Before we get started this post is mainly related to some discussion that have been in Denmark over the last two weeks on kids and young adults usage of screens in the classroom. Therefore, most content I will link will be in danish, sorry about that.

It has been discussed lately that screens should be completely removed from the classroom with very little, in my opinion, nuance in the discussion. So I would love to give my hot take on this and what I my qualifications for this? None, really besides having been in school before phones and computers common and being a teaching assistant (TA) in University.

In my opinion there are both pros and cons of allowing devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones being used in the classroom. But for this discussion I will actually have to divide them into two separate categories. Phones and then the rest, and more specifically personal phones and then the rest.

Personal phones have absolutely no place in the classroom, unless a parent needs to get hold of a kid/teenager in an emergency. However, here a parent can call the school and it will get hold of the student, that is possible in Denmark at least. Now why am I so against personal phones? Well, I have literally never seen a phone being used for anything relevant to the class. It has either been for gaming or social media, never anything relevant. This is distraction not only to the student using the phone but also the students sitting around the user. Even though it does not seem like it, this distributes the class and students will miss information. Furthermore, it is very annoying for the teacher/lecture as it very obvious that the student or students is not following along. First of it is a lack of respect that you so clearly show no interest in a class. Secondly, it makes the teacher feel like why the hell did I even prepare for this lecture, even if it s only one student. Thirdly, as a teacher you also know that this student will likely have very simple questions later, just because they did not follow along. You do not believe me? Try being a TA for one lecture. Finally, a thing I have heard from students and parents “It cannot be that obvious that they are using a phone”! I sadly do not remember where I have this quote from but “No one is that interested in their crotch”. Therefore, I believe that phones should not be present in a classroom. When it comes to breaks, I would prefer a strong in the moment social relations between the students and one that is not build solely on technology, but I am not sure that is feasible.

On the other hand when it comes to Tablets and Computers they have a significant usage in the classroom. Be it for not taking notes, either directly in slide PDFs or whatever fancy note program the student uses. In many cases a pen and paper could easily replace it, returning to a slide print outs is a good idea. Personally I recall better taking notes by pencil than by typing on a computer but I gather this is not for everyone. Additionally when writing reports, doing plots, slides, and so on a computer or tablet is useful. However, as a phone they can take focus from the class either by students gaming or watching videos, most of the time it is silent. But sometimes there is a constant clicking or a student saying a little to loud “nice move” or something like that, and here it become a problem. Not just for the students, but also the teacher. So computers/tablets have their pros and the cons.

But how do we solve the cons? I have two suggestion and one is rather radical so we will start with that. Government / school issued devices that has a limited amount of apps installed, with blocks for installing more, and network block of social media and online gaming sites. The devices should have the bare minimum a word processor, a spread sheet, and presentation slides. As the students mature more can be added. For instance if a student is following a STEM line biology, physics, and programming tools can be added. If in stead a economic line is followed finance applications can be added. This would to a certain extend alleviate a lot of the problem. However, I am very much against internet censorship, so this even hurt to suggest.

The less dramatic option is to confiscate the offending student(s) device for the rest of the class. A repeat offender can in the worst case be forbidden to bring devices to class for a while. Although this will limit the student to taking notes by hand, it is also a way to show that there are consequence for once actions and hopefully it would help the student grow.

Finally, it is not just teachers and schools that have to do something here. Parents also have to address their kids usage of technology and dependency on it. A human should be able to survive 45 minutes without looking at their phone or checking social media.

During my PhD I attend a talk about how the maths department had adopted a way of producing teaching material that was not more than fifteen minutes long so it fit with the modern attention span. I raised the question, if it was not wrong to adjust to this and rather we should expect more of our students. The speaker literally could not see a problem with accepting humans getting a short attention span and “we have to adopt to the needs of our students”. I highly disagree. Because most jobs require you to be able to focus for more than fifteen minutes and if the educational system do not see that, then we have a huge problem.

Technology is wonderful and powerful. But we need to address how we use it, how dependent we are on it, and how we can reduce its usage in some parts of our lives. And I mean this even comes from a Software Engineer.