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Advice & News

June 5, 2019

Professionalism and the Use of Personal Technology in Work and Classroom Settings


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As an instructor, I've struggled with managing student non-instructional use of laptops, smartphones, and other technology in the classroom. Should I impose punitive rules because it is potentially distracting to me and other students, or should I remove all restrictions because it's their problem if their technology distracts them from learning?

There are no easy answers. I have found, however, that open dialogue on the topic with my students, instead of simply imposing rules in my syllabus, helps gain insights on how they feel technology may promote, rather than detract from, their learning. The conversation also helps remind them of the need to foster professionalism and respect in the classroom community.

Appeals to professionalism and respect are paramount, which extends to both classroom and workplace settings. Whatever your setting -- whether with students, colleagues, direct reports, or others with whom you meet regularly -- consider upfront dialogue to establish norms for technology use to support the learning, workplace, or meeting environment that all participants may embrace. Here are some considerations:

Understand the adverse impacts. Use of personal technology during meetings, such as accessing emails and checking smartphones, is considered distracting and annoying to both the boss and co-workers. It is also unprofessional as it shows a lack of attention and respect, and sends a message that you don't care. Student non-instructional use of technology is no less distracting to other students, as well as the instructor. I tell my students that when I become aware of these activities, not only do they diminish other students' learning near them, but all students as the distraction impacts my teaching. Non-academic use of personal technology also adversely impacts student performance. It is also a form of multitasking, which isn't really possible. Multi-tasking in business meetings is not only disrespectful but can impact decision-making and bottom-line costs.

Consider when personal technology use is appropriate. Such use can, of course, enhance classroom learning and workplace effectiveness. I appreciate when students use their laptops to take notes during a lecture or to pull up online reading materials during a class discussion. Complex business conversations may require quick reference to a website, analysis of data without having to print out reams of paper, or reference to online materials, emails, or other information to jog memories. Laptops and tablets are often the preferred mode for note-keeping instead of pen and paper. Keeping smartphones on to alert participants of an emergency or in anticipation of an important call, such as when an employee anticipates a call from the hospital concerning an ailing family member, is also generally accepted.

Discuss common annoyances. Rather than tolerate disrespectful use of personal technology, talk about it generally within your classroom or workplace community without pointing fingers. In dialogue with my students, they note a number of annoyances which seem as applicable in the workplace: seeing videos, images, and websites unrelated to class displayed by students next to or in front of them; loud clicking of keyboards and furious texting, whether to text others or play games; text conversations with friends, often accompanied by smirks and quiet giggles; and lack of attention during group discussions due to smartphone use. As an instructor and meeting facilitator, I'll add: keeping one's head down while trying to hide their device on their lap or under the table; openly holding devices up and close to their face in apparent disregard of my notice; and asking questions or seeking clarification, whether during class or afterward, because they missed parts of my instruction due to personal technology use.

Establish norms and expectations. My conversation with students on this issue reinforces the norms and expectations they should abide to show respect for others. Work teams and committees that meet regularly should also consider such conversations as they form, rather than simply assume everyone understands. Open discussion of common distractions and annoyances creates these norms implicitly. You might also gently remind individuals to turn non-work devices off and set them aside as meetings begin. It is also helpful to create an understanding of how you will manage situations when personal technology use is unavoidable, such as informing the leader and perhaps the whole group beforehand that you may need to take an important call, respond to a personal emergency, or meet a deadline that can't be put off. Leaving the room to take a call is also generally expected.

Determine how you will "enforce" norms and expectations. Some instructors impose strict penalties for inappropriate use of personal technology, often involving point deductions. While my syllabus suggests the potential for such penalties, I prefer gentle reminders from time to time in the hopes of avoiding such consequences. I have also learned that calling attention to the activity when I observe it in class becomes its own distraction that diminishes my teaching. If the issue is important or appears to create a problem for others, I address it privately with a student. In workplace settings, leaders could utilize tools like discipline and performance reviews to address such behaviors. However, I'd suggest not making personal technology use the central criteria for adverse action and consider it instead as one factor among many that highlights an employee's struggles with team interactions, lack of focus on work and job goals, and similar behaviors. Moreover, similar to my approach in the classroom, I would recommend as much as possible finding ways to occasionally revisit norms and expectations as a means of maintaining the productive and professional workplace community you have created without invoking punitive measures.