicker questions, hands-on experiments, worksheets and activities, computer simulations, small group discussions, and interactive demonstrations. Students were paired with “learning groups” that rotated each week. They were asked to discuss challenging questions with their neighbors. I had them get up out of their seats to do mini experiments and see how physics really worked. We discussed explicitly, several times, how important engagement was for their success and their learning. And yet, when we got into lecture-mode to wrap up and understand these engaging activities that we’d done — so many of them were tuning out.
Even in this ideal environment, the temptation of digital distraction was too high. I might view this akin to addictive behavior now, and realize that students need more explicit support in order to do the right thing for their learning. I think that the biggest mistake that I made was to fail to have explicit guidelines for use of technology (laptops, cell phones) in class. I just didn’t think I had to, but now I know that was wrong. And when I saw *some* off-task behavior, I should not have ignored it for that one time, since that sent an implicit message. I think that it’s important to be aware of the classroom culture or social norms that are being established, either explicitly or implicitly. I spent a lot of time implicitly setting up a culture of collaboration, but did not attend to creating explicit guidelines for engagement and behavior in class.
An instructor here at the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote a fantastic article about establishing social contracts about digital distraction in the classroom. Rather than setting down rules from above about student behavior, Dr. Sieber has students collaboratively develop behavioral guidelines for the virtual and in-person classroom. This “initiation ritual” helps to create a cohesive community, as well as help students to learn to navigate the online platform for the course. I wrote last month about improving online discussion boards, and I think that this would have been an excellent first required activity for the online discussion — to establish a social contract.
In a nutshell, here is what Dr. Sieber does with her students:
- They write two social contracts, one for in-class behaviors and one for online
- Students first post their expectations of themselves and their peers
- Students vote on each proposal
- The individual ideas are put together into a working constitution for the class
- Students agree to enforce the constitution
Dr. Sieber says that the way that the instructions are framed to students helps to guarantee the success of the enterprise, and provides some sample instructions in the original article. One thing that shines through to me in all her writings are the immense respect that she has for her students and for the utility of this process. Over and over I’ve found that students are remarkably sensitive to subtle indications of instructor regard.
In talking to Dr. Sieber, I know that she finds that she does not need to explicitly ask students to address technological distractions . Students always bring up issues such as laptop and cell phone use in class. See the original article for details on what rules students often impose on themselves and their peers.
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