On cell phones and twitter in the classroom

Yesterday afternoon, a guest speaker was in a Gettysburg College sociology class to discuss the role of social media in the Israel-Palestine conflict. When I asked how it went, having run into the speaker and professor at the local Irish pub, my colleague replied, “it was going great until Boston.” In moments, it seemed, Boston had transformed from a city to an event. While we still wait for the details to shake out, calling it anything in particular seems premature, but also reflected, probably, an unwillingness by my colleague to internalize what had happened.

Upon reflection, I am now struck by my lack of surprise that a news event would so wholly disrupt a class. No one came running into the classroom to tell them about it, but rather all her students were on twitter. This class is a bit particular because it is on the study and practice of social media, but all the same, I’m sure the same situation played out throughout campus as students are now constantly on their phones.

Just over eleven years ago, when planes struck the World Trade Center buildings, I was in class. Though someone had mentioned a plane when we walked in, we held class, entirely oblivious to what was going on just a few states away. The next time that class met, the professor apologized for having kept us; he just didn’t know. And how could he?

The subject of cell phones and twitter in classrooms proved to be a popular one throughout the evening (It’s a rare event that gets a group of eight or ten professors out on a Monday for purely social reasons, but last night happened to be just that. We still talked mostly about students and research, if you must know). All present seemed to have much higher levels of tolerance for use of phones and computers in the classroom than I had imagined. I still remember professors answering their students’ phone when they rang in class, confiscating laptops and phones, and now all that seems unimaginable. I don’t expressly prohibit cell phone use in my class. I know that my students are texting or reading sports scores when they look down at their shorts and not at me, but I’m not going to stop them either. Some students are legitimately looking things up, finding definitions, trying to figure out whether Palestine is a country or a city, or any number of other activities. Some are probably on facebook, too. In some cases, it’s just their choice. Some claim they listen better with something in their hands, but all the same, I’m not on a rampage confiscating iPads, and neither are these colleagues.

We all seem to have just accepted it. I guess technology is here to stay, so how to work it in appropriately is inevitable.

My condolences to the families of those affected in Boston.

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