Traction or distraction: phones in class

On LinkedIn’s Learning, Education, and Training Professionals group, two months ago, a member kicked off a discussion with this question:

Increasingly, we are finding that people bring their phones, computers and Blackberrys to class expecting that it will be OK to use them. How are you dealing with this issue?

I'm going to turn this off now.As of this morning, there are 83 contributions to the discussing.  Although I’ve disagreed strongly with some of the opinions and suggestions, I’ve come to see this question as yet another example of a complex problem–in other words, one without a single, correct solution.

Here’s my paraphrase of what several participants said.  To minimize my biases, I chose every 8th comment.  Well, I left out one, which happened to be my own.  (Just coincidence that it feel into the every-eighth sequence.)

  • I display a slide with logistics (breaks, fire exits, etc.) that asks people to turn off phones or at least put them on vibrate.
  • I show a humorous YouTube video and say this is what I did with the last phone that rang during my presentation. I make everyone take out their phone and turn them off in front of everyone.  I include a 20-30 minute break several times a day.
  • Ask the class to set the rules.  You are there to learn.  If people were on vacation instead of training, why would they check email?  They can do that during lunch.
  • Sometimes people are using BlackBerries and other devices to take notes.
  • Lately I don’t even mention phones.  I trust adults to act like adults.  I do like (another person’s) suggestion of asking people to turn them on to integrate outside information.
  • Set your phone to ring 3 minutes into the session.  Pretend to talk with the president of the company, who wants to know if everyone’s turned their phones off. Exception: if you expect the president to call, or if someone’s seriously ill. I also believe people are adults who must make their own decision.
  • There’s no right or wrong answer.  Some teaching strategies are still focused on a society that no longer exists.  Use appropriate technology at the appropriate time.
  • Go with the flow.  I can get irritated if a phone rings, but if the class is good and people are engaged, they’ll take their own responsibility.
  • I like letting the learners decide how to deal with device interruptions.

It's past time to put away your phone.I don’t do much formal instruction any more, by which I mean acting as the primary source (and predominant voice) in a scheduled learning event.  I’ve done quite a bit of that, but over time found that people seemed to learn best when I talked less and they did more.

Yes, when people are new to a topic, they generally need some grounding and some concepts.  Most of my experience is has not been with people new to the organization and the industry, however.  That means they tend to need less “before we begin” than a lot of instructors (and instructional designers) seem to think.  Even for a topic as information-dense as Amtrak’s reservation system, I found that a lean approach (less talking, more doing) suited the goal of having people able to use the system.

The LinkedIn discussion does provide a glimpse at the many ways that people working in this field view cell phones, PDAs (does anyone say PDA any more?), and smartphones.  (Almost none of the comments address computers as such.) I see a kind of clustering around “they’re here to learn (from me),” and a smaller one around “I’m here to help them learn.”

My own phone, like my computer, is as basic a tool as pen and paper.  Yes, I take paper notes, but when I have the choice, I take electronic ones so I can tag, search, re-use, copy, paste–all of which are tougher to do with PowerPoint handouts or handwritten notes.

I don’t want someone else telling me how to capture or retrieve information.   If they say things that I find condescending or just plain silly (“enter the world of civilized people,”  “phones are an interruption to learning”), I’ll get the message–though it may not be the one intended.

CC-licensed images:
Retro phone photo by Robert Bonnin.
Classroom sign photo by Ben+Sam.

4 thoughts on “Traction or distraction: phones in class

  1. So…I attended Canada’s 2nd offering of a civic camp 2 years ago in yyc (actually helped with a bit of the facilitation)and was introduced to life happening beyond the world of the room by what seemed like an upgraded open space tech – a wondrous experience for an openminded old fool-cilator (albeit the schizophrenics were expressing extreme caution – who are you talking to?)
    We facilitators were assigned a scribe and the scribe plucked away at keyboard, phone and camera shooting info to an upstairs pipeline. When we emerged with the other 12 groups from our church basement suite, the whole event was published, the conversations mapped with segues from twittering youth to and fro (ignoring silly structures like walls and physical participation), and the decisions to move Calgary was in full swing (as frequently explained in international news of late).
    This past week at yet another mind nourishing gathering, I went to meet, hear, swoon, sigh and capture the musings of Senge and Wheatley … in concert.
    I asked if there was a conference hashtag. ‘Huh? Oh, you need to talk to him, her, her, him…what’s a what did you say?’
    Beyond my need to do a (newly joined) #lrncht and the like, I should have been fully sated yet was chronically hungry for sharing the scraps.
    We were told to turn off and I didn’t, and got some grief when I looked like I wasn’t paying full homage to the homagees. There was one other in the group of 500 … and he flaunted his wee phone with aplomb.
    I am thankful that the “kids these days” are curiouser and curiouser and couldn’t give a damn about what people say about their incessant, spastic finger play.
    I have to suspend those age old judgements and fool around with the possibilities way more.
    I learned a lot in 1986 when I hired my first computer instructor for a short intro computer class (on Atari’s). He was 15. Taught me a ton and got me curious for the next um, lots of, years.
    We need to communicate, so say Wheatley and Senge. Let’s keep figuring out how.

  2. Iris,

    Not that long ago, I was unhappy about the idea of people using their laptop during conference sessions, much less liveblogging. Mostly that was because of the distraction factor: I’m a fast typist, myself, and I know both the rate and the incessant sound can distract others. I didn’t want to be stuck in the Linear B room next to half a dozen relentless typists.

    I’m still not crazy about the idea, but my focus is on the noise factor, a sort of auditory equivalent to, say, cologne. As a participant, I can’t do much about what you douse yourself with, nor how much you fidget, nor how you take notes.

    I’ve returned to the LinkedIn phone discussion, where it’s clear a majority of presenters/instructors/facilitators believe strongly that they know the best conditions for learning.

    Me, I’m not so sure I do. I’m convinced learning requires doing, and doing includes reprocessing. And if I decide that Evernote, Wikipedia, Twitter, or a Google search is part of that reprocessing, I’m honestly not that interested in how the presenter/instructor/facilitator feels about that.

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