I teach undergraduate students (ages ~17-22), with class sizes ranging from 10 to 30. I have come to realize that students will have their phones with them no matter what, so it would be unnecessarily punitive of me to try to limit their use. Instead, I have accepted the fact that they're in the classroom and have sought to put them to use whenever I can.
Meanwhile, if a student is going to distract themself with their phone, that's their prerogative; they're nascent adults, so it's really their choice whether they want to be a responsible student. Plus, if I merely see a phone out, how am I to know whether they're texting a friend, checking Facebook, or looking up a definition on Wikipedia? Or checking the arithmetic of a problem we just did? I suppose these reactions might not apply to a classroom with younger students, but with college students, I feel comfortable saying, "It's on you now."
That said, here are some ways that I think phones/laptops/tablets can be helpful in the classroom, from my experiences:
- Following along with slides: For all my courses, I post lecture slides well before class time so students can peruse them. I also tell them it would be beneficial to have them open during class so they can follow along and only focus on jotting down important notes in their notebook. They don't have to transcribe everything on the slides because they have them right in front of them. Furthermore, I put a slide counter in the corner, so their notes can say, "March 10, Slide #5: ...."
- polleverywhere.com: This is a free site/app for "Clicker" questions. (A paid account lets you use this for >25 people, but with my classes, the free version suffices!) I don't use this in all courses, but when I do, the students really enjoy it. They respond by texting their answer to a given phone #.
- Software demonstrations: In some classes, I demonstrate techniques on Excel spreadsheets, or on other software, or websites. Allowing the students to open these sites/programs on their laptops at the same time surely makes sense.
- Taking pictures instead of transcribing: I see students taking pictures of the whiteboard all the time! Rather than trying to copy down everything as I write it, and subsequently missing out on what I'm saying out loud, I notice them paying careful attention to my words, and then when I've stepped aside, they snap a photo of the full board.