Technology has become an integral part of students’ lives. Students use devices – such as smart phones, tablets, and laptops – to take notes, record lectures, access course material, relieve boredom, take a mental break from challenging content, and participate in instructor-led learning activities (Bolkan & Griffin, 2017; Gupta & Irwin, 2016; Langan et al., 2016; Zaza & Neiterman, 2017). Instructors can leverage such educational technologies in class to enhance learning and increase student engagement.
Research shows that class-related technology use is not particularly bothersome to most students (e.g., the sound of typing) (Zaza & Neiterman, 2017). The problem arises when students use technology for off-task purposes for prolonged periods of time in class – for example, watching a movie or a sports event, or social media. This usage distracts not only the student but also those around them. This is different than quickly checking for a text or email (Zaza & Neiterman, 2017). Accordingly, the question is not whether to allow technology in the classroom but rather how to minimize inappropriate off-task use of technology in class. This tip sheet will address common questions about what instructors can and cannot do to manage and minimize this problem of off-task technology use in the classroom.
Can I ban all students from using laptops in my classroom?
No. Banning technology in the classroom is a human rights violation. For many students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or other disabilities, a laptop is an appropriate accommodation. Policy 58 - Accessibility upholds the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the Ontario Human Rights Code and other legislation that supports the rights of individuals with disabilities. As a result, banning laptops would violate the legal human rights of these students, and is therefore not an option. Moreover, even if banning laptops in the classroom were permissible, it’s not feasible to enforce a laptop ban in large classes, and would not solve the problem because students could still use their phones more surreptitiously. Research shows that strict methods of controlling technology are not always effective (Santos et al., 2018) or recommended (Gupta & Irwin, 2016).
Can I ban laptops from my classroom for everyone except students registered with AccessAbility Services?
No. Banning technology for everyone except those who need it violates an individual’s right to keep their disability private. Banning laptops for all students except the ones registered with AccessAbility Services would essentially makes some students’ disabilities evident to others. Moreover, many students with disabilities choose not to register with AccessAbility Services but are nonetheless protected by the provincial legislation regarding appropriate accommodations. Laptops and smart phones also benefit students who do not have a disability: for example, these devices enable students who are not fluent in English to quickly look up a word during class
If I check with my students who have disabilities to see if they ok with me banning laptops for other students, can I ban laptops for other students?
No. As stated in Policy 58 - Accessibility and legislation, privacy is of utmost importance. Students with disabilities must not be asked to disclose their disability or need for accommodations to their instructor; instead, AccessAbility Services communicates the need for accommodations to instructors. Due to the real or perceived power differential between instructors and students with disabilities, instructors should not put students in a position where they might feel coerced. In addition, instructors might not even know which students in their class use a laptop for accommodation purposes but have not registered with AccessAbility Services.
Can I penalize students (i.e., deduct a point from their final grade) who use their phone or laptop during class for off-task activities?
There is a difference between quickly checking and responding to a text or email message and watching a Netflix movie or a hockey game in class. It is not advisable or reasonable to take away grades from a student who quickly checks their phone during class: some students are dealing with stressful personal, family, or medical situations. It is, however, reasonable for students who are, say, watching a hockey game during class to receive a lower grade because being attentive to others is one way to demonstrate participation and engagement
Can I ask students to close their laptops during certain class activities?
Sometimes. You can require laptops to be closed during quizzes or midterms, just as you can require textbooks to be closed or packed away. In such circumstances, students who are registered with AccessAbility Services, and who require the use of a laptop, are able to make alternative arrangements for writing the quiz or midterm.
What can I do if students complain about inappropriate visual content on other students’ screens?
Instructors should direct students to refrain from offensive or any other off-task activities that are distracting to others in class because University Policy 33 (“Ethical Behaviour”) states that “no member of the University community (faculty, staff, student) may unduly interfere with the study, work or working environment of other members of the University or any aspect of another’s University activity.” The policy adds that “A ‘poisoned environment’ (or one that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive) can be created based on any of the prohibited grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and can be described as comment or conduct that is contrary to the aims of maintaining a supportive, respectful and tolerant environment.” Using a laptop to view potentially offensive or inappropriate images during class could certainly contravene this policy.
What can I do to minimize the distractions caused by students’ technology use in class?
- Involve students
- Involve students in setting the ground rules for technology-use in class and check in with your students through the term to see if off-task technology-use is increasing. You can also explain how the off-task use of technology distracts you while you are teaching (if it does).
- Invite students to complete an anonymous survey where they can report distractions from off-task use of technology in class, then report the results of the survey to the class so that students who use technology for off-task purposes can see how their behaviour affects their peers.
- Use engaging learning activities. Avoid passive instructional methods such as reading from slides. Lectures can be engaging [See Lecturing Effectively, Teaching Metacognitive Skills, Activities for Large Classes]
- Be explicit about your expectations. Include a statement in the course outline that explains your expectations for technology-use in class and talk to students about this. Explain how off-task technology-use negatively affects the learning environment not just for them, but for their classmates. Don’t try to establish a class policy that you can’t enforce.
- Identify designated seating area for students who use technology for off-task purposes. Offer seats at the sides of the classroom for those who use technology but recognize that some students who use technology need to sit close to the front of the class. Consider showing this 35-second video, Screen your seats, in class to explain how and why students should use designated seating.
- Integrate technology into your teaching. Using technology for the purpose of learning has been shown to decrease off-task use. Ask students to look up information online. Consider using Kahoot, clickers, or other audience response tools that will allow students to use their devices to engage with the course material. The Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) offers advice on how to integrate educational technologies in your teaching.
- Provide breaks from lecturing. Research shows off-task technology use is less prevalent in classrooms which offer engagement and breaks from traditional lecturing. Especially if you are teaching a lot of complex concepts in a short period of time, students who feel overwhelmed may need to “tune out” by using the technology. Break up a long lecture by giving short breaks and/or by integrating learning activities. CTE offers a variety of ideas on how to introduce active learning into the large classroom.
- Recognize that, like many of us, students use technology for a variety of reasons, including dealing with personal and family problems. Most likely, many students will check their email briefly during class, even if your lecture is super engaging and interesting.
Gupta, N. & Irwin, J.D. (2016). In-class distractions: The role of Facebook and the primary learning task. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 1165-1178.
Kay RH, Lauricella S. Unstructured vs. structured use of laptops in higher education. . Journal of Information Technology Education. 2011;10(1):33-42.
Ledbetter AM, Finn AN. Why Do Students Use Mobile Technology for Social Purposes during Class? Modeling Teaching Credibility, Learner Empowerment, and Online Communication Attitude as Predictors. Communication Education. 2016;65(1):1-23
Santos, I., Bocheco, O., & Habak, C. (2018). A survey of student and instructor perceptions of personal mobile technology usage and policies for the classroom. Education and Information Technologies, 23, 617-632.
Zaza, C. & Neiterman, E. (2017). What should we do about laptops in classroom? A Survey of Behaviours and Attitudes in AHS? Presentation delivered at the 2017 Teaching and Learning Conference, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON.
- University of Waterloo Policy 33, “Ethical Behaviour.”
Centre for Teaching Excellence blog post: Notes v. Maps: Trading Quantity for Quality by Chris Ray.
- Centre for Teaching Excellence: Laptops in the classroom: a virtue or vice?
- Screen your seats video that explains to students how and why to use a designated seating area for students who use technology for off-task purpose
- Centre for Teaching Excellence: Educational Technologies
- Centre for Teaching Excellence: Active Learning Activities
- Kerr, B. Taking notes in class: Laptops vs Handwriting. Of Tech and Learning, May 4, 2016.
- Weimer, M. A memo to my students as the new semester begins. Faculty Focus, August 23, 2017.
- Tackling Distractions: Tips for Students (PDF)
- Tackling Distractions: Tips for Instructors (PDF)
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Managing Students’ Use of Technology in the Classroom. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.