Professors’ opinions changing on classroom smartphone use

BYU student Heidi Phelon said all her professors are open to students using smartphones in class. (Photo illustration by Maddi Driggs)

Some BYU professors think times are changing and banning smartphone use in class may be a lost cause.

Smartphones in class can be a distraction, but banning them outright may be a thing of the past, according to some BYU professors.

English professor Lisa Boswell said students’ smartphone use in classrooms has significantly changed over the last 10 years because the current generation has grown up with technology and can use it more responsibly.

Boswell’s class syllabus explains any student whose phone sounds during class is required to bring treats for classmates, though she does not strongly enforce this rule.

She said she is considering omitting this rule in the future because she often finds herself buying the treats — after her own cellphone sounds during class.

Classroom distractions have always existed, Boswell said. She said there are students who will browse the web during the entire class period, but before smartphones existed, the equivalent of this type of student would have been reading novels or comic books instead.

Boswell said cellphones can be a distraction, but are especially useful when used to find immediate info on a subject being discussed in class.

She said there is a downside to cellphone use in class regarding students’ interaction before class begins.

“You’ll have some classes that really talk a lot to each other, and you walk into other classes, and everybody is on their cellphone,” Boswell said. “You see that they’re not getting to know each other, and I think that’s a little sad because it’s more fun to have friends in class and have a little bit of camaraderie.”

A study published in The Journal of Media Education in 2016 reports students spend 20.9 percent of their time being distracted by smartphones, tablets and laptops, even though they admit this behavior is harmful to their academic performance.

BYU communications professor Kevin John said he is aware smartphones and other devices hinder learning, but believes it is the status quo. John said he has no problem with phones in class because his students are still responsible for knowing the lecture content.

He said he requires participation from all students during class discussions and is not afraid to call on a student using their phone to answer a question.

“If you have your phone out, I still expect you to participate at the same level of your other peers who don’t,” John said.

He said removing cellphones and other devices from his class environment would oppose the natural way of things and be counter to his goal of allowing students to use the tools at their disposal.

“They need to learn to discipline themselves in order to manage their time to use it,” John said. “I’m not dealing with a class of children. I’m dealing with a class of adults who have grown up around technology.”

John said technology enhances the learning experience if it is used to find information during a discussion.

BYU Spanish professor Nathan Gordon takes a slightly different approach.

He allows smartphones for class purposes, but has strong opinions about their misuse because he said students abuse their smartphone privileges.

“I get very frustrated when students text or use their smartphones for other unrelated purposes,” Gordon said.

Gordon said if he catches students using their smartphone in this way, he marks them absent or tardy for the day without any warning to the student.

“Most often, they miss pertinent information and instructions,” Gordon said. “What upsets me the most is when they do miss out on relevant information and subsequently feel a need to blame me because they did not hear something in class.”

He said this does not happen very often, but a student may get upset because they think Gordon did not discuss certain things in class.

BYU grad student Rebecca Fuchs said professors with smartphone rules are justified in their decisions because students are more attentive when not using their phones.

“I probably prefer to have the freedom to check my smartphone if an emergency arises, but I haven’t necessarily missed anything during class that couldn’t wait until after class,” Fuchs said.

BYU Spanish professor Gregory Stallings said he sees smartphones as an uncontrollable temptation for students.

He said he used to be open to students’ use of smartphones in class, but a few semesters ago, he noticed how distracting devices were becoming for students. Stallings said he has since put a rule against smartphones and other devices in his syllabus and implement it strictly.

“They get graded for participation at the end of the course,” Stallings said. “So if I see problems like that, it’s not going to be helpful for their final grade of participation.”

Public relations junior Cole Stephens said he believes rules governing smartphones in college classes are archaic. He said cellphones should not be a problem if they don’t disrupt the class.

Stephens said students participate more effectively if they can use the internet to access information. He said students should be allowed to choose whether or not they will use their phone.

“Forcing us to be engaged does not help us build personal restraint for the real world,” Stephens said. “I use my phone every class period. We live in a fast-paced society, and working on my phone allows me to stay up to date on conversations for internships, classes and news.”

Professors can avoid phone use in the classroom if there is increased student participation and opportunities to learn through action, according to Stephens.

Marketing graduate student William Taylor said he finds it helpful when there are rules against smartphone use in class because he pays more attention.

“I will use my cellphone in class from time to time, but it’s rarely for coursework, so that’s why it helps me to be restricted,” Taylor said.

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