Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #1: Allowing Students to Use Technology in the Classroom Empowers Students—As Long as the Rules are Clear

October 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

On any college campus in the United States, a visitor will quickly observe that millennial students frequently and passionately use wireless communication technologies—cell phones, laptops, tablets, and more. Given that this heavy reliance on technology, many students also expect to use such technology in class. This leaves many professors wondering how best to manage students’ technology use: “Should I allow laptops only? Or cell phones too? Maybe I should just ban technology altogether?” Thus, the purpose of our investigation was to discover which teacher policies regarding technology use predict student empowerment in the classroom. 

In a previous study, we discovered two types of policies college instructors use to regulate student technology use. First, encouraging policies permit (and perhaps even foster) student use of technology for purposes related to the course. For example, teachers may encourage students to take notes on a laptop or consult material on the course website. Second, discouraging policiesrestrict students from using technology for purposes unrelated to the course. Such policies could include demanding that students cease technological distractions, punishing students for use violations, or perhaps even banning any form of wireless technology from the classroom.

In our current study, we asked 294 university students to complete a survey about a course they were currently enrolled in that semester. Questions addressed perception of the teacher’s policies for technology use, as well as the student’s sense of empowerment in the classroom. Previous research has demonstrated that empowered students possess motivation to achieve their educational goals, whereas students without empowerment doubt their ability to complete the course successfully. We also asked students about how generally apprehensive they were about communicating online.

Results of our study demonstrated meaningful differences in learner empowerment depending on the technology policies employed by the teacher. For encouraging policies, we found nothing but a beneficial effect on learner empowerment. Specifically, when teachers used encouraging policies (that is, they encouraged students to use their wireless devices for course and learning purposes), students felt empowered to make contributions that impacted the course and that the course was meaningful to their lives. We think this pattern of results should give teachers some pause about banning all technology use, especially course-relevant use, in the classroom. Doing so may come at the unintended cost of diminished empowerment in the student.

Given the results for encouraging policies, one might expect that discouraging policies would harm student empowerment. However, our data revealed a much more complex story than a simple negative effect. For discouraging policieswe found empowerment outcomes depended on the student’s level of apprehension about communicating online. For students with little to no online communication apprehension, discouraging policies did not predict learner empowerment. In contrast, a somewhat surprising pattern emerged for students high in online communication apprehension. Students with high apprehension about communicating online felt empowered at the extremes of discouraging policies—in other words, either when teachers strongly discouraged technology for non-course purposes or did not offer any such discouragement. Yet, such students felt significantly less empowered when teachers moderately discouraged technology use. Stated differently, only half-heartedly discouraging non-course technology use appears worse than discouraging it strongly or not at all.

We believe these results offer several suggestions for college instructors regarding their policies for student technology use in the classroom. First, our results caution teachers against banning technology outright. Although such an approach certainly eliminates technological distractions, it may prove frustrating for students accustomed to using the devices in ways that legitimately enhance their learning. Although perhaps necessary in some instructional contexts, simply forbidding all technology use addresses the problem imprecisely and may introduce a sense of alienation in the teacher-student relationship. We instead recommend that instructors incorporate technology in ways that enhance student learning.

Second, however, encouraging technology use for course-related purposes does not necessitate ignoring the instructional challenges such technologies can create. Indeed, our results suggest that instructors may discourage non-course technology use quite strongly without harming student empowerment. The risk to empowerment arises when instructors only moderately discourage non-course technology use. In these cases, students may experience confusion regarding the kind of technology use the teacher expects or tolerates. That uncertainty may prove particularly vexing for students highly apprehensive about technology use in the first place. Overall, teacher clarity appears to be a vital ingredient when discouraging students from engaging in distractive uses of the technology.

Third and finally, learner empowerment is not the entirety of the story. We believe a study published alongside ours inCommunication Education sheds further light on our work. In contrast to our survey approach, Kuznekoff and Titsworth conducted an experiment where they instructed students to engage in different amounts of cell phone use during class. Their results indicated that cell phone use decreased student learning. Given that other studies have reached similar conclusions to theirs, we are hesitant to recommend that instructors provide unrestricted access to technology use, even if such access may foster learner empowerment. A student’s sense of empowerment may not reflect the actual extent of his or her learning, which is, after all, the central goal of college instruction. 

When teachers do employ policies that restrict student technology use, the results of our study urge instructors to clearly explain why they impose such restrictions. Such clarity may buffer against the apprehension some students experience when facing uncertainty about technology use in the classroom. Furthermore, such explanations communicate to students the teacher has their best interests in mind when designing course policies.

About the author (s)

Andrew M. Ledbetter

Texas Christian University

Associate Professor

Amber N. Finn

Texas Christian University

Associate Professor