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Wireless in the classroom

by Rhett McDaniel, Educational Technologist, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

With the lowering cost of portable computing devices and the widespread availability of wireless connection to the Internet, laptops are more frequently finding their way into college classrooms.

In the past, instructors could easily witness students passing notes, reading a magazine, or simply day dreaming during class. Now, laptops and other portable computing devices can create a barrier between the instructor and student, which can shield the student’s activity behind a veil of technology. Is the student taking careful notes? Searching web sites relevant to the class discussion?  Accessing the University’s course management system? It can be difficult for an instructor to distinguish these activities from virtual chatting with friends, updating a Facebook status, or shopping online.

Setting clear guidelines upfront by including a statement in your syllabus about the use of wireless devices is the first step in managing wireless in the classroom. Here are a few questions to guide you when thinking about what role wireless technologies will play in your classroom.

Will laptop computers be integrated into your classroom activities?
Laptops may make sense in some classes more than others. If your class is largely discussion based, then it may be appropriate to adopt a policy that limits or totally restricts the use of laptops in class.

Are course assignments posted electronically for students to access?
If your students will be accessing content and resources for your class via the content management system or if the class involves using a particular piece of software like Excel or Photoshop, then a stronger case might be made for the inclusion of laptops in class so that students can access these resources.

Is the class structure consistent from one meeting to the next?
A laptop policy does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It may be that laptops are more useful or acceptable during some class meetings than others. In these instances, a hybrid policy might be beneficial, where clearly defined ‘laptop’ and ‘non-laptop’ days are allocated, depending on that day’s activities.

Giving thoughtful consideration to these questions will also help you communicate to students why a policy is in place, potentially resulting in better acceptance of the guidelines.

Developing A Policy

Once you have determined the extent to which you want to use wireless technology for class, you will want to develop a supporting policy statement for your syllabus. This could take many forms, and depending on the nature of your course, might include some or all of the following topic areas:

Purpose
Explain why have you implemented a policy.  It could be that the format of your class relies heavily on discussion or other activities from which wireless devices would distract. This is a great opportunity to explain your teaching philosophy and expectations for student behavior during class.

Definitions
State clearly what devices your policy prohibits: laptops, cell phones, Blackberries, iPods, iPhones, mini computers, etc.

Usage
Perhaps there will be occasions where wireless would enhance the class session. If so, describe when wireless in the classroom is allowable. If the syllabus is organized by class session, a sentence could easily be added that indicates during which sessions wireless is allowed.

Responsibilities
Some policies simply require students to put the lid down on the laptop during class discussion time. What behaviors will you expect from students? Should they leave their devices at home? Will students who want simply to take notes be permitted to use the laptop, but not an Internet connection?

Procedures
If laptops and other wireless devises are allowed in class, how will the use be managed? Will students be able to connect the laptop to a power outlet or only use batter power? Will students be asked to sit in a designated area to use these devices, as to minimize the distractions to others?

Consequences
Clearly state the consequences students will face when they do not adhere to the policy. Will there be grade reductions or other penalties for not following the policy? Also, make sure the penalties are enforceable and that you are willing to follow through with them.

Exemptions
Keep in mind any legitimate reasons a student might have that require a laptop or other wireless electronic device for class. The policy should not be so restrictive that it impedes the rights of those students with special needs or does not make allowance for ADA compliance.

Statement Examples

Seeing how others have written guidelines and polices around the topic of wireless in the classroom may help as you construct your own policy. The following examples illustrate how other instructors and institutions have developed their statements.

  • Vanderbilt’s Acceptable Use Policy has text that can easily be incorporated into a syllabus to explain student computing privileges and responsibilities.

Instructional Strategies

In addition to a written policy, there are also techniques you can incorporate into your teaching that will help you manage students’ use of wireless in the classroom. One simple technique is to have a screen-up and screen-down time in order to focus student attention. This strategy, as well as others can be found by exploring the links below.

Wireless in the Classroom: Advice for Faculty is a rescource developed by the University of Wisconsin–Madison that provides a list of best practices aimed at reducing classroom distractions.

The Learning Teaching Center at the University of Dayton has also developed Best Practices for an e-Classroom for faculty considering the use of laptops in class.

Leveraging wireless technology in your class is another way to help manage their use during class. Associate Professor of Psychology at Ball State University, Lisa Huffman, tells how she uses wireless technology in the classroom.

The Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group has developed a collection of instructional strateges for teaching with technology based on Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” This rich resource is contains an assortment of practical ideas you can incorporate into your teaching.

Mark Sample’s article from the ProfHacker blog gives some good advice about Best Practices for Laptops in the Classroom.

What Are Other Instructors Saying About Wireless in the Classroom?

  • José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts, has challenged his colleagues to “teach naked” by removing all the computers from his classrooms, as he talks about in this July 20, 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article, “When Computers Leave the Classroom, So Does Boredom.”

What Are Students Saying About Wireless in the Classroom?

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan, associate professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, asked his students to create videos about the use of laptops in the classroom. Below are two of the student projects, which reveal many of the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of their fellow students.

Student Considerations

While students may be comfortable using laptops for personal use and for homework, many have not discovered how to apply the power of wireless technology to help them learn. Therefore, in addition to the use policy, it may be helpful to also give students suggestions for best practices when using technology in class.

In spring 2007, Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University, worked with his students create a video for YouTube that features the results of a student survey. The video illustrates, to the dismay of many, the multiple factors that distract student attention and how they can lead to disengagement during class.

The decision to allow or restrict use of wireless technologies in class can be a complex one. Policies will likely differ among your colleagues and may even differ for yourself among the courses you teach. Don’t hesitate to contact the CFT if you are part of the Vanderbilt instructional community and would like to talk further with one of our consultants about this topic.

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