A look into digital-device use and misuse in the classroom

| News Editor

Illustration by Jaime Hebel

Washington University community members have noticed a rise in students’ use and misuse of their digital devices in the classroom, a trend which some attribute to the prolonged period of remote learning spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Most WashU professors allow students to use technology in class to take notes or review course content. Several, however, have reported instances of students using their personal devices for non-academic purposes, including web surfing, which they say has resulted in diminished student engagement in class.  

“It seems like [technology misuse] has gotten really bad,” Philosophy Professor Nic Koziolek said. “I have been teaching for nine years now. This is my sixth year at WashU. And I think it’s gotten worse.” 

Sophomore Bram Hoffman, a double major in Marketing and American Culture Studies, estimated that students spend the majority of class time using their devices for non-academic purposes. 

“I would say at least 60% of the time [in class], [students] are not using their devices for academic purposes,” he said. 

Matteo Dall’Olmo, a sophomore and Computer Science major, said that while levels of student inattentiveness in class are high, they vary based on the class size and professors’ instructional style. 

“In a big lecture class, I think 85% of people will at some point go off task and look at their phone,” Dall’Olmo said. “In smaller classes, less so because it’s more obvious. But if they are taking computer notes, it’s so easy to start texting your friends, so still probably over 50%.” 

Koziolek said that before the pandemic, a substantial number of students took handwritten notes in class. 

“The first semester I taught [at WashU], the amount of attention on me from the students was a little bit disconcerting at first,” he said. “I was just like, ‘Man, everyone is taking notes on paper. No one ever has their phone out. This is amazing.’”

Multiple students and professors, including Koziolek, noted an increase in digital-device distraction in class following the University’s transition to remote learning in 2020. 

“Now almost every student uses their computer,” Koziolek said. “And my guess is that students just got used to having it in front of them during class, because when you’re on Zoom — and we all know that we navigate away to do other things during Zoom meetings — I think that it just became a habit that people weren’t able to break from.”

Jeff Krampf, a professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, said that the pandemic had an impact on the use of digital devices for both teaching and learning.

“There are students that are used to being in front of the computer all the time, not just for personal stuff, but for all of school,” Krampf said. “At the same time, there are classes that have gone to using technology more, having digital homework and stuff like that.” 

Krampf said, however, that digital-device use and misuse likely would have increased even if the pandemic never occurred. 

“We’re constantly moving towards more and more technology for more things, so I think it’s a thing you’d see an increase of anyway,” he said. “COVID probably accelerated it, though.” 

The pandemic increased students’ preference of viewing their readings digitally, according to Beth Windle, a professor in the English Department and in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department.

“Before COVID, there was a kind of a campus cultural acceptability that class could be screen-free,” Windle said. “Then, the game changed a lot, and students became more resentful of having to do a lot of printing. It was a real turnoff for them in the class to say that it was going to be fully screen-free.” 

Though several professors and students acknowledged a correlation between the onset of the pandemic and an increase in digital-device use, their perspectives diverged on the underlying factors contributing to the misuse of devices in the classroom. 

Hoffman believes that students misuse their personal devices when lectures are not sufficiently engaging. 

“I think more classes at WashU should be intellectually engaging,” Hoffman said. “Many of the teaching methods some professors employ today are ineffective. Teaching styles need to be compelling — even more compelling than in the past — because students are easily distracted.”

Addressing professors directly, Hoffman said, “If an Instagram Reel is more interesting [to your student] than the topic you’ve spent 10 years of your life studying, well, that’s a problem, and you might want to work on that.”

Senior Bristol Hough — a double major in Art History and Archaeology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies — said that devices are so addictive that they frequently curb professors’ attempts to maintain student engagement. 

“I think it’s tough for professors to compete with checking Instagram or Facebook,” she said. 

Dall’Olmo said that there are several factors contributing to students’ misuse of their personal devices in the classroom, including the long duration of class periods. 

“[Students] don’t need to pay attention to 100% of the lecture to do well, and the internet is very addicting and extremely accessible,” he said. “Recorded lectures and posted lecture notes make people feel like they can take a lecture off and be fine. Lectures can also be boring and hard to pay attention to for 80 minutes straight.” 

Multiple faculty members said that although they are concerned by students using their devices for non-academic purposes, they do not think that students have ill intentions when they do so. 

Erin McGlothlin, Vice Dean of Undergraduate Affairs in the College of Arts & Sciences, said “I don’t think students are bad, or that they’re [intending to be] disrespectful.”

Windle noted that, like students, faculty also struggle with device misuse. 

“We [faculty] get really upset when students use [their devices] for things that aren’t related to class, but [we] are bad about doing the exact same thing when we’re in meetings,” Windle said. “So I don’t think it’s a unique issue for 18- to 22-year-olds — it’s just a human thing. If you have a device in front of you, you’re gonna pay attention to it.”

Several professors, including Koziolek, communicated that although students may not be intending to disrespect their professors when misusing their devices, they may be missing out on valuable classroom experiences when they do so. 

Koziolek said that the inappropriate use of devices prevents students from fully engaging with and processing the information presented to them. 

“I read an article years ago that said that there’s something quite important about the classroom as a space in which you’re just trapped there, with nothing to do except either pay attention or let your mind wander,” he said. “It feels a little weird as a teacher to say, but I think that’s good. Because that’s actually part of how you process the class material. But it also takes an enormous amount of practice.”

Koziolek also expressed concern about the potential cultural consequences of digital-device addiction. 

“I kind of worry about what happens to our culture if no one learns these kinds of skills of just sitting with some small set of ideas and just kind of stewing on them for an hour,” he said. 

Some faculty members, like McGlothlin, mentioned that although digital devices can serve as distractions for some students in the classroom, they can enhance learning and comprehension for others.  

“There have been studies done on the ways in which students engage with laptops and iPads, other devices,” McGlothlin said. “They can be quite beneficial to students in particular kinds of classes, and we want to give students that kind of agency to choose the ways in which they learn best.” 

Chris Stone, the Director of the Disability Resources office, said that research studies show that students today are “digitally native,” meaning they are more comfortable with and adept at using technology than previous generations. He noted typing skills as an example of this phenomenon. 

“The ability to type in class is much more natural than it used to be two generations of learners ago,” he said.

Stone also said that digital devices can provide assistance to students with a range of disabilities and learning differences.

“Technology, in many ways, is the solution to the cause of access barriers,” he said. “For a student who has juvenile arthritis, the actual physical aspect of writing can be challenging. Letting them use a [digital device] that’s going to assist with that is going to remove a barrier.” 

Aidan Stern, a fifth-year master’s student in engineering, has a class accommodation for his dyslexia that permits him to take notes on digital devices and audio- or video-record lectures. 

“Visual processing was kind of a harder thing for me, and being able to have either video or audio notes that I could go back to [to help me get the] notes fully down, or in cases where I could use my computer, typing those notes faster than I would be able to write them was super helpful,” Stern said. 

Stern said that student misuse of digital devices is concerning, but emphasized the value of technology for his learning and for some students with accommodations. 

“I think I’m a person who uses it responsibly, and I can say confidently that having technology as a learning resource for me has made college easier for me and helped me succeed,” Stern said.

Though most professors allow students to use their personal devices in class, some — particularly those teaching courses in the humanities — have instituted policies that limit the use of screens in the classroom. 

Windle has several different policies for student device use. 

“I have different tech policies for different classes that I teach,” she said. “And that’s important because I think different classes that have different content and sets of skills require different kinds of tech policies.” 

For her “Introduction to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” and “Introduction to Literary Theory” courses, Windle prohibits the use of personal devices during the first three weeks of the semester. After that period, she permits students to use their devices in class to review readings and take notes.

“I developed that policy sort of as a compromise policy,” she said. “Both of those classes have a lot of readings on PDFs. I was hearing students talk about the printing burden of an entire semester of [being] screen-free, and I am sympathetic to that, but I also wanted to set the standard early in the semester that we actually look up at each other and we engage with each other, rather than [with] our devices.”

For her first-year seminar course entitled “Twentysomething Stories: The Literature of Post-Adolescence,” Windle prohibits any use of personal devices in the classroom for the entirety of the semester.

“I’m able to do that because we read novels, which the students purchase in paperback form,” Windle said. “They’re not very extensive, and there’s not any printing or photocopying for them to do.”

Windle acknowledged that her technology policies may not work for some types of classes, and said that professors’ views on such policies tend to differ partly by academic discipline. 

“I gave a presentation about my [policies] at the Center for Teaching and Learning conference on different teaching strategies,” Windle said. “An engineering professor was there, and she was basically like, ‘This three-weeks-tech-free [policy] would just never work for [my classes].’ And, you know, fair enough.” 

Windle also said that she would never allow her course policies to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. 

“The ADA would, of course, trump any course policy I have, because it’s the law,” she said. “If a student said to me, ‘I am not going to participate in first-three-screen-free; I have these accommodations,’ then that would be just what it is. I would have no issue with accommodating that.”

Hough expressed appreciation for professors that have prohibited the use of digital devices in their classes. 

“It forces me to stay engaged,” she said. “I know I have a problem staying on track when there’s a bunch of distractions, especially when there’s people sitting right next to me who are using their screens. If it’s not an option to get distracted, I kind of appreciate that because I feel like I get more out of the class.”

Hough also said more professors at WashU should consider prohibiting the use of digital devices in the classroom for students who do not have technology accommodations. She added that the University can, in part, alleviate the burdens that no-technology policies may cause for students by covering printing costs for course materials. 

“I think that if professors are making you print stuff out, you shouldn’t have to pay for the materials or printing out,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Anthony Smith, a professor in the Biology department, said he does not currently have a technology policy for his classes, but is considering implementing one after observing multiple students inappropriately using their devices in class this semester. 

“Going forward, I probably will officially write down a technology policy for my classes,” Smith said. “I don’t love it, but there might be some penalties if I find that students are using technology in class in a way they shouldn’t be. ” 

Hoffman said that while technology policies may be necessary for certain classes, professors should not prohibit technology use. 

“Banning technology in the classroom is not the solution to the problem,” he said. “I think it’s reactionary and it doesn’t address the root cause of the problem. [The problem is] a lack of engagement in the classroom. It’s not technology itself. It’s the distraction that comes from technology.”

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