A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2010
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A few years ago I noticed a student who was twitching his arms and not paying attention in class. I took a step for a clearer view and could see that he was staring intently downward, his hands jerking away under the desk. At first I thought he was having a seizure…then the horrible thought crossed my mind that he was doing something else (one time someone was conducting phone sex in the classroom across the hall, so strange things happen). When he noticed that he was being watched by myself and the students, he looked up and said “sorry, texting.”

Since then texting has become the standard classroom activity. Students seem to think that they cannot be seen as they twitch away with their hand under the desk, but it is rather obvious. Of course, at this point most students make no pretenses about it-they openly text in class.  I have had students try to cheat using their phones-hence my early adoption of a no phones during tests policy.

While I do warn students that texting in class will tend to have a negative impact on their performance, I do not have a strict no phone policy. The main reason for this is that I believe that people have a right to self-fail. After all, a student can zone out and not pay attention as they wish. A smartphone just lets them take zoning out to a new level. Also, I am something of a libertarian-if a student is not interfering with me or the other students, then I do not feel compelled to interfere with his/her choice.

When texting was new, I noticed a clear correlation between grades and texting: students who spent class texting generally did rather poorly. However, I have observed that texting has had less and less of an impact on performance.  One possibility is that students have gotten accustomed to multi-tasking so that they can text with their hands while still absorbing some of the class with their ears. Another possibility is that students do their texting in class and do their class preparation outside of class (or in other classes).

While I do not text, I would bring a laptop (now a netbook) to meetings. I have found that I can actually track what is going on during the meeting while working on my netbook. As I see it, I am shifting my attention often enough to keep up with what is going on, sort of like looking at a TV show once in a while and being able to follow the show. It is sort of a mental snorkeling, like a submarine shifting from sonar to a snorkel view.

This seems to work because, to be honest, most of what I or other people say is not really critical or important and can generally be safely ignored. Of course, the shifting is not quite as good as paying full attention and it can be a problem when the majority of what is being said is actually important. For example, when I am going over how to build a truth table there is no fluff and hence anything that is  missed will be rather important information.

The problem that students face while texting is that they are not often very good at discerning between what they can drift through and what requires their complete attention.  The easy and obvious solution is to simply not text during class.

However, this is probably very hard on students. Apparently texting is actually addictive-sending and receiving messages stimulates the brain like drugs. Since humans are social animals and enjoy communication, the appeal of this sort of instant gratification is hardly surprising. I also suspect there is something about the technology itself that adds to its addictive quality. Texting is still new enough that part of the appeal might be the shiny factor. Or perhaps it is because when people are not texting they feel they are missing out-that things might be happening with their friends that they do not know about.  This addictive factor also effects adults-when I go to faculty meetings it is just like being in a class in terms of texting.

I am apparently immune to the addictive power of texting, probably part of my general immunity in regards to phones. I do, of course, blog-but this is merely an extension of my love of writing (actual sentences).

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3 Responses

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  1. Paul Halpern said, on April 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Great blog, or should I say “GR8 BLG”

    I’ve recently started to notice texting in class too. I have a strict, “no use of phones” policy in class, mainly because I personally get distracted if I see students doing other things in class aside from paying attention and taking notes. I have called several students out for texting and they have stopped right away. However I did have an embarrassing incident recently when I ran up to someone, said “please stop texting” and it turned out that they were just showing results on their calculator to another student!

    I also greatly prefer blogging rather than short messages (SMS) as I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy complete grammatical sentences, paragraph structure, coherent discourse and so forth.

    Finally, I think that except for emergencies such as fires, there are few reasons to send someone information and expect an immediate answer. For me, sending an e-mail and getting an answer sometime over the next few days is usually quick enough. I don’t personally understand why someone couldn’t wait for class, lunch or whatever to be over before trying to contact someone, and then, if the person they are trying to contact is busy, waiting patiently for a response. Life is less stressful if it is reasonably paced.

  2. Alan Lenzi said, on April 29, 2010 at 1:09 am

    Texting in class is the norm. Apart from Gestapo tactics, I don’t see how a prof. can stop it. I make an initial appeal for students to refrain from texting at the start of the semester. And I tell them that I reserve the right to ask them to text elsewhere if it gets super distracting. But generally my appeals have not helped. I think you’re right: texting is addictive for some folks.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 29, 2010 at 11:20 am


      Quite right. While I can ask students to not text, professors do not really have much in the way of disciplinary powers. Unlike high school teachers, we do not have access to detention and although I have not checked into the legality of this, I’m fairly sure that professors do not have the right to seize personal property (like phones). My school actually does have a policy against phone use in the classroom, but there really seems to be no enforcement mechanism that can easily be called upon. After all, the campus police have better things to do then being called to deal with texting students.

      On one hand, I would prefer that students did not text in class. It used to strike me as very rude (but seems to be the norm now-I see students ignoring each other so they can text). On a more practical note, it seems to be a waste of time to go to class only to spend it texting. Why not go someplace comfortable (like a coffee shop or the park) and text away?

      On the other hand, students are adults (legally) and part of being an adult is making important life choices. If someone elects to not do the work and thus fail, that is her call. If someone want to spend the class time texting, then that is his call. After all, as long as the student is only hurting himself, then it is his business as an adult. Naturally, I am obligated to try to persuade students to pay attention and to point out the consequences of spending the class texting rather than paying attention. But, my duty is not to make or force students to learn. My duty is to make learning possible and see to it that the process is not disrupted. If a student truly wishes to not learn, then although I think he is in error, that is his choice to make.

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