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Before I begin this question properly I want to say that I feel responsible for my students, and I want them to do as well as they can do. I mention this because my question is about technology and distractions. I feel that many students are distracted by technology: they would sit in class texting and checking facebook if allowed. The issue that I (and presumably many others) face then is that students cannot reach their potential because they are distracting themselves. This frustrates me.

My question is:

What can a lecturer do to stop students being distracted by technology in their lectures?

There are two obvious approaches: ban technology, or pretend it is not an issue.

Ban technology: Pretend that we live in y2k. The main advantage is that the students cannot be distracted. Some disadvantages are that if students want to look at my slides at their own pace then they have to print them out (I have no scrolling boards so my lectures are frustratingly slide-heavy), which is far from ideal, and that some students who will not be engaged anyway will become disruptive (this can happen with or without taking attendance). Finally, "banning" technology doesn't do much to foster a happy or encouraging learning environment, as the students claim that they are grown ups and can decide for themselves while the ban needs to be enforced which generates fear (for some value of "fear").

Ignore technology: Pretend that noone is checking facebook. The advantage is that students can view the slides and take notes on their tablets. Technology is good and they are embracing it! Of course, many students will become distracted and I find this frustrating. Moreover, often students will become distracted by other people using technology, which is something I certainly don't want to happen (for example, during my undergrad I remember a very forward-thinking student bringing his laptop to a lecture. He sat in the front row playing Quake. The lecturer didn't notice, but everyone else was transfixed by this guys wonderful Quake-playing abilities. He was rather good...).

Currently, I have a sort of middle ground where I allow technology but ask frequent questions and get students to work on exercises at regular intervals. This helps distract them from their technology and lets me patrol for facebook users. But I still think that this is far from ideal.

So, I would love to hear any good ideas for how to stop students being distracted by technology in maths lectures.

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    $\begingroup$ Two words, my friend, Faraday Cage. $\endgroup$ – JTP - Apologise to Monica Mar 20 '14 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeTaxpayer I have questions on the practicality of your answer... $\endgroup$ – Chris C Mar 20 '14 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ It wasn't an answer, it was a comment. And I agree, low power signal jammers are probably far more practical. Illegal in the US, however. $\endgroup$ – JTP - Apologise to Monica Mar 20 '14 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeTaxpayer I personally feel that using such mechanisms is not an effective teaching strategy. Why not bring them in on the conversation (have a brief discussion about distractions) or just ban then in the syllabus? $\endgroup$ – Chris C Mar 20 '14 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ I'm of an age where I think technology means the use of applied science to make a particular type of thing: say integrated circuits, LCD screens, fancy polymers or steam engines. I refuse to glorify Facebook as "technology"! $\endgroup$ – timtfj Jan 23 at 19:15
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I'm assuming this is a university level question.

The best way to approach this is on day one, where course standards are set. Trying to institute something in the middle of the semester can only start arguments ("It's not in the syllabus I can't do this!" or "But we've been doing this all semester to take notes!"), but if necessary, give them some forewarning to the new policy.

I find that, particularly in math courses, it is difficult to take notes on a laptop unless the instructor provides the slides (and if those should be used in a class is another question entirely). Additionally, many classes are now going online for their homework, so students will use class time to work on homework. There are a few questions here. Is my course easy to take lecture notes on a computer with? Do I want students working on homework in class? What do I do if students are using technology inappropriately?

This answers depends on the the structure of the course. In all cases, I will make an announcement on the first day of class stating my policy (no laptops, limited laptops, etc) and what I will do if someone breaks the policy (ask to put it away, stop class, ask to leave, etc). You need to set clear boundaries on distractions to the students and have them know the consequences. They know that classes are for learning and that you are there to foster that. A reasonable student, when asked to stop playing Quake for example, will stop. If you have TA's, I would ask if they would sit in the back and inform you if someone is being distracting. Else I would occasionally move around the room during lecture and to pay attention to where students eyes are looking. It should be fairly obvious when someone isn't working.

That said, the level of technology is course dependent. As I am not too familiar with power point style lectures, I would leave that up to your discretion and decide if you post the lectures online before or not to have laptops. Personally in math, I find that the use of hand written lectures (either on a projector or chalk board) is the most used. In these, I find that it is near impossible for students to type up notes at a comparable rate to your lectures. In this case, I would put in the syllabus that laptops and other devises are not allowed in lecture and that I expect students to copy notes into a notebook. If students pulls out a laptop, I would just politely ask them to put it away and remind them of the policy. Now some days you can make exceptions (review days, etc), but always let them know at least a lecture in advance. With this, I believe that homework should be done outside of class and is no excuse for a laptop. If I do a problem in class, students should just copy it to the notebook.

Technology in class can be beneficial, but I find it is more engaging than the instructor most of the time (particularly if they are reading off slides). To fight off student boredom, keep them engaged and interacting with you. Ask them questions, poll them for answers, and get them to work together will help push off their want of technology. I've seen an increased use of flipped classrooms and clickers to poll students and keep them engaged. You can't win against phones (just ask for them to put them away if seen), but if they are enjoying class, they are less likely to check them.

As you say you are more or less stuck to using slides, why not see about getting a tablet and use computer written notes? Your IT department might have some for loan for use in lectures. I find that using slides is the leading cause of distractions if you let them use laptops.

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    $\begingroup$ "Else I would occasionally move around the room during lecture" - This is a practice that few of my math teachers embrace as they're always attached to the board but something that is emphasized on the education side. Proximity is a key to keeping your student's attention and in a big classroom, moving around is the only way to be within proximity of everyone at various times. $\endgroup$ – David G Mar 21 '14 at 0:41
  • $\begingroup$ A quick search reveals this recent paper, which reports research on laptop use in large classes (admittedly with geography students). It indicates that 40% of students don't even bring their laptop, of those that do, the majority use them about 2 thirds of the lecture time, and when they DO use them, about two thirds of the time they are doing off-task things. Not sure of the implications of this, but it's a good thing to have a door into the research. $\endgroup$ – DavidButlerUofA Aug 28 '14 at 23:11
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At least worth considering: devote class time more to discussion, argumentation, and work that requires heavy interaction. Provide the lectures in some video form that can be watched outside of class. Then, lecture-watching becomes the responsibility of the student, and they are expected to be actively engaged in some kinds of mathematical work involving mathematical reasoning in class rather than listening to a lecture.

I'm not trying to criticize the practice of lecturing at all, just pointing out that the classroom's "activity structures" are a contributing factor to all sorts of possible distraction sources. I'm sure that before Facebook, we have all seen people doing homework for another class during a lecture.

This may not entirely be a new problem, or as related to technology as we might assume.

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Given that in a university setting students are in class voluntarily, I handle people doing non-class-related activities in the same way: ask them to put it away or do it elsewhere, particularly if it disrupts the class in some way. It is normally obvious who is using the computer or tablet for taking notes or checking the class notes.

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Ban technology.

Do you let kids in football practice or weightlifting session text on their phones? Running the obstacle course? No. Eff no.

Note: you are not "living in Y2K" or walling them off from tech or preventing them from playing on their phones at a bazillion other times.

P.s. And if someone opens a damned newspaper in class...grr. Throw their ass out. A little balls goes a long ways. Look how the general came onto base in 12 O'clock High. (People are emotional animals, not computers...learn from history and literature. Pedagogy is a matter of practical psychology NOT some Rudin real analysis nitanoid gotcha.)

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