“No to E! News red carpet events in the classroom!”

I struggle with technology in the classroom. And not in the “should I allow my students to use laptops or not” way. I am firmly in the camp that allows the use of laptops and tablets in my lectures. There is plenty of debate on this issue: some encourage it; others discourage it. There is no right answer, and ultimately how we handle this “problem” is up to each of us. My choice for laptops is largely based on my feeling like a hypocrite if I insist on pen and paper. I use my laptop/smartphone in my teaching, research, and just general existence. The last time I wrote by hand thank you cards, my hand started aching.

My struggle comes from the “appropriate” use of technology in the classroom. Or better: my students’ changing understanding of what is “appropriate”. Or better-better: What is my role in educating young adults on what is appropriate in the classroom regarding technology? Can I expect certain things? Or are we starting at zero?

I am fully aware that on their lists of priorities, attending my class with 100% devotion ranks relatively low: behind the lunch menu, their friends, weekend plans, and whether somebody texts them back. And yet, in the recent past I have encountered a myriad of strange situations in the classroom that required my intervention because students either forgot where they were or thought they could get lost in the anonymity of the crowd. I had to call out a student who was watching four (!) basketball games at the same time on a split-screen, another one for watching an E! News red carpet event during a group assignment, and another who was so furiously typing while we were watching something as a group that I had to inquire whether they were transcribing the clip (they immediately stopped when I said something). At a guest lecture I gave this week in hybrid form, the inviting professor muted me for a second to admonish two students for playing chess and watching soccer respectively on their screens: they hadn’t noticed that the angle of the zoom cameras in the lecture hall meant that their shenanigans were being projected to the big screen.

A newer contender in the distracting technology game is the rise of Air Pods and other small Bluetooth headphones. They disappear under a student’s hoodie or their hair. A colleague and I recently exchanged thoughts on that, and we both agreed that it is strange to tell students to take out their headphones…in class. And yet, we do it. Has the bar been lowered from “pay attention” to “don’t obstruct your only tool to hear”?

As a teacher I can prepare well for class, make sure the activities are pedagogically sound, and I can set clear boundaries of what the purpose of our classroom is. I do that at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and my laptop guidelines, which I reiterate in person. I encourage responsible and positive use, and I also highlight – hopefully in a not intimidating way – that in our learning community I can see what they do, just like they see what I do.

What I don’t want to do is play whack amole with Air Pods and E! News. This frustration that I harbor over the misuse of technology and the disregard for our shared learning space stands in odds with my aims of creating an open, inclusive, and comfortable learning environment. And I am not even certain if my frustration is appropriate as an educator. Even as I am writing this, I keep going back and forth on whether it is okay to be frustrated, whether I should be more understanding, whether my students need even more guidance on appropriate classroom behavior, whether I am too harsh or not harsh enough, and whether I should retrain my hand to write with a pen and demand the same of my students.

Maybe someone here will know how to fix all my problems. Perhaps cut off the Wi-Fi?