Acceptable technology in the classroom: let students decide

 Simon Bates and Alison Lister, University of British Columbia  

Many faculty have issues with personal technology that students bring to class, and the things that students use these devices for during class time. Some may even have some sympathy with the powerfully distracting lure of glowing screens: have you really never checked or sent emails, Tweets or texts in a less-than-riveting meeting? 

One approach we have trialled for the first time this year in one of our large class (~250 students per section) intro physics courses is to ask the students themselves to collaboratively define the acceptable use guidelines for technology in the classroom. Once agreed, this charter is then posted publicly on the course website and students are reminded that they should feel empowered to have a word with those who transgress.

Collaborative online authoring environments, such a GoogleDocs or a wiki space, make the logistics of developing the guidelines feasible for any number of students to contribute outside class hours. We posted a publicly-accessible GoogleDoc with a skeleton framework of things for students to consider, together with one or two, we hoped, obvious and non-contentious groundrules (e.g. ‘anything that can make a noise, set to silent’) and some basic editing rules (e.g. do not erase what others have added, use a different color from previous comment). 

The link was publicized to the students in the first class meeting and on the course website. Around 75 edits were made over a 6 day period, showing true engagement of the class in the process. Issues that divided the class, such as where and for what laptops could be used in the class, were voted on in the session following the comment deadline, using clickers, and the agreed groundrules document was finalized and posted on the course website (and you can see a copy of it at ). 

This is still a work in progress and this course is ongoing, so we’re certainly not trying to claim that we can demonstrate the effectiveness of this activity as reducing off-task technology use (which would be very difficult to do in the absence of a baseline measure anyway). However, it feels like a step in the right direction, it terms of trying to work with, rather than fight against, the role of technology in the classroom. It also gives students a little more ownership of (and associated responsibility for) what goes on in classroom spaces. Anecdotally, not a single transgression of these guidelines has been observed in the two weeks following the adoption of these rules… let’s hope it stays that way!