October 4, 2014

Mobile Devices in the Classroom: What’s Your Policy?

by Benjamin Laliberte, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

Ten years ago, the Boston Globe reported that less than 5% of colleges across the United States required students to purchase personal computers.1  In 2014, things have changed dramatically — 67% of students have two to four mobile devices connected to their campus wireless network.2 In the classroom, 94% of students are now utilizing some sort of mobile technology!

From one perspective, the push to use wireless technology in the classroom is due, in part, to the increasing use of computers and technology in our everyday lives, coupled with the need to provide students the skills to succeed in a “technology-dependent” world.1,2 Moreover, teachers are simply responding to changes in social norms. When companies like Apple, HP, and Samsung roll out new gadgets, everyone seems to jump in line to purchase the latest invention! The integration of classwork with technology can produce interactive, hands-on learning that increases student engagement.  And it provides opportunities for educators to introduce innovative teaching techniques.1-3 On the other hand, it may just be an easier way to deliver content and go (or not to go) to class.

Numerous studies have evaluated the benefits of laptop use in the classroom. One study was conducted at the United States Military Academy in West Point with 527 college freshmen enrolled in ten general psychology classes.3  Six classes served as a control group that did not use laptops and four classes incorporated laptops into classroom activities.  Students used laptops to prepared presentations and share information using a first generation Dropbox. After seven exams, students in the laptop classes had significantly higher scores when compared to the no laptop group (86.8% vs. 83.5%; p<0 .05)

Similarly, a recent study at the University of Michigan, involving nearly 600 students, examined the benefits of a homegrown, web-based software called LectureTools.  Half of the students were given access to LectureTools on their laptops and half were not.4 This interactive program allowed students to ask questions during lectures, take notes, draw on PowerPoint slides, quickly rate the professor’s slides, and review the lecture again after class. At the conclusion of the semester-long study, survey results demonstrated that students in the LectureTools group had self-reported increases in attentiveness (37% vs. 25%), engagement (60% vs. 39%), and learning (53% vs. 40%) when compared to the students who did not have this tool available to them.

Despite these promising results and the increased use of classroom-based technology, it is common for students to become distracted and wander into cyberspace.1-4  In the University of Michigan study, 75% of students in both groups used their laptops for non-course-related tasks, including 35% for social networking and email.4 A survey of law students at three institutions located at geographical diverse areas of the country found that 96% of respondents used their laptops for note taking, but 71% were simultaneously surfing the internet during class.5 While many students take advantage of the available internet access to supplement classroom material, others are abusing the privilege, which can be distracting to those around them.4,5

A 2006 study observed 137 college students in one college general psychology class that permitted laptop use.6  Sixty four percent of the students used their laptop during at least one class period. During class, 81% of the students admitted to checking their email, 43% browsed the Internet, and 25% reported playing games on their computer.  Not surprisingly, there was a negative association between student performance in the class and laptop use (p=0.024). Not only were the students who reported using their laptop in class performing poorer on exams, there was a self-reported decreased attention to lectures (p<0 .01)

Pharmacists and other health care providers often pride themselves in being effective multitaskers. But did you know self-proclaimed multitaskers may actually be worse at multitasking?7,8  One study found that self-proclaimed multitaskers, such those students who actively using laptops during class, performed worse on cognitive memory tasks than students who preferred to focus on a single assignment.6  According to a paper on work-memory capabilities, human ability to multitask and “juggle facts” is limited to seven units. There appears to be a “switching time cost” that occurs when changing your attention, say, back and forth between facebook and a professor giving a lecture.7 Whereas it would normally take two seconds to repeat a single task, balancing two such tasks at the same time may actually take upwards of twenty seconds! Remember that all-nighter in college? Fatigue, in addition to anxiety and other emotional disturbances lessen our ability to multitask and process information efficiently.

Technology is here to stay. It has been shown that laptops can have a positive effect on attention and learning, if used appropriately.1,3,4,9  Our job as instructors is to ensure laptops and other mobile computing devices are not a barrier to our students’ learning.1 Successful teachers will be able to merge effective teaching methods with technology and social media to enhance student learning and comprehension. How? Well, here are a few tips:8
  • Develop a technology use policy. This is a syllabus “must have” so students know your classroom etiquette rules. Are students with laptops and tablet devices allowed to sit in the front two rows?  Or do you have a “laptop/tablet free” zone?
  • Develop in-class activities for students to accomplish using their laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Small group activities, such as patient cases or database research are great ways to engage students.
  • Transforming technology into “audience response systems.” This may include tools like LectureTools or social media such as Twitter for students to ask in-class questions and share articles.  In doing so, you have a better shot at limiting technology use to course-related tasks.

  1. Russell J. Laptops required at 3 state colleges. The Boston Globe. 30 Aug. 2004.
  2. Weldon D. BYOD now a fact of life for majority of college students. FierceMobileIT. 8 May 2014.
  3. Efaw J, Hampton S, Martinez S, Smith S. Miracle or Menace: Teaching and Learning with Laptop Computers in the Classroom. Educause Quarterly. 2004;3:10-18.
  4. Zhu E, Kaplan M, Dershimer RC, Bergom I. Use of Laptops in the Classroom: Research and Best Practices. CRLT Occasional Paper. 2011;30:1-6.
  5. Mazzie LA. Is a Laptop-Free Zone the Answer to the Laptop Debate? Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog. 27 Oct. 2008.
  6. Fried CB. In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & education. 2008;50(3):906-914.
  7. Glenn, D. Divided Attention. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 28 Feb. 2010.
  8. Research on In-Class Use of Laptops and Other Devices: Effects on Students’ Learning and Attention. The Teaching Center Journal. 23 Apr. 2013.
  9. Penuel WR. Implementation and Effects Of One-to-One Computing Initiatives: A Research Synthesis. Journal of Research on Technology in Education. 2006;38(3):329-348.

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