EL PASO — I do not want to be a technology police officer in the classroom yet I sometimes feel like one. I am troubled by the number of students using cell phones to text and laptops to surf the web during my lectures.
This seems to be even more of an issue in larger and bigger classrooms. As UTEP’s student population grows (over 20,000 at the start of this academic year), each semester there seem to be more students enrolling in my lecture classes, and more instances of technology disrupting my classroom teaching.
Early in the semester, actually on day one and week one of each class, students and I go over the course syllabi and we review the goals and objectives for each class. This is the time where I usually explain expectations in my courses, including the use of technology. My syllabus notes that the university supports the use of technology to facilitate learning. However, I ask students to turn off their phones or to put them on vibrate. But now that cell phones are used for texting and also surfing the web my policy doesn’t seem to be working.
How is a professor to deal with the use of cell phones for texting and the use of laptops for chatting, surfing, and getting connected to email and social networking sites, while trying to teach? Should I be concerned whether students want to use their time to text or chat? When does the use of technology become my problem? Is it when it becomes disruptive to other students? Is it when it is disruptive to me?
While lecturing in a large classroom of 100 students, I use a portable microphone that allows me to move around the room. By going up and down the aisles, I can clearly see who is using their cell phones and their laptops for surfing.
Just this week, as I was lecturing, I saw several students actively texting. What would you have done in this situation? On one occasion, I took the phone away and slipped it into my pocket and returned it after the end of class. As I walked back to my office later, I was furious that I had to deal with the issue of technology etiquette in my classes. This has not been a problem for me in the past or when I teach in smaller classrooms. But as class sizes have grown, I have had to move to a building with larger, less intimate classrooms where it’s easier to satisfy the urge to text or surf without being noticed by the instructor.
Is technology a barrier to learning or is it a tool? Should I even care whether or not students are using technology to communicate with outsiders during my class, even though they are not “speaking out loud?”
According to Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist who has focused on intercultural communication issues, human beings communicate in many ways, many of these include our interpretations of time and space. I have read somewhere that approximately 70 percent of what we communicate is non-verbal.
So what does the active use of technology in the classroom communicate to me as a professor and to other classmates? As a professor, I don’t want to have to focus or spend time on these distractions. I want to focus on my lectures and on my students’ responses to their readings, to the topics we are covering, and to each other.
Some might suggest I simply ignore the use of technology in my classes, others suggest I employ more group interaction in class, while others suggest humor to diffuse the use of technology. I simply can’t ignore it because I consider that texting and surfing the web during my lectures is inappropriate and disrespectful behavior. The fact is that I do use group work in class and vary this approach with lectures. I love the idea of humor, although at times it can be appropriate but it can also backfire when it’s used to “shame” people.
I don’t want to “shame” people into behaving well in a college classroom. Besides going over classroom policies, what is a professor to do in a society that is growing addicted to technology at work and in everyday life?
Some cities and states have banned the use of cell phones and texting while driving. What is next? A ban of cell phones while learning?
Editor’s note: Dr. Gina Núñez is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at UT El Paso