Hey, Is That a Phone Under Your Desk?

There’s a lot of emphasis these days on integrating technology into the classroom. ESL instructors are using online forums, language learning applications, e-learning software, websites, and other modern-day tools to help students learn English. But as most of us probably know all too well, sometimes technology interferes in the classroom. I’m talking, of course, about cell phones, iPods, and other tempting devices that lure students away from devoting their full attention to the task at hand. Sometimes during a class I’ll look up and notice that students who I thought were fully engaged are actually sneaking texts and checking email under the cover of their desks. Loud beeps announce the arrival of new messages, and ring tones of every imaginable kind sound off during inopportune times. During computer lab sessions, I find students checking personal email and surfing the web instead of working on class exercises.

I won’t beat around the bush: this drives me crazy. Not that I don’t understand the temptation. Oh, I do. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I have been guilty of similar transgressions from time to time. As an undergraduate (before the era of portable technology), I was once reprimanded for doing a crossword puzzle during a classroom discussion. Gasp! Now, as an instructor, I struggle to find a comfortable way to manage such disruptions. I want to embrace technology and make full use of it as an educational tool, yet I hate spending my time policing students. I resent the distraction a few students can impose on the rest of the class, yet I realize that today’s offenders are essentially engaging in a high-tech version of my own crossword puzzle gaffe. Thus, I have vacillated on my approach to dealing with this issue. Should I set the tone and take a zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate use of technology in the classroom? Or should I try to embrace it fully and figure out a way to integrate personal devices into classroom activities? Or is there a middle-of-the-road approach? Maybe they just need a bit of maturity and a frank lecture on classroom etiquette? I don’t know what the best answer is. Have you struggled with this issue? If so, how have you handled it?

About Korey Marquez

Korey Marquez
Korey Marquez earned a BA in English and International Studies at the University of Oregon, and an MA in English and a TESL certificate at Portland State University. After graduate school, she spent a year teaching university students in Slovakia and then taught ESL in Washington State for 10 years. One of her more unusual jobs was working as a lexicographer­—a writer and editor of dictionaries—for Longman and Bloomsbury. Unfortunately, it did not help her become a better Scrabble player. Korey is also a freelance writer and editor, and keeps busy chasing after her two young boys. She currently works as a writing specialist for the Multilingual Learners Program at Sonoma State University in northern California.
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15 Responses to Hey, Is That a Phone Under Your Desk?

  1. Lenore Faase says:

    A very recognizable issue! I don’t have all the answers on this issue either, but I do feel that zero-tolerance is not going to work. I view this behavior slightly different from the crossword example you give. If it were just that, seeking diversion or entertainment away from what’s happening in class, it wouldn’t be so hard to deal with. However, to me it seems more a need to be in touch with their network of friends everywhere and all the time (a need that I am a bit familiar with, being ‘only’ 10 years older than my average student, but they still take it to a whole different level). If I ask them to turn of their phones completely (which I will do when we’re in a computer language lab) it’s like I’m asking them to cut of their arm – it’s that hard! They just can’t do without.

    I do have one rule that I strictly enforce and that’s no phones when we’re doing any kind of pair or group activity as their group mates deserve their undivided attention. Though I do sometimes need to remind them of this, it’s something they seem to find reasonable and fair.

  2. I know what you mean, I am a Mexican English teacher for preparatory students. What we must do is creating activities in which they can use their cell. But, we must not let them use them in the classroom because they get distracted and they film anything they want without your permission.

  3. Well, I am a Mexican English teacher for preparatory students. I know what you mean and I think that we must design some tasks to do with their cell phones but then can´t use them in the class because they get distracted and they film what they want in the classroom, without your knowledge. I think we must preserve the order. Each thing at its place.

  4. Huw Jarvis says:

    This kind of thing used to bother me both inside the classroom and in the self-access centre (SAC) – so in the case of the SAC I started investigating arising issues and I must say I now recognise that my students multi-task in ways which are quite alien to me! Furthermore students reported a wide rang of activities in digital mediums as “helping” with their language studies irrespective of whether they had a direct an obvious tutorial role. All this has made me a bit more relaxed about the issue. So yes, I think you probably do need to find way of harnessing the technology. Perhaps start a class by asking students to actually turn-on their (smart) phones go to Wikipedia and to find a definition of etiquette – they can then be asked to discuss what the definition might mean in terms of classroom behaviour!

  5. MyLinh Le says:

    I think the best way is improving teachers’ methodologies. Once teachers’ lessons are appealing and authentic, students will find themselves more engaged in their studying. I myself did the same thing as the students when I was in my bachelor degree, so when I teach them, I feel that it’s so normal, if the students do the same things as I did, I should embrace them, and improve myself. Thanks for pointing out the problem, it’s really so annoying sometimes.

  6. Michelle says:

    Hi Korey,
    I too have struggled with this issue. This semester, however, I’ve nipped it in the bud. First of all, after dealing with it for five semesters, I began this semester 100% certain that cell phones were out. Therefore, the way I spoke about it was confident. Second, I made a little red couch out a box and fabric. I even have a little pillow on it. I place this on my desk right next to a Longman dictionary (the number one reason students “use” their cell phones). At the beginning of the course I made it very clear that I didn’t want to SEE or HEAR any cell phones and if I did, it was going to be placed on the couch. I informed them that a dictionary was right on my desk if they needed it. Next, I was consistent and playful. Students had to get up and put their phones on the couch.

    In one case, a student removed his cell phone from his pocket quickly to look at the time. However, I was an eagle eye. Up! On the couch. If students say things like “that’s immature,” I agree with them. It sure is. It’s really sad that I have to do this.

    Try it out! Make a fun place for cell phones to rest on your desk while the students work.

  7. Betsy Donahoe says:

    This is a common problem, and I know of no way to integrate texting into learning English. In the school where I teach, a no cell phones policy is enforced by dollars for dialing. Students are so used to the policy that if
    a phone goes off, they shout, “Five dollars!” In my observation, the policy works, and very few students foreget to turn off their phones. Just to remind them sometimes I turn off my cel in front of them.
    Hope this is helpful.

  8. John Megill says:

    Korey -I don’ t know if this will work or if you have already tried it, but here is an idea.

    Find a way to insert a segment on idioms into one of your classes. Include in the lesson the idiom “drives me crazy” ( you could also include “drives me up the wall” ). Set the tone with some humor.

    What I am thinking is a survey in which students ask each other AND YOU what drives them crazy. When students ask you what drives you crazy, include the texting and emailing thing (with humor). At the end, have students recap what they learned.

    Hope this helps.

    • Aundrea says:

      Some students are not tustred to be in front of screensin schools in some countries. In other countries, the school, not government blocked facebookbecause of the studentswho use the computer lab during breaks they r aloud to use anything during the break timeand they misused internet over and over again allowed.

  9. Leah M. Roy says:

    Our school is encouraging “21st Century Learning” in our middle school and high school classes. I must admit that with the integration of technology in class came the wrong notion from the students that they can freely chat, play online games, anything but doing the collaboration projects they are supposed to do. So, the teachers came up with a “Student Contract” in which both the students and their parents will sign the agreement that tech devices (iPads, laptops, smartphones) will only be used in class strictly for academic-related research and collaboration, and with the oversight of the teacher in charge of the project or research. The contract also clearly enumerates the consequences of breaking the rules, e.g., confiscation of the device, to be returned after 1 week (1st offense). I am not saying this is the perfect way, but so far, our students are on-task.

  10. Mary says:

    At the end of the summer, I asked the students in two sections of a pre-college ESL course I had taught what they thought about the electronics policy for the class (no electronics allowed unless they were part of an in-class assignment; of course, some students did try to sneak texts, etc., but this wasn’t usually a problem). One group said that no electronics should be allowed in the class at all (Their high schools had had similar policies). However, the other group said that the teacher should have to “babysit” with a no-electronics policy, and that the students should learn to monitor their own use of electronics. I kind of prefer the latter. I figure that as long as a student is not distracting the other students around her/him, pretty much only that student will suffer if s/he lets the electronic interfere with participation in class. Also, the students who use electronics inappropriately in class also tend to be the same students who “forget” to bring their homework to class. It works out quite nicely.

  11. Ashley says:

    @Korey, unfortunately I’m new teaching and have not experienced this phenomena as a teacher. However, as a graduate student (seeking ESL certification also) who is completely addicted to her smartphone and MacBook in particular, I can understand your frustration. Technology is an integral part of our society and for my generation, it’s just a natural thing. I didn’t even realize until my graduate coursework that learning to use the Internet has its own name in the teaching realm: new literacies (Castek, Bevans-Mangelson, Goldstone. The Reading Teacher; Apr 2006; 59, 7; Research Library Core pg. 714).

    As much as I love smartphones and laptops, they can sometimes be a distraction for anyone not fully engaged. This also depends on the age-range of your students. If you are teaching highschool/adults, I would suggest a “middle-of-the-road approach,” where certain forms of technology, like laptops and iPads are allowed but smartphones, cell phones, iPods, and some others are on a strict policy. I use my laptop to take notes because I type a lot faster than I write. Also, my laptop has actually added to classroom discussions as a teacher might mention a topic and I’m able to search quickly for an article to present. On the other hand, I see little need for phones and iPods rather than to keep my attention away from the subject at hand and on my friends and family or music.

    Not sure if this is helpful, but I would also love to hear the advice of a more experienced educator.

  12. Paul Oscar says:

    I fully understand your thoughts. I’m also a teacher and as much as I love the technology, I give zero tolerance for my students about using them in a classroom. I always believe that education can be done without the use of technology. It worked with me before and I’m sure it will still work for them.

  13. You know what; this is the disadvantage of the growth of science. Actually we parents are not also that alert to advise our kids against taking any mobile phone or other tempting gadgets. We ourselves are doing these and saying that the society has rotten our kids. But the reality is absolutely different. We are the cause for which our babies are going to that path. If we parents are responsible enough to take care of ours children and remain their friend then I don’t think there arises any kind of other temptation. If they have knew that someone is waiting for them at home, nothing could have tempted them other that their desire of playing with their parents and chatting with them. Thus the only way to aware them against the electronic gadgets is by giving them your time and sharing their every moments including their homework and personal secrets.

  14. Walton says:

    Our institution also has a theoretical zero-tolerance policy for cellphones/iPods/iPads in the classroom although it’s left up to us. And our students are mostly in their 20s so I don’t want to treat them like little kids.

    What has worked best for me is tackling it on the first day of class. I tell them cellphones drive me mad, and then ask them why they think that is. I explain why I want them to be able to figure out words on their own rather than always going for the dictionary. We come up with a set of punishments–this session it’s: warning first time I see it, mark you late second time, I take it away third time. Also every class, I silence my cellphone publicly and put it in my backpack. So they see it’s good for the gander not just the geese. That’s worked well because (I think) sometimes they do need to check their cells for a message from their wife/kid/doctor/etc… and they can do it once without any problems. Twice, they get a late (which isn’t a big deal every now and then) and/or the chance to explain to me if there’s some extenuating circumstances. Basically it’s not the big bad authority figure vs. the adult put in a child-like situation. It’s a group of people making a community together.

    There’s a few holdouts. There’s a few that hide it or text when my back is turned. I’m not going to kill myself or take up too much class time ferreting it out. I used to be a doodler myself during lectures!

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