The Great Mobile Devices Debate: A False Binary (Part 1: Debunking the Debate)

Information and communication technologies (ICTs; i.e., laptops, tablets, smartphones) are a tool. Claims that the use of mobile devices directly “leads to” enhanced or reduced academic performance, engagement, or attention fail to recognize the role of context.  Banning technology or allowing unrestricted, unstructured use of technology are each non-solutions, each with their own set of pragmatic and ethical problems. There’s ample research-based evidence to suggest that this middle ground is likely to achieve the best results in terms of student outcomes as well as student and faculty satisfaction.

The “middle ground” may be better articulated as “structured use” of ICTs. This means critically identifying when an ICT is the right tool used for the right job at the right time - even if that sometimes means not being used at all. When a technology tool is warranted that would call for students to use their ICTs, providing clear, explicit instructions and guidelines for students to use their devices effectively to further their learning is needed.

The guidelines that may be most effectively used to structure positive use (and non-use) of ICTs include using backward planning through the identification of learning objectives, reflection on barriers, and the determination of ways to address those barriers. When ICTs are to be used, provision of training, establishment of routines and development of boundaries for use may be necessary in many cases in order to maximize benefit. When such procedures are followed, instructors may maximize the benefits and minimize the deleterious effects of student ICT use in the classroom.

The utility of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as Internet capable smart phones, laptops, tablets, etc. has been thoroughly debated in literature starting around 2004.

Positive Outcomes Associated with ICTs

There is robust evidence that use of ICTs as part of an integrated curriculum can have numerous benefits (e.g., Barry, Murphy, & Drew, 2015; Conole, de Laat, Dillon, & Darby, 2008; Junco, 2012; Kay & Lauricella, 2011). Among these include participation in a laptop program leading to higher test scores and GPAs (Cengiz, Gulek, & Demirtas, 2005), having a central course website with student access via mobile devices (Chen, Chang, & Wang, 2008; Kwok, & Wagner, 2010). Studies have shown that students using laptops and tablets in the classroom tend to use them more for on-task activity than not (Roberts & Rees, 2014).

Higher education students themselves have often claimed that having access to ICTs is important to their learning in class. For example, student participants in one study reported that ICTs led to improved engagement, collaboration and potential for learning (Alsaggaf, Hamilton, & Harland, 2013). Similarly, according to a 2012 Educause Center for Applied Research report (Dahlstrom, 2012), 67% of surveyed students believed that ICTs are important to their academic success and use them for academic activities.

Additionally significant, but often overlooked in the literature debating this topic is the importance of ICTs in the classroom for students with disabilities and/or language learning needs. Laptops and tablets are often the vehicle by which assistive technologies are delivered (Kay & Lauricella, 2011; White, Wepner, & Wetzel, 2003). For example, here at UTK students with disabilities may require use of ICTs for such things as translators, transcripts, personal viewing of lecture notes/PowerPoint slides, to type notes, record lectures, etc. While it is tempting to argue that such needs could be preserved if such students register with the Office of Disability Services and have these accommodations requested, there are shortcomings of this approach. Notably, the presence of a digital device may thus become an indicator of disability, when some students do not wish to be identified. Further, not everyone who has a disability and would benefit from these tools will register with ODS, some students will have temporary disabilities arise and would benefit from these tools on a short-term basis, and there’s ample evidence that assistive technology such as those listed above may be necessary to some, but beneficial to everyone (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014).

Negative Outcomes Associated with ICTs

However, these positive reports are counterbalanced by additional robust evidence that the ICTs in the higher education classroom can have numerous deleterious outcomes (e.g., Bowman, Levine, Waite, Gendron, 2010; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013; Tossell, Kortum, Shepard, Rahmati, & Zhong, 2015). Among these include frequent citation of distraction (e.g., using the ICT for activities unrelated to the learning such as facebook, texting, unrelated web surfing). Additionally, there is evidence that when a student is off task on their ICT, it has a negative effect on proximal peers (Fried, 2008; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013). Wurst, Smarkola, and Gaffney (2008) in the context of an honors program report a decline in student satisfaction when ubiquitous laptop usage was introduced. There are also reports that even when students do use ICTs for note taking (a major point of utility for laptops and tablets; Barry, et al., 2015), the cognitive effect of note taking on a laptop are reduced compared to note taking with pen and paper (e.g., Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

Paradoxical Conclusions?

At first review, the literature on this topic, thus appears to be grossly contradictory. On the one hand are numerous studies claiming that the integration of ICTs has significant and positive outcomes on student performance and that students themselves view ICTs as important to their learning and engagement in the classroom. On the other hand are numerous studies claiming that the use of ICTs in the classroom has lead to rampant distraction and lowered student outcomes. (For an excellent review of this debate, see the literature review section of Barry, et al., 2015).

Significant benefits for student outcomes; many students see ICTs as valuable. vs. Many significant negative implications for studnent outcomes; some students see ICTs as deletrious.

Figure 1. Apparently paradoxical findings in the literature regarding personal student devices in the classroom.

The persistence of evidence on both sides of this argument indicates that asking whether ICTs are beneficial in the classroom or not is the wrong question. It is clear that using ICTs in the classroom can lead to positive outcomes, increased student engagement, and improved satisfaction when instructors and students use the technology appropriately. It is also clear that ICTs can lead to the diametric opposite. Thus, the question has evolved to become: “(how) can the university (or individual faculty) support positive and mitigate negative outcomes of ICT use in the classroom?”

Evidence is emerging that the effectiveness of ICT use in the classroom is not random or wholly outside the scope of university or instructor influence (Andersson, Hatakka, Grönlund, & Wiklund, 2014; Barry et al., 2014). For example, Barry and colleagues argue that – along with individual student factors such as maturity – course content delivery mode, the promotion of passive or active learning, and the need for supporting course information all have effect on the success of utilizing ICTs in the classroom.

Adding Nuance: Structured v. Unstructured ICT Use

In reviewing the literature, a broad observation may be made that the studies in which negative outcomes are noted to override positive outcomes (e.g., Fried, 2008; Ravizza, Hambrick, & Fenn, 2014; Wurst, et al., 2008), ubiquitous ICT usage occurs in an “unstructured” (Fried, 2008) fashion; that is, laptop use whereby instructors ignore the presence of ICTs and continue with traditional instructional practices (e.g., lecture) as if there were no ICTs in student hands. On the contrary, those studies with positive outcomes from the use of ICTs in the higher education classroom (e.g.,  Diliberto-Macaluso & Hughes, 2016; Elavsky, Mislan, & Elavsky, 2011; Gan & Balakrishnan, 2017), the focus is on “structured” methods, utilizing the potential of Information and Communication Technologies to, in fact, explicitly and intentionally increase information and communication opportunities for and among students. This observation is supported by the work of Kay and Lauricella (2011), wherein the authors conducted an experiment to measure the effect of “structured” v. “unstructured” ICT use on on-task behaviors with the devices and found significantly higher on-task performance from students in structured ICT use environments. This may be unsurprising if one considers ICTs tools, which–like all tools–can be used appropriately or inappropriately depending on context, training, and intent.

Finally, it is important to recognize that there is no literature currently dealing with whether classrooms in which ICTs are given “structured use” at times, but lapse into “unstructured” at other times continue to experience the benefits of structured and mitigate the drawbacks of unstructured use. Without evidence to support the former, a regression to the status quo (i.e., moving from structured to unstructured use for significant time leads to negative outcomes). For an article that examines how a blend of structured use and intentional non-use (i.e., restricted use) has been approached effectively in one context, please see Wright (2016).

No-use Policy is No Use

It is worthwhile to note that just as avoiding dealing with ICTs by ignoring them (i.e., “unstructured” use) invites problems, so too does invoking policies banning use of ICTs altogether (note: “altogether” is as opposed to temporary no-use periods outside structured times). The reasons for this span from pragmatic to ethical.

Pragmatic problems

There are at least four pragmatic constraints on technology ban policies by individual instructors. First, implementing holistic ban policies overlooks the evidence-based utility that ICTs do have in classrooms wherein their use is intentional and structured (e.g., Barry, et al., 2015; Conole, et al., 2008; Junco, 2012; Kay & Lauricella, 2011). While it is appealing to look at all evidence and suggest that the “drawbacks outweigh the gains” for ICTs in the classroom, such a view necessarily truncates and oversimplifies what research reveals about ICTs in higher education (Wright, 2016). There are pragmatic benefits of using ICTs that will be simply lost if total bans are imposed by instructors.

Second, there will continue to be variance in the degree to which individual faculty embrace and utilize ICTs in their classrooms. There is evidence that students find it difficult and frustrating to move from classrooms in which ICTs are harnessed for learning, note taking, etc., to classes in which they are told to put all devices away for the duration of the class; this is particularly difficult when students are being told elsewhere to use university-sanctioned technology such as the Canvas learning management system and cloud collaboration platforms such as Google Docs and Office 365 (Gikas & Grant, 2013).

Third, as aforementioned, there will be some students for whom the use of a laptop or tablet is necessary as a necessary accommodation. Instructors who otherwise utilize wholesale bans of technology must be prepared to deal with questions about why certain students are allowed ICTs when others are not – questions to which answers may be difficult to procure, given legal protections for individuals with disabilities regarding disclosure (Kay & Lauricella, 2011).

Fourth, especially in larger classrooms to large lecture halls, monitoring and enforcing such policy is likely to be exceedingly difficult and impractical and thus may lead to inconsistent enforcement and/or further distraction to the learning experience and decreased satisfaction for all.

Ethical problems

Wright (2016) argues that college students are “are at least nominally adults and deserve to be treated as such” (p. 311), going on to suggest that this means respecting their autonomy insofar as their choices do not bring harm to others. He argues that technology bans prevent students from learning to manage themselves in relationship to personal technology. This reflects McCreary’s (2008) suggestion that instructors have a duty to avoid micromanaging and instead to create supportive classroom environments wherein students may learn to self-direct in ways that lead to desirable outcomes.

Further, technology and ICTs play a significant role in many professional careers here in the 21st century. Learning to use technology as a tool for learning, communicating, collaborating (as opposed to simply a tool for leisure) may well be necessary as part of a 21st century college education; failure to support students in this development may contribute to allowing economic, social, and skill gaps to continue unabated (Hora, 2016; Ndiaye & Wolfe, 2016).

Summary and Interim Conclusion

To this point in the report, it has been established that there is significant debate regarding whether or not ICTs have utility in the higher education classroom and the fruit of this debate has been to produce substantial evidence for both those in favor of– and those opposed to– utilization of ICTs. The bounty of paradoxical evidence, rather than being contradictory, enables interpretation of the issue as one of nuance rather than absolutes. There can be no doubt that technology is part of the higher education culture. What is left to determine is how to best respond to the ubiquitous use of technology in this education environment.

The clearest conclusions that are currently available are that banning technology and allowing unrestricted, unstructured use of technology are both non-solutions, each with their own set of pragmatic and ethical problems. Focus for developing policy, procedure, and training should focus on developing instructors and students for structured use of technology in the classroom. There’s ample research-based evidence to suggest that this middle ground is likely to achieve the best results in terms of student outcomes as well as student and faculty satisfaction. The next section presents an overview of several examples of structured use of technology in the higher education classroom.

Continnum from Technology ban (with pragmatic and ethical problems) to Unstructured use (also with pragmatic and ethical problems), with structured use at median, which addreses concerns on both sides, providing a best practice framework.

Figure 2. A juxtaposition of two extremes (“technology ban” and “unstructured use”) with “structured use” as the useful medium.

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