During a recent psychology lecture, associate professor Jenel Cavazos asked students if they thought drug and alcohol use was going up, coming down or staying basically the same among teenagers in the United States.
A show of hands would have been difficult to gauge in a theater-size classroom with nearly 500 students at the University of Oklahoma. So instead, Cavazos had everyone take out their smartphones and respond to an online poll, with the results streaming live on a screen at the front of the room.
The vast majority of Cavazos’ students asserted that teen drug and alcohol use were rising, while, in fact, studies have shown a significant decline in recent years. And that gave the professor a chance to talk about the difference between perception and reality when it comes to social trends.
But whether they realized it or not, the students were themselves taking part in a sort of grand experiment, with Cavazos embracing the use of phones in the classroom, while other faculty members are going to great lengths to keep phones out of the classroom. At OU and across the country, instructors are debating whether the smartphone is an invaluable educational tool or an intrusive distraction.
“A certain percentage of students are literally addicted to their phones,” said OU history professor Robert Griswold. “Without a policy, these students would be on and off their phones throughout my lecture. Studies show, in fact, that such is the case. Students compulsively check their phones. Phones and social media are addictive, and they are designed to be addictive. They are the cigarettes of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Griswold enforces a strict ban not only on using a phone during class but also on even having a phone visible in the classroom.
“On day one,” he said, “I let them know that if they do not think they can stay off their phones for 50 minutes, they should find another class.”
To enforce the rule, Griswold has been known to have students stay after class or come to his office. And he has deliberately embarrassed students by asking them to stand up in front of the entire class and explain what they were doing on their phones.
“In one course,” he said, “I finally got fed up enough that I told the students that the next person who used a phone in class would be penalized 80 points, one letter grade.”
Ultimately, he didn’t apply that punishment even after catching a student with a phone in hand. But the mere threat was enough to give Griswold a reputation for being one of the most antiphone professors on campus.
“Teaching is my life’s work,” he said. “I’ve been teaching at OU for 40 years, and I never get tired of trying to find a better way to teach my students about the events that have shaped their world. Phones are disruptive, they demean the importance of the classroom; allowing their use is to admit that trivial text exchanges should share space with serious intellectual work.”
Cavazos agrees that a cellphone can become a distraction in class.
“I’m not completely delusional,” she said. “I know students are sometimes not going to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
But it would require so much effort to keep them out of class, the battle itself would become more distracting than the phones, she said.
“It would not be the best use of my time,” Cavazos said.
Instead, Cavazos actually requires students in at least some classes to bring phones, tablets or laptops, and she incorporates them into her lectures. As well as answering in-class polls, students can use their phones to take quizzes, download lessons or read an interactive textbook.
“If they’re going to be on their phones anyway,” Cavazos said, “they might as well be doing something productive with them.”