Lenny Gonzales

By Doug Ward

If you want to see a teacher fume, just bring up the topic of cell phones in class.

Technology, especially social media and text messaging, competes for students’ attention as never before. When half of social media users say they check messages from bed, and 11 percent of those 25 or younger are willing to interrupt sex for a Twitter or Facebook message, what chance do teachers have of keeping students’ attention in class?

Then again, teachers often have their own problems paying attention.

We chide students for texting in class but then encourage them to tweet. We force students to put away their phones when we lead class discussions but then immerse ourselves in our own screens when colleagues speak. At meetings of all sorts, we have accepted a new posture: heads down, fingers tapping out words, eyes awaiting responses. Faculty members have adopted many of the same habits they condemn in their students.

It seems, then, that everyone, teachers and students alike, need to find new ground rules on how to engage when real and online life collide.


At the recent Journalism Interactive conference, for instance, an array of speakers grappled with the role of technology in the classroom, with the use of tech in the news media, its influence on teaching and learning, and its opportunities and frustrations.

Audience members — mostly professors — sat heads down, eyes trained on smartphones, tablets and laptops. At the front of the room, panel members tweeted, checked messages from the audience, and followed the conference Twitter stream. It was hard to tell whether anyone was paying attention.

None of this was surprising. Promos for the conference encouraged participants to bring their gadgets. And this was, after all, a gathering of journalists, who crave constant information. With my own iPad and keyboard, I took copious notes and occasionally checked the live blog, the electronic schedule and, uh-hum, my email.

I began to wonder whether in our haste to share and record we haven’t lost something. When we live tweet, are we truly paying attention? Has technology focused us so much on the 140-character sound bite that we miss the bigger message or even the dinner table conversation? Are we becoming so hooked on the thrill of speed and immediacy that we are losing our sense of context?

More broadly, have we lost the ability to be present, to listen and pay attention — really pay attention — to make connections and ponder ramifications?


I have no intention of condemning technology. Tweeting and live blogging during events can create a broader conversation, and can allow audience members to participate more easily and to ask questions and make observations that might otherwise fade away. They can be excellent tools for teaching and learning. They also create a potentially valuable archive.

And yet, the rules of etiquette have grown murky, in the classroom, the auditorium and nearly everywhere else that people gather. A recent conversation with a colleague about how students engaged with a guest speaker in a class drove that point home for me. The colleague had asked students to live tweet the event, something that made one student seem especially uncomfortable. As classmates and even the speaker tweeted, that lone student sat and watched, looking disturbed, even pained.

To a degree, I understood. The student was being asked to do the very thing most professors had warned about not doing in other classes. As professors, we expect our students to pay attention to classroom conversations rather than monitor their phones or pass personal notes via text message. Some professors have asked students to check in their cell phones before class. Some don’t even allow laptop computers because students have trouble resisting the siren song of Facebook.

Students themselves have expressed concern about the boundaries and ramifications of technology. At my own university, the Student Senate recently polled faculty members about classroom technology use and asked about the usefulness of policy recommendations that professors could add to syllabuses. The announcement for the poll said students were confused by a wide variety of policies and practices across campus.


We want our students to be engaged because engagement fosters learning. And yet the rules of engagement are changing — in education, in business, in life. We once knew and accepted the unwritten standards of etiquette: When a speaker spoke, we paid attention. We may have taken notes, but we listened respectfully, eyes forward. Being present and attentive was simple courtesy.

Now, though, we’re redrawing boundaries without discussing why the original ones existed in the first place — or understanding what impact the new boundaries may have. Our tolerance and our culture are changing one tweet at a time.

It’s something we need to pay attention to.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the Budig Professor of Writing at the University of Kansas. He is the author of “A New Brand of Business: Charles Coolidge Parlin, Curtis Publishing Company, and the Origins of Market Research” and a former editor at The New York Times.

This story was originally published by PBS MediaShift, covering the intersection of media and technology. Follow @PBSMediaShift for Twitter updates, or join us on Facebook
  • Maureen Devlin

    I have been grappling with this issue as well.  Tweeting during lectures can definitely increase engagement, interest, knowledge and processing–it takes a passive activity and makes it an active, engaging learning event.  Learning increases and it’s possible that follow-up action and response increases too.  It makes a potentially dull and frustrating event, an engaging, fruitful endeavor.  For the lecturer though, it changes the event as he/she is speaking to a wider audience, potentially a world-wide audience.  Each word has to be carefully crafted and planned. 

    The answer to this new question probably lies in the design and intent of learning venues.  No longer can a lecturer drone on and on with the audience captive–lecturers have to understand their audience well, prepare their words and presentation with care and leave room for tweets and outside activity.More pointed, small scale learning activities might be the place for tighter, shared protocols related to the goal of the endeavor  These small scale information shares and/or creativity forums rely on the full participation of all participants.  Hence all should be part of the protocol creation.Lectures that prompt students to engage online with off-topic Facebook, iTunes, Youtube and other media, might be lectures that are best presented in webinars on other online formats that students can access in a way that promotes learning best.Cognitive research and technology is changing the way we design learning venues which in turn will change the etiquette, protocols and plans we expect related to those venues.  I don’t want to place courtesy ahead of learning in these venues–let’s find ways where the two work together for best effect

  • Debbie Gallo

    We shouldn’t undervalue the basic animal skills we have relied on for eons-our senses-to encode and decode information.  We gather and process so much more through sight, smell, sound, taste and touch than we do through print! 

  • Rosalinda

    While some use of technology in the classroom is useful, full-time use in the student’s hands can be distracting.  While Maureen Devlin made the point of the droning lecturer; we can all recall a teacher or two that intrigued us, even captivated us, so much that we ended liking the dreaded subject, before the PT era (pre-tweet).  So, it’s the lecturer’s love and knowledge of the subject being pass on that keeps you interested.    

  • open it all up – the tech is still so new the people in charge of it will be the young – crystallising behaviour about the right or wrong way to use these powerful tools is wrong – its harder perhaps to teach in a traditional way with these forms of technology around us so perhaps the teaching must change to reflect and accommodate it not just to ban it…

  • Over the last few years, I’ve observed a very noticeable increase in the number of students who feel compelled to check their smartphones during class. If it happens very briefly over the course of two hours, it’s not such a big deal, but when they’re constantly allowing themselves to be interrupted and replying back to the point where their brains are completely out of class, there’s a problem and the teacher needs to step in.

    Notice how I phrased it: students ARE ALLOWING THEMSELVES to be interrupted. The phone doesn’t fly out of their pockets and hit them on the head, demanding to be looked at. It’s a choice: we can either manage the technology wisely, using it when we should and not using it when we shouldn’t, or let ourselves develop habits that will come back to bite us.

    It’s obvious (one would hope) that texting and driving is a bad habit. According to “Are We Digital Dummies?”, a CBC documentary ( http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/doczone/2010/digitaldummies ), drivers are up to 23 times more likely to get into a car accident if they’re doing it. Next time you’re stopped at a red light, take a glance around you and see what people are doing at the wheel: they’re looking down at their smartphones, doing whatever, carrying on the inane conversation that they started at the office or at school, finishing that email that they didn’t finish because they blew 2 hours at work Facebooking. And when the light changes to green, watch how so many of them are delayed at figuring out what to do or what pedal to press.

    Texting in class: bad habit. From a pedagogical standpoint, it’s a huge distraction for the student. From a basic etiquette standpoint, it communicates to the teacher and classmates, “What I’m doing on my smartphone is more important than what we’re doing in class.” So why come to class? Stay home and negotiate that important contract or console your friend at the loss of his poodle. But 99% of the time, it’s NOT important: it’s an inane conversation that they have just because they can have it, and they’ve made it a habit to carry on that conversation anytime, anywhere – simply by virtue of the fact that they can.

    I’m not saying that smartphones don’t have a place in education, even in class. They can be a great enhancement to a classroom task. For example, having students work in groups, with one student using a smartphone to pull up some information (e.g., from an online newspaper) that is required of the group. Or asking a student to pull up a Google Doc, show it to you or a classmate for revising/editing and making on-the-fly changes. In such a manner, it becomes a helpful TOOL.

  • Kyle

    I’ve grappled with the idea of my students being distracted with technology as I prepare for my course in the summer term of 2012.  As a doctoral student, I still, to this day, distract myself with the devices in front of me.  My approach is this as a teacher: If we want students to be engaged with course content but provide them the networked experience that they’re seeking as their distraction, we should provide an online environment that fills that need and supports educational objectives at the same time.

    I’ve requested a computer lab for my classroom so as to provide 1-to-1 computers for each of my students.  I plan on providing this networked online experience in one of two ways: 1) encourage students to login to Adobe Connect when they get comfortable in the classroom or 2) use the interactive, Facebook-like course website (powered by WordPress and BuddyPress) to engage with their class peers, ask questions, ruminate on the lecture or activities, etc.

    My assumption here is that providing an alternate, stimulating, technologically enabled learning experience different from that of their personal social networks will help to fill whatever void they’re filling by checking their phones et al. ever five seconds.

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