Bring your cell phone, just don’t destroy your learning…

I’d like to start of by saying that I love technology, specifically Apple products but really any kind. If you were to ask my staff they would probably say I’m a “techie”. I keep an eye on the edge of both educational technology and technology in general. I’m getting my masters in educational technology. I’ve tinkered with technology since my parents got their first computer. I am a proud owner of the Apple watch and an iPhone. I browse the App store frequently, looking for the next great life-changing app. I learned to code HTML and CSS last summer. This is all to convince you that I’m cool with technology.
And for the longest time I was cool with my students bringing their technology to my class. But as of late I’ve been concerned with my students and their relationship with their technology. Also, as an extension of that, I’m concerned about how teachers interact with students and their technology. Before I specify my main worry, it’s important to note that technology is far better and more ubiquitous than ever. Most of my students have a smart phone of some kind, or at the very least a cell phone. This trend is only going to continue. Because of this I’ve been fairly lax in allowing them to bring, and use, their phones in my class. Sometimes we use them for educational purposes, but much of the time they follow guidelines set up early in the year (have them put away during a lecture, it’s rude during group work, etc.). I’d guess this is close to many teachers’ policy regarding cell phones, although I know it’s on a spectrum.
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Okay okay, so my concern stems from an observation I made last school year. When I gave my students independent work time, and sometimes even in collaborative groups, students were always “checking”. Whether it’s a notification, a text, a snap, or simply to check their twitter feed my students were frequently bouncing between my class and their phones.
I went a long time with no problem with this. When I’m in meetings or working I often check my phone, especially text messages and notifications. However, I noticed that I’m much more inefficient and unproductive when I’m constantly checking. In fact, the brain is not built to do two things at once. Although students think that they can easily switch back and forth from phone to focus, it’s an illusion. Check out this article that for gobs of research on the negative effects of multitasking on learning. From this the question becomes how do we adjust our policies or approach to account for this. How do we strike a balance between the usefulness of cell phones in class and their ubiquity, and the fact that they might be destroying learning in our classrooms?
My thought is that, as the aforementioned article suggests, we first give students the facts. Read them the studies and explain to them how it negatively affects their learning. Beyond that we also need to teach them how to balance it all. This first requires acknowledging that they will always have a device with them. So if that’s the case, how does a student balance the distraction against the need to focus?
First, set aside a time to “check” everything. For instance, when I’m working on something I might commit to work for 15 minutes before I check Twitter and Facebook. I then set aside an amount of time that I’ll do that and stick to it. I’ve found that no matter how hard you try, you never make it to the bottom of those feeds so there’s no point in trying. I’ll get as much out of 5 minutes of checking as I will out of 20 (and probably feel better about myself). This probably means students should flip on “do not disturb” so that there’s not even a buzz to distract them during the focus time. Second, we should explain that not only do they like knowing what’s going on with their friends, but they’re also likely addicted to Dopamine (video below). Every time they get a notification, text, or mention they get a shot of dopamine. The brain learns this and then seeks more of it in the same way (mentions, updates, texts, etc.). This is addicting and it’s not a particularly healthy addiction. Last, I think we should emphasize that the focus in class should be on learning and that multitasking detracts from that, not only for them but also for their peers.
I guess that’s a long way of saying that I’m going to much more intentional with my cell phone policy this year. As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments or on twitter.

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