Teaching Resources

Laptops & Mobile Devices in In-person Courses

Resource Overview

Considerations when developing policies for your in-person course on laptops & mobile devices

While some instructors welcome the use of laptops or other devices to increase student engagement, foster collaboration, and facilitate practice of key skills, others express concern that students are using these devices for non-course-related activities that distract them from paying attention during class. The latter concern is borne out by studies—of WUSTL students and of students at other universities—that demonstrate that students frequently use these devices in class for non-course related activities, despite the fact that they recognize such device-use can be distracting (see Laptop Use in Class: Effects on Student Learning and Attention).

Setting course policies limiting the use of laptops or other devices in class can be an essential component of creating and maintaining an environment in which all students have the maximum potential to focus on learning. A related issue, not discussed in detail in this article, relates to policies regarding the use of electronic devices during exams, quizzes, and other assessments, to prevent opportunities for cheating (see suggestions for this issue in Translating Your Exams Online).

Issues to Consider

As you are designing and refining your courses, think about how specific course policies can help you—and your students—create the classroom environment that will support the kind of learning and engagement that you see as essential to the success of the course. You might consider integrating the use of laptops and mobile devices into course-related activities, such as group work or active learning activities that require students to write, annotate, look up pertinent information, brainstorm, apply content, or post questions through their devices. Integrating technology can allow you to transform these devices into useful tools that can enhance, rather than detract from, student learning.

It may be helpful to keep in mind that students bring these devices to class for multiple reasons—for example, because they prefer to type their notes, rather than writing in a paper notebook; because they like to look up online information that is pertinent to the topics covered in class; and because they want to remain “connected” to friends and family via texting, email, and updates to social-networking profiles throughout the day—even during class. Students may also have documented disabilities that the Office of Disability Resources has identified as necessitating accommodations such as the ability to type notes on a laptop or to record lectures with recording devices (including those that are integrated into mobile devices such as laptops). In the latter case, the Office of Disability Resources will communicate with you about the appropriate accommodations.

Possible Approaches

Policies on the use of laptops and other devices can take a number of different forms, including the following:

  • Encourage students to limit their use of laptops and other devices for activities that are not related to their learning in the course. This approach could begin with adding to your syllabus “digital-etiquette” reminders, such as directing students to turn off ring-tones and other audible alerts on their cell-phones before class begins (Cordell, 2011). It could also include prohibiting the use of devices for non-course related activities such as texting, emailing, using social-networking applications and sites, and playing games. However, such prohibitions will be difficult to enforce, particularly in larger classes. Therefore, you might instead focus on strategies for discouraging “off-task” use of devices, including adopting active learning methods in which you incorporate frequent interactions with students via questions, problem solving, or small-group work.
  • Often, the best way to encourage students to stay “on-task” when they are using their laptops in class is to engage students in thinking about how their conduct affects the classroom learning environment. For example, you might point out to students that their use of laptops and other devices can be distracting to their peers and can even hinder learning. On these points, you might find it helpful to cite the findings discussed in Laptop Use in Class: Effects on Student Learning and Attention. Discussing these issues is an important means of encouraging collegiality and mutual accountability—and thus everyone’s equal access to learn and to participate (Curzan 2014).
  • Create a “laptop-free zone” by reserving a space for students who do not use laptops and do not want to be distracted by seeing other students’ laptop screens during class (Zhu et al., 2011). This space should be at the front of the room, so that the students who choose to sit there will not be forced to see other students’ screens or other distractions related to the use of mobile technology devices.
  • Designate “screen-down” times, or periods when students should shut down and put away their devices. Ask students to close their screens or turn off their devices during group discussions or presentations, for instance. In-class quizzes and exams are usually also times when you must ask students to turn off and put away their devices, in order to prevent cheating and create a fair learning environment for all.
  • Prohibit the use of laptops and other mobile technology devices in class. For one example of this approach, see Curzan (2014). Perhaps you teach a small, discussion-based course, for example, in which using such devices could prevent students from fully engaging in class discussions. If you are planning to prohibit technology-device use, however, you should anticipate how you will handle any requests to use such devices, as a part of accommodations requested for a student by the Office of Disability Resources. Simply making an exception in such cases may not be the best alternative, since the exception could make a disability “visible,” when it is not otherwise apparent, and lead a student to feel self-conscious or singled-out. It may be preferable, then, to adopt a more flexible policy from the beginning, such as allowing devices only for certain uses, such as taking notes.
  • Include in your syllabus specific guidance on whether students may ask your permission to use their devices to record audio or video during class. Many devices include the capability to record audio and video in a manner that may not be obvious to others. If you do not wish students to record audio and video in class, make that clear on your syllabus and in your opening remarks to students on the first day. If you do allow students to record audio and video—perhaps to supplement note-taking on paper, we recommend that you establish a process for students to 1) obtain your consent for such recording and 2) agree to not distribute the recorded material (or agree to record it only for their own individual use in studying or completing course requirements). For example, you might ask students to indicate, via a signed form, that they will not post the material online or that they will video- or audio-record only your lecture, not other students (who may not have had the opportunity to consent to being recorded).

Communication with Students

Communicate with students about course policies, including those related to the use of electronic devices in class, from the very beginning of the semester. Making your expectations, and the rationale behind those expectations, clear from the outset will make it much easier to address any problems as they occur.

The syllabus should include these policies in writing, as well as specific consequences that will occur in the event that students violate the policies. If you grade class participation, for example, consider whether repeated violations will affect the class-participation grade. Whether or not you grade participation, as soon as any problems occur, speak with students individually to discuss how the conduct is affecting other students and the class atmosphere as a whole.

Give your students regular opportunities to inform you about any issues that arise regarding the use of laptops and other devices—as well as anything else that may be affecting their learning. Encourage students to come speak to you if they have any concerns throughout the semester. In addition, give students opportunities to communicate this information anonymously, in case they would like to report that other students’ use of devices is distracting, but do not wish to identify themselves as the source of that information. Midterm evaluations are a useful means of gathering anonymous feedback on these and any issues related to the course. Gathering feedback at midterm allows you to make adjustments and to demonstrate that you take your students’ ideas and responses seriously (for further discussion and suggestions, see our online resource, Feedback on Teaching).

For additional ideas, please see the references below. Faculty who would like to discuss ideas for integrating in-class student use of technology into a course, or issues related to establishing course policies related to in-class use of technology devices, may contact us for a consultation.


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