By Anne S. Katzeff

Matt using cellphone during class.During a recent professional development workshop at Lasell College (where I teach), we had an interesting discussion about the use of technology in the classroom. When this topic arises among teachers, the tendency is to berate students who use their cellphones during class. And so it began during this discussion. Quickly, though, I learned how many of my colleagues don’t use or even allow any technology at all. This surprised me.

Technology is a broad term and it means different things to different people. For me, it includes cellphones as well as computers, tablets, hand-held devices, overhead projectors, and software. I’ve been using computers for 20-plus years and must admit that I’m a bit of a geek. As a graphic design teacher, it’s unrealistic to conduct my classes without technology. The students must learn the standard software for their field of study in order to be successful after they graduate. So, I embrace the technology: it’s an integral part of how I teach.


There are challenges when students get distracted with their cellphones or computers. They read and reply to their emails and text messages, log into social media accounts, and sometimes even do online shopping! I noticed the change in student behavior when I began teaching again 6 years ago. By then, the prevalence of technology in our lives had taken hold.

At first, I was very upset by the distractions. When busy doing other things, students weren’t paying attention to what was happening in class. I treated cellphone usage and social media activity in my classroom as poisons that had to be banned. I devised schemes to discourage the behavior: request that their cellphones be placed at my desk; pause the lesson until they realized they were the reason for the pause; ask that they log out of Facebook; give a short lecture on how they’re wasting their money on school by spending class time this way. Even though the schemes worked, it felt combative and unpleasant. So, I decided to rethink the entire problem.

This generation of students is media-literate. Using technology is second-nature to them. Why treat technology as the enemy when the real problem is that a distracted student is not an engaged student? From this perspective, it became necessary for me to make sure that my classroom activities were interesting, challenging, and fun enough to capture all or most of their attention.

gd2 class using technology

Some key changes I made

  1. Embrace the technology by providing a variety of intellectually-stimulating ways for students to use it appropriately. Some examples:
    — examine the web design of Facebook
    — analyze the effectiveness of a shopping site’s Call-to-Action
    — critique websites’ user-interfaces
    — use Google to research a topic that arises during class
  2. Don’t make assumptions. Cellphone usage in my classroom is not allowed. The reason is explained to the students on day 1: Class time is treated like a design meeting, so that students become accustomed to graphic design processes and etiquette in the real world. However, there are exceptions to this rule. When someone is using their phone, it may be to find the answer to a question posed. I no longer assume it’s unrelated to what we’re doing in class.
  3. Pick my battles. If students are using technology in ways that are unrelated to our class, I address it as kindly and quietly as possible. I try to make it into a teachable moment, perhaps reminding them how we’re at a client meeting and this behavior might alienate his/her colleagues. There are occasions when I get really upset and express my dismay. But, generally, I don’t get stressed out about it.
  4. I allow computers for note-taking. I know there have been numerous studies which show that hand-written notes render more effective integration of the material. It doesn’t matter to me. The students have grown up using their computers for this purpose and I have chosen to let them continue on that path. I’m happy enough that they’re even taking notes!

What works for you?

My approach works for me and the design material I teach. I allow the use of technology within the framework of class activity. If using their cellphone takes them away from the activity, it’s not acceptable. Essentially, it’s about the student being present.

My approach may not work for certain content, like chemistry, mathematics, or economics. I’d like to hear what other teachers think and do about technology in their classrooms. Let the discussion continue….

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[Editor’s note: Anne Katzeff is the web designer who created our beautiful, functional new website! This article is cross-posted from ASK Design Blog.]

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