Devices in the classroom? Things to consider

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Alison SimmonsAlison Simmons, Samuel H. Wolcott Professor of Philosophy, made a decision in 2012 to include a policy in all her syllabi stating that electronic devices be put away during class time.

The benefits: Without distractions, her students are more actively engaged. “Philosophical discussion is a team sport that requires refraining from conversation and activities that do not contribute to the discussion, actively listening to each other, and working with each other."

The challenges: It may not be realistic to stick to a primarily tech-free conversation (“I can't do this forever. I’m going to have to use texts online, as much as I would like students to handle the physical object.”) but she worries that the growing prevalence of digital, verbatim note-taking means students are not synthesizing concepts and putting off the actual learning for later.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Simmons uses humor in the first class meeting to dispel any misunderstanding about whether instructors see student attempts to use devices discretely: “I say, ‘I know you think you can text and I don’t know about it, but nobody looks at their lap and laughs.’”
  • She encourages students to meet with the instruction team for special requests to use a note-taking device. Though she’s prepared to make a modified arrangement, she’s never received a request.
  • On occasion, she will ask that students access a piece of information on their device, allowing some flexibility to utilize technology at key moments.

Bottom line: Candid discussion about the policy and the ways in which devices can enhance – or detract from – learning gives students ownership of their classroom experience. “Something is missing in the classroom with overuse of devices. This is a time that we have together to talk about ideas, and it's kind of rare. We want to use it in the best way that we can.”