Cellphone Usage in Classrooms

Kevin Carpenter   Contributing Writer

You’ve seen it before, or perhaps done it yourself. Class is 35 minutes in, and you feel that familiar buzz calling to you from your pocket. Quickly, you draw your phone and see who’s texting, posting or otherwise bothering you. From the cover of your lap, you scroll through the few messages you missed since class started, text out a few responses and maybe like a few Instagram photos. You slide the phone back into your pocket, confident that your professor is none the wiser.

“I can usually tell when students are distracted by their phone,” said Dr. Jordan Youngblood, an English professor at Eastern. “There’s a difference between a quick look and real distraction.” As a professor of new media studies and an educator on popular digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, Dr. Youngblood is not clueless about what goes on in the classroom, and neither are many of his colleagues. “Clearly, it can be a problem,” he said as his class on Digital Rhetoric was still filing out of the room. “They are a part of our lives, an extension of ourselves, like another limb. I try to adapt to that.”

In the mid 1990s cellular phones started becoming available to the average person. Companies like Nokia, Motorola, and Sprint had a home in almost everyone’s pocket, and T9 typing was only just taking off. At this time, phone plans had a limited number of minutes and even more limitations on texting. Some service providers charged upwards of 10 cents per text. This cost forced phone use to be a limited luxury, used only in times of need. Today, phone technology has improved to the point where 95% of Americans own a cellphone, with 77% of those being smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. Plans include unlimited talk, text and data, so there is no financial incentive to turn phones off during class time.

Abusing technology in the classroom of communications professor Dr. Edmond Chibeau could have a negative impact on your grade. “I think of it a little like attendance. If you spend the class on Facebook or whatever, you’re not really attending the class,” he said. However, instant handheld access to the internet can also be a useful tool, according to Chibeau: “Students can access additional information, and even challenge me during class, which is a good thing.”

Many Eastern professors agree that it is a self-correcting problem. The more time students spend on their phones, the less time they’re paying attention, and the worse they’ll do on exams.

According to a 2015 study, the average teenager only has an attention span of about 12 seconds. While the same teenagers had an improved ability to multitask, they struggled to remain on a single task. They had difficulty zoning out irrelevant stimuli and were easily distracted. For reference, a goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds. “The American attention span is not designed for the classroom,” said Dr. Catherine Carlson, professor of environmental science. She believes this problem can be solved by engaging students and changing the way we teach.

Dozens of studies worldwide show a negative correlation between the time spent on smartphones and academic performance. But students don’t all agree with the science. Sitting before a laptop screen streaming a sporting event, Matt Evarts, an Eastern senior, said, “I know it doesn’t seem like it makes sense, but it helps me concentrate.” He claimed that even in high school, his educators didn’t really care if he was watching something on his phone or laptop. He believes that he learns best through hearing and that watching the game doesn’t detract from his learning experience, but enhances it, allowing him to focus his auditory energy on the words of his professors.

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