A Teacher’s Guide to Personal Devices in Class

Anything can be a distraction in class, but one that has received a great deal of attention has been personal devices and smartphones.  I purchased my first data activated smart phone about 11 years ago when I was in my mid twenties. Now I see students who are younger than 10 years who have a device that they bring to school every day, and the reality is that they are still learning how to use it and really don’t know how it affects their learning at school. 

The use of these devices in classrooms is a controversial topic as there are many different opinions.  They can often be seen as distractions and problems that get in the way of student learning, but they can also be powerful tools that can have a significant impact.  It is not uncommon to see educational policies mandate or suggest that phones should not be allowed in classrooms at all and although I understand the rationale behind this, I am not sure that this is the right approach.  As devices become more and more advanced, their functions extend beyond media consumption as they tie into our personal health and medical information,while becoming powerful tools that facilitate learning, collaboration, and productivity. 

As a technology teacher I teach classes where there are computers, laptops, tablets, cameras, and microphones everywhere. Over the past several years, I have had to develop my own strategy for limiting the distraction while leveraging these devices for productive learning. This does not just apply to school owned technology, but with the increasing power of phones and tablets, this applies to student devices as well. I have decided not to ban personal devices from my classroom, instead my approach is to teach students to how to manage them and use them in an appropriate way. This is how I go about it.

Clear Expectations and Rules

With every group that I teach, I always include a discussion on devices in my first class.  I tell students that I will bring my phone into the class and that students are expected to follow the same rules that I have for myself if they would like to bring in their device.  I explain that if they do not want to go by these rules, they should not bring anything in. If there is a problem with what they are doing, I will first ask them to put it away. If the problem continues they are expected to turn it in to a device drop spot in my classroom that I will monitor which is usually on my desk.  No one will ever look at their phone when it is there. If a problem continues and the student continues to bring a phone or another device to class this becomes a conversation with parents or guardians, as well as the school administration.

What is Ok

It is important to discuss what is acceptable to do with a phone or device in the classroom.  I always use examples from my own life. Here are some that I use

  • If a family member sends you a text or message that you need to reply to.  This should not be a constant set of messages, but just the odd one that happens.
  • Emergency phone calls.
  • Medical related use.
  • If there is a topic, concept, or something else mentioned in class that you are unfamiliar with that you want to look up quickly.
  • If there is something really interesting that you want to remember, you can take a picture.  This is not a photo of other students.
  • If you want to use it to shoot video or a photo for a project or activity that you are doing in class.
  • If you need to check the spelling of a word.

What is Not Ok

Just as it is important to explain to students what is ok to do with a device, you need to explain what is not acceptable as well.  Here are the examples that I use.

  • Playing games in class.
  • Watching videos unrelated to class content.
  • Live streaming or facetiming in class.
  • Taking photos or videos of people when they are not aware or have not given consent.
  • Social media use.
  • Playing music out loud.
  • Looking at inappropriate materials.
  • Posting mean things online.
  • Posting inappropriate things online.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day this is all flexible.  Every class is different and may require a teacher to set some different rules and expectations.  As a teacher, it is important to figure out what works for you in your own context. Every student is unique, and so is every teacher and classroom.

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