ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Personal Technology in the Classroom

By Benjamin Thornton / April 2011

Print Email
Comments (3) Instapaper

Personal Technology in the Classroom

April 26, 2011

When I was applying for a teaching position at a local high school last year, the principal took me on a tour of the school. We went into a classroom where students were celebrating a successful science fair by watching a movie for fun. In the back of the classroom, a couple of girls were sending text messages from their phones. The principal confiscated the phones, and when we returned to the main office, he put them in his drawer stating, "They can get them back at the end of the day if they understand what they did wrong." As I sat through the rest of the interview, I tried to think about what was wrong with what they were doing. They were not disturbing anyone paying attention to the movie. They were not distracting from the education of themselves or others. The only thing they did was have their cell phone out in plain sight. If they had been reading a book, I do not think the principal would have taken it away. The principal's reaction is not uncommon. At the school I work at currently, the policy is no personal electronics are allowed in the classroom. Neither of these black-and-white policies take into account the benefits that can be gained through proper use of mobile devices. Personal technology, whether it is a cell phone or a laptop, can cause distractions in the classroom. But they can also be useful tools of instruction.

Diversions versus Disturbances

There are two major categories of distraction in the classroom. Diversions like doodling, staring out the window, or reading a book only affect a single person. These can be done in class in such a way that no one else is aware that they are happening. They do not keep other students who wish to pay attention from doing so, and the student can still learn the subject matter if they are good at multitasking. While diversions are undesirable in a class, they can be tolerated in moderation if the students' education is not being ignored.

Disturbances affect multiple people. These include talking in class, passing notes, and moving around the classroom. It also includes noises in the hallway or any situation that affects someone other than the instigator. In the best of circumstances, only a couple of people are affected, but often they become issues for all of the students. Students who wish to pay attention, either because they are fascinated with the topic or they want to be sure of understanding the information presented, are being distracted. In all circumstances, disturbances should not be allowed.

Personal Electronics

Laptops and most modern mobile phones have the capability of being used for both diversion and disturbance. The student playing a quick game on her phone or laptop with the sound off is no worse than the student who is doodling in her notebook. While their attention is split, they can still hear what the teacher is saying, observe the visuals, and learn the subject matter. Meanwhile, the student texting or instant messaging in the classroom is essentially passing notes electronically, and is therefore disturbing their fellow student. Even if the other person is not in the classroom, it is still a disturbance. A drawing does not try to get the attention of its artist. The student is in complete control of when they will be drawing on their binder and when they will be paying attention to the teacher; whereas a student cannot control when they will receive a text message, an IM, or a notice from a social networking app. The electronic device has become the instigator and the student is no longer in control of the situation.

This does not mean that personal electronic devices should not be allowed in the classroom. There are many useful features that these bring to education. There have been many articles written about the value of laptops for student use, and many of those same features are available on smart phones. It would not be a surprise if tasks like essay writing become available in the near future. There are even some things that smart phones can do better than laptops. There is a new app available for the iPhone that will instantly translate text from English to Spanish or back. This could easily be used by English Language Learner (ELL) students to understand what the teacher has written on the board.

Despite the potential for distractions instant messaging, texting, or chatting have a place in the classroom. When students are collaborating, communication is essential. Laptops and mobile phones help expand the collaborations beyond the classroom. Students can work with other classes, other schools, or even professionals in the field they are studying. They can connect with people on the other side of the world. And unlike verbal communication, the results are easily stored verbatim and available at a later point. As we move away from lecture-based education to an information management system, the disadvantages of personal electronics will be turned into advantages

Moving Beyond

During this time of transition, there are still things that teachers and administrators can do to facilitate the learning process. First, we can use the technology that we have available to us. One of my colleagues had a cart full of iPod touch devices that had been donated to her school. No one was allowed to use them out of fear that the iPods would get damaged or lost. This is a shame. Any school that is fortunate enough to have personal electronics given to them should be using them. They should be developing new ways of using these devices, and sharing these developments with other schools.

For schools that don't have these devices or don't allow them to be used in the classroom, students should be encouraged to use their personal devices for homework. Students already use their home computers for assignments, we should think of ways to include personal technology as part of learning outside of the classroom. Teachers can create podcasts that the students can download and listen to at their convenience. Students can text questions to study groups or the teacher. Chat programs can be used for homework help. More and more options become available every month.


There are restrictions we can put on personal electronics that will make them appropriate for the current classroom structure. Phone companies can offer student plans that limit text messages during school hours. IT departments can limit the use of certain websites, like chat rooms or social networking sites, allowing the teacher to decide when they can be accessed. Most importantly, we can show our students how to use technology responsibly, so they will be respectful of the rules of both the classroom and society.

In an informal survey, I found approximately four out of every five of the middle school students where I work have cell phones. This is in a school where 85.5 percent of the students are low income. The percentage would be even higher at a suburban or private school. In high school, the percentage would jump again. With all of these students owning tools that can be used to improve their education, it is disappointing that our school structure does not allow us to take advantage of it. While the disturbing distractions do need to be curtailed, blanket policies against personal electronic use do not help our students learn the proper use of devices, which are permeating our social, personal, academic and professional lives.

About the Author

Benjamin Thornton lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife. He is earning his M.S. in classroom technology education from Walden University, and is currently helping seventh and eighth grade students understand mathematics. You can follow his musings at Education Reform Through Technology.


  • Wed, 11 May 2011
    Post by Sue Landay

    I think doodling is quite different from reading a book or playing a computer/phone game. Doodling has actually been shown to help concentration and improve recall - it happens on a subconscious level and fills in when your brain needs a bit of additional stimulation in order to stay focuses. You can listen and doodle at the same time. However, you can't remain focused on a book and classroom learning at the same time. For more on doodling, see here:

    As for phones. There isn't much in our world that is black and white. The best advice I've read is for the class to be part of a discussion about what type of phone use is appropriate and inappropriate for classroom use. Students will be more accepting of repercussions, if they break a rule they helped devise.

  • Fri, 06 May 2011
    Post by Benjamin Thornton

    Ms. Moscardini-Hall,

    You make a wonderful point that even older generations of phones have many features that can be useful in the classroom. What do you think we can do to help schools and teachers become aware of the uses of personal electronics without becoming overwhelmed by the possible abuses?

  • Fri, 29 Apr 2011
    Post by Christine Moscardini-Hall

    I agree with your article. For many of the students, they may not have a computer, but they have a phone. Phones are increasingly used for data retrieval and research, and from my own phone I can read ebooks, search the web, etc. Even phones without advanced web access have features useful to the tech savvy teacher.

    There are ways of creating quizzes or polls for students to respond to via phone, google has text message based services (and face it, the text message and web features are what our teens use), and as you mentioned, translation services.

    I think what needs to happen is a slow shift in school and teacher awareness of the uses and abuses of personal electronics in the educational setting.