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Technology bans restrict learning

Posted on 12.11.2013

Although our university is looking ahead to the future through initiatives such as Vision 2030, many of our classrooms—and professors—are still stuck in the Stone Age. Sure, we have projection screens, a few scattered flat screen televisions, ACE (when it works) and PowerPoint. Unfortunately, missing from many classrooms are the very technological tools that students use the most to learn: laptops and smart phones.


Cartoon by James Figy

Of course,  this isn’t a universal problem, as there certainly are professors who gladly welcome these devices into the classroom. But on the other end of the spectrum are the strict professors who include in their syllabi—in all-caps, increased font size and harsh condemning language—warnings about how these devices are “strictly prohibited” due to their potential for “disrupting the learning environment.”
So, you want to “prohibit” my iPhone?
What about when you use a multisyllabic, intellectual word that I’ve never heard before and want to look up on my Merriam-Webster’s dictionary app? Or when our class discussions lead to mentioning of some complex theory that I want to Google now,  rather than later,  and have more insight right at my fingertips?
And my computer is, as you say, “disruptive?”
But what if I want to save paper and take notes on Word, so I can organize them into coherent material for studying? Or perhaps actually access the e-textbook I bought—the one with the ungodly expensive price tag—for your class, and follow along during your lecture?
Exactly what is disruptive about an engaged, connected student who readily uses technological tools to process and access relevant information during class…to learn? The answer is nothing, and the real disruption here is prohibiting these devices in today’s classrooms.
Our university needs to learn this lesson, and fast, because we are already behind. Many schools—high, middle and elementary schools alike—are already working with policies far more open to technology. As a university, we should be a progressive leader in these areas,  experimenting with the changes in technology and using the potential in the devices nearly all of us own.
This potential already has been discovered. According to a February 2013 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, cell phones, namely smart phones, have “become central to the learning process” in America’s middle and secondary schools. In fact, 73 percent of Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers reported using cell phones in the classroom.
In addition to these findings, many school districts already have adopted technology policies open to cell phones in the classroom,  and some of these districts can be found right in Indianapolis. For example, Ben Davis High School currently has a “Bring Your Own Device,” or BYOD, policy that encourages students to bring their own technology devices to school “to be utilized in the classroom at the discretion of the teacher,” according to the school’s website.
If AP, NWP and local Indianapolis teachers are embracing smart phones for their value in the learning process, then why aren’t our professors?
My guess is that they’re scared. Scared they’ll lose us to a screen in our hands or on our desk. Scared that there is no way to monitor our activity on these devices. Scared that we will take selfies, snapchat, shop online, tweet, check Facebook, scroll through Pinterest…the list goes on.
Professors certainly have a right to be scared of these possibilities, but contrary to popular belief, they can leave their lecterns and walk around to monitor usage of these devices. Admittedly, there’s not much else one can do to ensure that a student is indeed using a smart phone or laptop for academic purposes. But rest assured that if a student does not want to pay attention in class, he or she is not going to pay attention in class, device or not. The result is always the same, whether it is eyes glued to a screen, a zoned out, about-to-drool-of-boredom gaze into nothingness or even a classic case of falling asleep in class. We are all paying to get an education. If some students want to waste their money by zoning out during class, that is their decision that will come with its own set of consequences. We should not prohibit technology just because it comes with some of these risks.
As a future teacher, I know just how daunting this whole proposition is. I’ve taught classes full of students who had smart phones atop their desks. At first, it was disconcerting, and I was paranoid, gazing over my students’ shoulders, sure I would see a Twitter feed. But they proved me wrong: I was teaching English Language Learners, and they used their phones to look up words in the dictionary. Their phones were the very lifelines to their acquisition of the language.
We need to understand that our future lies in technology, in devices like smart phones and laptops, but also in tools that have not even been created yet. We’ll never know exactly what 2030 will bring, but if we are envisioning and planning for it, we need to take advantage of the technology now to be better prepared for the future. And what better place to embrace technology than in our very own classrooms?


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