Posted by: Robert Bodle | February 26, 2012

Student mobile tech etiquette in the classroom: or “put the phone down, please!”

Members of the Instructional Delivery Committee have experienced a wide range of mobile technology behavior in the classroom that has given us pause. I have personally found some students to be so “into” their phones and tablets (texting, facebooking, tweeting, following sports events) that they cannot maintain eye contact with me for more than 3 seconds (until I mandate that they bury their phones). Surely smart phones and tablets are legitimate study aids, providing access to eTextbooks and dictionaries, facilitating info searches, useful for note-taking, providing speech-to-text features, etc.

Two related questions arise: 1) what is the best way to establish mobile technology etiquette in the classroom? and 2) how can instructors continue to support technology use in the classroom as much as it supports learning, while moderating distracting and disruptive uses?

Please feel free to share your experiences, best practices, techniques, and/or opinions (anonymously or add your name to the comment) related to these two questions, in order to elicit a range of responses that can be used to guide appropriate tech/media use in the classroom.

Access background articles here on our Wiki.



  1. At the first class meeting, I tell students that I want them to put all technology away during class, and that they should take notes on paper. Once in awhile, I have a student ask if he or she can use the computer to take notes, and usually a specific reason is given. In that case, I give permission, and I have not had problems with those students surfing or checking email. In fact, fewer of my students bring their computers to class than they did at one time, probably because the hand-held devices serve their purposes. Usually students drift back to putting their handhelds out on the desk, or looking down at them in their laps, and I then remind the whole class that devices should be put away. This approach works well, but I don’t make use of student techology in the classroom. If I did, the whole issue would be more problematic, so I’m looking forward to reading responses from faculty who do, and how they manage.

  2. I tend to use the blackboard a lot in my lectures, which can keep me tethered to the front of the room for long periods of time. Whenever possible, however, I try to roam about the room a bit, and most students then seem to stay on task. If I know that a particular student is prone to distraction, I make a point of occasionally walking over to that part of the room where the student sits. Fortunately, I’ve not yet had a student who is so bold as to go on texting/surfing while I’m standing over his or her shoulder. When that day inevitably arrives, I’ll need to find a more creative solution. I welcome your suggestions.

  3. Since I still don’t make use of technology via hand held devices in my classes, I try to make expectations clear. Some students who have special needs and use computers to take notes are placed in the front of the classroom-they are less likely to perform non-class tasks of there are three or four rows of students behind them. Texting is more of a problem, and subtlety usually does not dissuade them from completing a text in progress; students who text in class are therefore asked to surrender their devices until the end of class. All policies are spelled out clearly in the syllabus and are presented during the first class meeting, so there are no surprises to students when a policy is enforced. Issues occur on a relatively small scale, but this conversation is important as we begin to rely more heavily on web based sources and on line assignments to deliver content and assess student performance. How we as faculty communicate with students is also changing-several faculty have begun using text messaging to relay information to students, so it is imperative that parameters be established between what is appropriate for class time, and what is outside the realm of class.

  4. In the math and programming courses that I teach, I have encouraged my students to use mobile apps to aide in the examples that I work in class. However, I do need to wander and keep a watchful eye because students do tend to get distracted with cell phone activity and computer activity when they should be listening to me.

    When I find my students doing email, texting or just surfing the web, when they should be attentive, is a big concern of mine.

  5. In my classes I use notebook computers very often. In my syllabus I do not allow the use of electronic devices for the activities that are not related to the class. However, to pay attention to what exactly each student is looking at at the moment becomes practically impossible. On the other hand, I do realize that the rule needs to be enforced. If I notice Facebook or texting on a device screen, I usually give 0 participation credit for this class meeting. I know that some colleagues use peer leaders’ help for tracking students’ activities during the class meetings.

    Janna Hoglund

    • So…we have students being distracted in class by watching out for others who are using devices? That really makes no sense. These people are not high school students, folks. If the the phone rings in class or something, then it is appropriate to do something because that distracts everyone. Asking students to essentially tattle on others for sending a text now and then is absolute overkill.

  6. I feel that this discussion is moot. The students are adults who are paying professors for the education they receive. I think a lot of times, educators overstep their boundaries with issues like these. If the person is distracting others by using the tech devices, then I feel that it is acceptable to discuss the matter with the student outside of class. Other than that, the student is paying to be there and if they choose to distract themselves, that is their decision to make. The job of the professor is to instruct, the job of the student to learn. If a student is able to get good grades and learn the material without paying attention to or attending lecture, more power to them. To me, it makes no sense to tell an adult what they can and cannot do with something they have purchased.

    • I agree 100%. I am an adjunct professor that also teaches 7th grade. It is totally different environment. At the college level they are paying for their education. If they so choose to not listen then they are the ones missing out on the education.

      However, if you want them to stop texting/Facebooking/whatever else…make the lesson so it holds their attention and keeps them engaged.

      • Amen @ the second paragraph of your post.

  7. Here is my drill: “We are going to unplug for class except if you want to journal or take notes on your laptop.” When I see the phones come out (or the laptop at an inappropriate time), I say: “No one needs their phone/laptop out right now.” That is usually enough to get them to stop checking out. If it continues, I either talk to them after class or address it by asking them directly: “Do you think you could put that away?” Problem usually solved. I agree that class should be engaging and interesting enough to keep their attention, but it is hard to compete with the latest boy/girlfriend’s escapades on Facebook!

    • The problem with that is that it is on the student to decide whether those escapades are more or less important than your course. I understand everyone’s desire to teach their subject to the students effectively, but, as with almost any situation, the other party has to be a willing recipient. We are not teaching in loco parentis, as it is with elementary, middle, and high school students. We are offering an educational forum to adults where they can come and share ideas. To me, there is very little difference between someone texting and someone being totally out to lunch because they are disinterested. Additionally, some people are multitaskers by nature, so we should not necessarily assume that just because someone checks a text message or a notification now and again they are not paying attention. I find some of the tone of this discourse to be pretty arrogant, honestly, and I think that it’s time that we start to treat the students like the adults they are and give them responsibility for their own behavior instead of dictating what legal actions others are and are not allowed to perform.

  8. It’s totally possible that an arrogant tone slipped in unintentionally – my bad if this is the case. However the example used in the initial discussion starter was intentionally extreme to establish a reference point and get the ball rolling, which is why I did not use the reasonable occasional glance instead.

    The discussion is intentionally framed to explore guidelines, as opposed to ascertaining rules to dictate to students, as we endeavor in a collaborative enterprise with a community of learners.

    But perhaps a couple of variables can help broaden out the discussion:

    frequency and range of cell use in class (diff. between occasional glance and constant use);

    the diversity of students (not all students are adults);

    various leadership styles (most of us are probably not “dictators” – at least not all of the time), but facilitators, guides, instructors;

    and the individual vs. the collective consideration – I tend to consider the environmental (or ecosystemic) aspect of disruptive cell use, as well as the individual implications.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    • I apologize if you took the comment about the arrogance to mean that your post was. I was talking about the general tone of many of the comments. More later when I have some time to comment on the points you just raised (which are very good, by the way). I just wanted to let you know that I was not singling out your post.

      • no worries! looking forward to your comments. -r

  9. I would like to offer a different perspective….Instead of considering this an issue of how to keep students from using/mis-using technology during class, maybe the real issue is a generational gap. Nichole sent us an email regarding sessions with Linda Gravett on March 27th, I highly recommend these sessions! I also highly recommend her book, it was an easy & enjoyable read! I found her research very helpful in manageing my former team of 10 that was also across the generations. I have met with Linda several times as I delved into this topic about 3 years ago. If we look at this challenge as a difference between geneterations then we, with the input of the students, should be able to develop some viable solutions.

    Also note that coporate america has tackled this “issue” as well and the organizations with the mosy success are those that recognized and appreciated the talents of all the generations represented in their workforce.

    Just food for thought….

    • Can you give the book title and a link?

      Also, can you share a specific example of how corporate America has dealt with this “issue”?


    • Several articles in the Wall Street Journal have discussed mobiles and laptops in meetings. Some companies ban. This from recommendations in a WSJ article a few weeks ago.

      “4. Consider banning mobiles or laptops from meetings—especially short sessions—to prevent participants from zoning out. If a meeting is long, set scheduled email breaks so people aren’t distracted throughout.”

  10. Sure, here is the title:
    Bridging the Generation Gap: How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More by Linda Gravett and Robin Throckmorton (Jan 15, 2007)

    One company decided that as long as employees have silent key tones they were “allowed” to use technology in meetings. They were only concerned about the distraction to other employees.

  11. I’ll post more later on my approach and why — but I do not favor an institutional policy. There are large individual differences in our approaches to facilitating learning. But some institutions have considered:

  12. Like the author of this article, I find social media can be very distracting. But other profs do not mind at all.

  13. Research article with lit review on laptops in the classroom and effect on learning.

    A lengthy article by a prof who decided to ban computers in the classroom. Long read but interesting to skim.

  14. Thank you John! A lot to go through here . . .

    Would be terrific if you had the time to synthesize and present at one our IDC workshops.

    best, -r

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