Thursday, September 29, 2016

How to deal with digital devices in the classroom? Is an Acceptable Use Policy worth trying?

Does this scene look familiar?  I'm sure virtually every teacher on the planet can identify with the situation in the class below.

Nowadays, because almost every student has their own digital device,  having them in the classroom can cause a lot of tension and angst if they get in the way of learning.  On one hand, these devices can be extremely powerful agents for learning.  On the other hand, there is a tendency for students to use them primarily for social or entertainment purposes which detracts from the learning environment in class. What is more, the base needs Maslow proposed for learning to take place seems to have evolved to having a fully charged battery and WiFi access as prerequisite.

One obvious way to deal with this is to ban the phones completely.  It is an effective solution in terms of classroom management, but it does little to help students learn how to manage their personal use of digital devices, which if left unchecked can develop into what one could label as a serious addiction.

One approach that has emerged in the K-12 sector in America is to develop a Responsible Use Policy (also known as an Acceptable Use Policy). Here is one example  which includes a detailed guide in PDF.  However, most of these are based on the K-12 context in American schools and are generally school wide rather than classroom specific.

My teaching partner and I were experiencing classroom management issues related to the misuse/abuse of mobile phones in our second semester English pre-intermediate level group. In our institution, these groups are problematic at the best of times, as students with two distinct language abilities from the first semester are combined into one class for the second semester. Students who have not met the threshold to advance to intermediate from the previous semester's elementary level are put together with the previous semester's beginner students who did not make it to the accelerated pre-intermediate group. This causes a certain amount of tension in the general class dynamics, and the prior elementary students, who end up repeating much of what they did (or did not) learn, in particular have a mindset that makes them more likely to misuse their digital devices. 

Rather than banning the phones, I convinced my teaching partner to try implementing a Responsible Use Policy in our class.  The idea was to attempt to get all the students, regardless of their previous semester groups, to collectively agree on what was acceptable use of digital technologies in class for their mutual benefit.  This is what we did in our class.
  1. I found a reading about the advantages and disadvantages of digital devices in the classroom and I made into an activity for students to give them ideas about the PROs and CONs of using digital devices in classrooms
  2. After reading, I got them into groups around podboards, and they drew up a table with two columns-in one column they focused on the appropriate use of mobile devices in classroom, and how the students could be 'rewarded' or 'encouraged' to continue such positive uses. In the other column, they listed the inappropriate use of mobile phones, and how students could be 'trained' or 'punished' to avoid such inappropriate behaviour. 
  3. We then had a role play -- one student, one school administrator, and one teacher. They prepared their ideas in groups first, and then we had the role play.  (This is a rather traditional technique, but perhaps trying something like Socratic Circles might be an more engaging alternative.)
  4. I sort of helped to shape their ideas by asking relevant questions as I went around to monitor the groups,  I then took the list of ideas which emerged from this and then produced a Responsible Use Policy, which the students had to sign. If they didn't sign, then they forfeited their right to use their mobile phone and would deposit them in a box at the front of the class. 
  5. We appointed 'monitors' to keep an eye on students, and students would get a warning for inappropriate use. After a second warning, they would lose the right to use their phone for a specified amount of time. 
In all, this took about one class hour, and it seemed worth spending the time as it worked to a degree for most students. However, one student refused to sign the agreement because he had missed the group work session and felt that restricting access to their digital device was a violation of his human rights. :) One of the more obstreperous elementary students was particularly predisposed to rebel against authority. Although he signed the agreement, he obviously had no intention of honoring the policy. He used the infrared option on his smartphone to control the data projector, which he kept turning off in the middle of class. In fact, it was only when one of the students spoke in confidence to my teaching partner and I about it that we realized what was going on.

So the idea of a Responsible Use Policy might work with a majority of students in a class, but there will always be one or two who balk at the thought of anyone restricting their access to digital technologies. In our pre-intermediate level group experience, the entire class knew that one student was misusing his phone to control the data projector but all, bar one student, chose not to report him. As such, all had failed in observing the AUP, so in the end we implemented a class ban on mobile phones. I think that is why most teachers just enforce a blanket ban on the use of them in class in the first place.  No matter how hard one tries to accommodate digital devices in class, the temptation to abuse them in class inevitably results in resorting to some sort of ban.

Upon reflection, I think it might work better at the start of the year before students have developed bad habits. The second semester pre-intermediate group was not an ideal group to try it in, as the 'demoted' elementary students tended to have a negative attitude to almost anything we tried in class. However, something like this might work better in the first semester at the start of the year, particularly with beginner students.  Perhaps this will help them cultivate good practice in the use of digital technologies from day one. In this case, it might need to be done in the students' L1, as it is more about learning training than language development. In the K-12 context, the AUP is generally an institutional policy. However, I feel that a class-by-class AUP approach might be more appropriate here at the post-secondary level. That is, it is something that might be better left to each teaching partnership to negotiate with the students in their class.

This issue of acceptable/responsible use of digital technology in classrooms will not go away, and it will only get more prominent as technology become wearable. To be honest, to me it seem a bit like telling students about the dangers of smoking -- they all know that smoking is unhealthy, but once they become addicted it is difficult to break the habit. I fear that many students are not just dependent but are becoming addicted to their personal digital technologies

We can find short-term solutions to minimize the effects of this addiction in the classroom.  However, is it our responsibility as educators to try to help students overcome or at least learn how to control the power that digital devices are having on their every waking moment?  Perhaps the recent trend to introduce mindfulness into the classroom would be an approach that would address a host of issues, of which digital device addiction is only one element.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Steve and Melek – I read the bog and found it interesting. I also like the look of Mr Dock! Perhaps we could make a Mrs Dock or a matching His & Hers version!
    The question I often ask myself when I'm teaching and when students are using their smart phones in class is: 'what are they actually doing?' Call me curious or just plain nosy -either which - I wish i could just casually ask my students this question without them immediately putting the phone down or away and looking like they have done something wrong and are about to be told off!
    i like the idea of students discussing the pros and cons of mobile phone use in the classroom - it sounds like a helpful way to raise both learners' and instructors' awareness about learning and teaching environments. I was also thinking that doing a class activity where students build up a detailed picture of how smart phones are being used in the world today might help to alleviate some of the negative use of smart phone use in class and might give them (and us) some better ideas on how to cultivate learners' "smart use of smart phones"! If/when I get a chance in the program to do this activity, I'll try it out with my learners and see what happens. I'll blog back if anything interesting pops up!