Cutting the Technology Tether

Would implementing a tech-free day enhance or inhibit learning?

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

I teach college students and, this semester, I banned technology in my classroom. No phones. No tablets. No laptops. None—unless it was necessary for a specific in-class assignment.

I struggled with this decision. I love technology and spend way too much time on it myself. I recognize its many benefits and I’m fully aware of its many distractions. That is one of the reasons I made this decision.

In the classroom, technology provides a necessary assist for a handful of my students. For most of them, however, it’s an unnecessary distraction, and not only for the student using the technology, but for those around him as well. When students have laptops open in a classroom setting and give in to the inevitable urge to quickly check e-mail, Facebook or Instagram, everyone around that student is treated to the same distraction. Sure, they can look away, but a 15” backlit screen can be rather difficult to ignore.

In fact, that’s what inspired this decision. I got tired of watching capable students earn grades below the ones they should have earned through the self-sabotage of unnecessary laptop use. In one semester in particular, I had three young men, all seated in the same row, who struggled to crack a C in my class. All had the same major outside the subject area I teach, which meant they were a little out of their element to begin with. All were personable, attended class with a fair degree of regularity, and turned in assignments, producing decent papers when they weren’t under a time crunch. All three spent every class “taking notes” on laptops.

And every one of them struggled with exams.

Even if they were truly spending the whole class taking copious notes and dodging online temptation, doing so put them at a disadvantage. Research has shown that students who take notes on laptops often harbor the delusion that they can get all the words down. As a result, they approach note-taking not as an active pursuit, but rather an exercise in capturing the lesson word-for-word.

Students who take notes by hand, however, engage in some preliminary information processing before the words make it onto the page. Between hearing the words and writing them down, listeners filter the message through the brain, so what ends up on the page has a better chance of being conceptualized rather than captured verbatim, creating a product that is more personalized and in-depth than a word-for-word recitation.

I shared this information with my students when I made the announcement of my technology ban at the beginning of the semester. I also explicitly invited them to speak with me privately if they had a need for technology in the classroom, promising that we would work something out.

No one said a word. Even better, when students needed to break the laptop rule, as one student did when he sprained his wrist, they asked my explicit permission. In these instances, the laptop showed up as needed, and disappeared thereafter.

In an elementary- or middle-school classroom, I’d police my students, using proximity and redirecting those who weren’t using the technology for its intended purpose. But at the high-school level (and beyond), this is distracting, takes time away from instruction and, in some cases, is practically impossible due to classroom set-up (bigger bodies, narrow rows, shared classrooms that make reconfiguring a challenge), not to mention a higher level of sophistication at hiding their online pursuits. And, if these tools are going to be a part of our students’ lives, at some point, they need to learn how to develop some sense of self-control beyond simply being afraid they’ll get caught somewhere they aren’t supposed to be.

Overall, I got no pushback with this new policy. On the first day of class, one student sheepishly stashed his laptop in his backpack, giving me the opportunity to smile and build a connection, rather than acting like the technology police (as I often felt like I was doing before). I assured him that it was fine that he’d brought his laptop and that this was something new I was trying. I believed that it would contribute to my students’ success, as well as their ability to focus on the task at hand without the temptation of distraction literally at their fingertips when the material got difficult or they simply got bored.

Do I still think that? Will I do this again next semester? Absolutely. Classroom discussions have been so much better, with more students engaged both actively (raising hands, speaking up) and in a more low-key fashion (making eye contact and giving other visual cues that they’re following the discussion). For the hour (ish) they are in my classroom, my students are, by and large, giving multitasking a rest, processing the information I’m disseminating and engaging with their peers in the quickly disappearing art of face-to-face conversation. Phones remain a bit of a challenge some days but, because my students know they’re not supposed to be using them, those particular technological tethers tend to appear and disappear fairly quickly during class time.

My students are welcome to be on their phones right up to the minute I begin class; some are, some aren’t and honestly, I’m not sure how much that has changed. I post my PowerPoints online and project them during the lecture, but I find that we’re all relying less on them now. Removing the barrier of an electronic screen allows me to engage more with my students. For their part, instead of just trying to copy down information, they’re talking about it, processing it aloud with one another and enhancing their understanding.

Taking this step was scary and I wasn’t altogether sure it was a good idea, but I’m invested now and there’s no turning back. It’s possible that I just have a chatty bunch this semester and that, in future semesters, I might have fewer students who are willing to participate in class discussions, but at least I’ll know that it’s not because they’re on Facebook instead of listening to what’s going on. And, if they’re reluctant to engage in the discussion, maybe it’s because they’re not getting what they should be getting. If that’s the case, we should definitely talk about it.

Face to face.

If this is a concept you’d like to try in your own classroom, perhaps for just one day a week at first, here are a few things to consider:

  • How do I already use technology in my classroom?
  • Would implementing a tech-free day enhance or inhibit learning?
  • Is technology helping my students to become more independent learners?
  • Does technology facilitate, enhance or inhibit my students’ interactions with one another and with me?
  • Is technology doing things for my students that I would prefer they do for themselves?
  • How can I teach my students to use technology mindfully?

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.