College classrooms: Smartphones get 100% in attendance

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How much is too much? The use of smartphones and other devices has become a natural practice in college classrooms. Students say it is normal, teachers say it shouldn’t be normal. The fact is that college students are constantly using their smartphones and other electronic devices, even during class time. According to students and faculty members, at the Florida Gulf Coast University campus, this is not any different.

Regardless of the subject being taught or the teachers’ classroom policies, students always find a way to send text messages, check their social media pages, send emails, play games, or do another one of the several things that can be done with a smartphone. This rule doesn’t apply to all students, of course. Many students don’t rely as much or don’t even use their electronic devices in the classrooms. However, they are part of a minority group of students who are fully present – mind and body – in the classroom.  

“Except under special circumstances,” said the three professors I interviewed regarding their policies on the use of laptops and tablets in the classroom. Smartphones are never allowed. “Unless I need them to exchange numbers for a group project, or take pictures for an assignment, I allow smartphones usage. Other than that, it is a ‘no-no’,” said Emily Vallier, Composition instructor at FGCU. Special circumstances include any disability that a student might have to take handwriting notes and special class activities that require the use of Internet.

According to the three FGCU instructors, there are no positive factors on the use of smartphones in the classroom. They all believe that it can only distract and drive away the student’s attention from what is being taught.

“It means that they are not ‘with us’ — with me or their colleagues — as we consider the work we are doing, studying,” said professor Katherine Hale from the College of Arts and Sciences. Hale said the class is supposed to be a learning community, one that all students must be thinking together about the issues of the day’s agenda, rather than being off doing their “own thing.”

Dean Davis, Communication Studies professor, strongly disapproves any use of technology in his classroom.

 “I am a firm believer that the device will be a distraction and will most likely tempt the student into using it for other purposes,” said Davis. “I am very unhappy about allowing laptops and tablets for note-taking as I’ve gotten ‘burned’ so often by students not taking notes.”

 The reason why our generation’s students have become so dependent on technological devices can’t be scientifically proven, but it most likely relates to the electronic culture we live in, where we rely on the Internet, social media, tablets, laptops, smartphones and via-text communication in order to function properly. Even textbook publishers — in order to adapt to this electronic culture — now offer e-books, so one can buy the online version of a textbook and access it through any device.

When asked about the reason why students get so distracted by technology in the classroom, the professors said students truly believe their generation to be a “multi-tasker” one, in which they can simultaneously pay attention in class and play on their smartphones.

“According to Marshall McLuhan’s studies on the 70s, we worry too much about the content of the media and not enough about its impact on how we think,” said Hale. “So now, with so much media influence, texting, and surfing the web, we gather bits and pieces from here and there, making us think more on a ‘“breadth” and “surface level” rather than “in depth.” Hale said these changes are not necessarily bad, but until college classroom’s approaches change to adapt to the modern world, it is certainly a problem.

Students, on the other hand, don’t seem to look at technology use as a problem. The five students I talked to all agree that the electronic culture improves communication through its channels. However, they all accept the fact that doing so in the classroom is not the correct thing, and not what they are supposed to be doing.

“Because of technology, smartphones, and all the different ways of communicating with others, it has become easier and faster to send messages through my smartphone than through face-to-face interaction,” said Christina Tanninen, junior majoring in Communication. Professor Davis, however, does not agree with such statement. “Students are so used to technology that it has become an appendage,” he said. “What used to supplement communication is now substituting one-on-one interaction.”

Other students explained the reasons why they feel the need to use their smartphones during class time.

“I know this might sound very bad, but many of my classes just get very boring,” said Brad Wells, senior majoring in Criminal Justice. “Except for the classes I am very interested in, all the others just don’t catch enough of my attention and I end up playing with my phone so time goes faster.”

Two other students said that their phone keeps going off and they “have to” reply to their friends and family members who are trying to reach them.

“If I get a text, I feel like I have to respond it right away,” said Annette Dijamco, sophomore majoring in Business Management. “Funny thing is that most of the times, however, the person texting me during class is my mom. She is at work, I am in class, and we still talk all day through text messages.”

This urgency of responding to others in a split second, and the need to be constantly engaging in conversations through social media and text messaging, is definitely a result of the fast-paced, multi-tasking, electronic culture that we live in. It is normal for students to get “burned out” during a class lecture, and to engage in other activities to entertain and distract themselves until they leave the classroom. However, they went from passing notes to texting each other and from drawing on a piece of paper to playing “Angry Birds” on their smartphones.

Colleges, however, are adapting to the modern world of technology and now most of the students’ classwork needs some sort of program or technology in order to be completed. 

“Students’ academic lives now also require them to rely on and be end-users of technology,” said Vallier. “For example, producing projects requires flashy graphics and computer programs, assignments and class discussion requires ANGEL, and essays and homework must always, for most professors, be typed and submitted online.”

Even communication between instructors and their students now relies on technology and its devices. Emails, according to professors, are the best way of reaching one another. Asking questions regarding the class, informing students about changes in the syllabus and deadlines, making announcements about class cancellation or events coming up, informing the teacher about absences, etc. are some of the things that can be easily accomplished through the exchange of emails.

According to the professors, technology can definitely facilitate communication outside the classroom. However, smartphone use does not offer any benefit while they are trying to do their work of sharing knowledge and providing lectures to students. According to students, smartphones improve their interaction with friends and family because with text messaging and other mobile apps, they can instantly share everything from their daily lives. Although students are aware that using their smartphones during class is wrong and disrespectful, many of them still do it.

“By doing so [using smartphones] in class, students are not only being very disrespectful to us professors, but they are also harming themselves,” said Vallier. “It means they are missing out on learning; they believe they can do both, but so much learning is lost.”

The two other professors agree with such statement and believe that technology is eventually going to be built into the structure and planning of the college lectures.

“The internet could be useful if we all had access to it and could manage to use it in a positive way for learning matters,” said Hale.

With the fast and never-ending growth of technology production and the constant creation of new and more efficient “do-it-all” devices, it is probable that the next generations of students will keep relying on technology to perform schoolwork and communicate with others. College classrooms will most likely continue to have the presence of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices along with its students. It is a matter of whether the school system and instructors will find a common ground with these electronics and discover an effective technique of implementing them in the classroom in a way that benefits the learning experience.

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