Silencing cell phones in more than the classroom


Cell phones have been called a distraction in the work place along with in the classroom. New ordinances are in the drawing stages for bans on cell phones in certain environments.

Alyssa Stencavage, L&A&E Editor

First a buzz, then a ring. Then the phone appears. That’s how it all starts.

It was exam day, and the days before were rough for one student. The 10-minute cram of study time before class was enough to refresh the student’s memory about some of the material, but certainly not enough to ace the test.

Class time comes, and the professor walks down each aisle, handing out exams one-by-one, and then heads back to his seat at the front of the room, looking up every once in a while from the stack of papers he was grading to check the clock and have a look around the room.

He notices the student scanning the phone out on his desk, pen in the other hand, writing away. The professor gets up, walks to the middle of the room, grabs the exam and rips it to shreds. The student had been caught in the act.

Campuses have a variety of reasons for eliminating cell phones and other electronic devices from the classroom, but other places are also revising cell phone policies for other reasons.

The Wilkes-Barre City Council is trying to minimize distraction by asking for cooperation from attendees to silence cell phones during board meetings.

City Council Chairman Bill Barrett said there hadn’t been anything in place governing meetings, and although not a constant occurrence, it’s something the council felt needed to be addressed once and for all.

“We didn’t want to be the phone police, we just wanted people to be courteous and help us run a productive meeting,” he said.

Barrett said the proposed ordinance is an effort to restore order to meetings, even if it means tweaking the rules a bit to achieve that.

A cell phone could also be a bother for the speaker who stands at the front of the room.

This 2014 ordinance follows the 2010 ordinance in the city of Wilkes-Barre that prohibits the use of handheld devices while driving, which Barrett said was mostly for awareness and getting the state to step up to the plate.

Although no relationship exists between the two, the citywide ordinance remains in place, perhaps reminding drivers that they’re safer for it if they can remove the distraction.

When cell phones are applied to a classroom setting, the same idea rings true, as stated in the Wilkes handbook, which says, “in order to provide an optimum environment for learning, all cellular phones and other electronic devices must be kept on silent alert while in the classroom, laboratory, or studio. All calls must be answered outside the classroom, and most importantly, no recordings of lectures or labs are allowed without written permission of the instructor.”

Even in a classroom setting, legitimate concerns may arise. However, that’s not to say that cell phones should be out and ready in case of an emergency. When phones are frequented, distractions still abound.

Deborah Tindell, psychology professor at Wilkes and the lead author of a study, “The Use and Abuse of Cell Phones and Text Messaging in the Classroom: A Survey of College Students,” agrees that cell phones today have the ability to do much more than make phone calls, and she said we only have so much attention at any given time, which then needs to be divided among all of the tasks we engage in.

“In general, students think they are much better at divided attention than they really are,” Tindell said. “Studies show that memory for lectures is reduced for which cell phones are being used to text.”

There’s also a domino-like effect when students decide to pull out cell phones during class. Their use distracts others sitting nearby, who have a right to learn without that distraction. But it also affects the professor.

“When students choose to disengage, it makes it more difficult for the instructor to be a dynamic and effective teacher” she said.

Dean of Student Affairs Mark Allen said faculty are much more prone to dealing with other issues than a serious case of a cell phone resister gone wild.

“As we’ve grown so dependent on this 24/7 communication, people can get really anxious about not having that connectivity,” he said.

He also admits that because many faculty own cell phones themselves, they are aware of the connection and the expectations that follow – rightly or wrongly – and they typically don’t face resistance from students. But if students were to act out, they would be reported.

Allen said at the end of the day, faculty own responsibility and would have to make the exception to the policy.

Beyond the context of the city or the classroom, research also indicates the cell phone’s role in learning, with feedback across the board.

According to an article by Audrey Watters in 2011, a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 83 percent of American adults own a cell phone, more than half of whom had used their phones at least once to get information they needed right away, and the situation likely remains the same for students.

A high school teacher Jamie Williams asks his students to use photos they’ve taken on their phones to create paintings. He also allows students to use both handwritten and phone-stored notes during tests.

Williams feels that the smartphones many students are equipped with these days are not used to their full potential. With features like calculators, cameras, video capability and more, schools might find that students are better equipped with a device like this, something he calls a powerful computing device in their pockets.

He also notes the difficult transition for students to go from one class of using a cell phone to another where it’s prohibited at the door. Essentially, he sees the biggest challenge to be educators and administrators who continue to view cell phones in a negative light, and suggests that schools come up with an acceptable policy to allow them in the classroom.

Yet, some schools take a more extreme approach.

In the end, cell phones might be an important mode of communication or tool for safety, but they can also be a nuisance to an otherwise productive situation. Therefore, even in the classroom, their role must be considered. As for the city council ordinance, Barrett said it should be in place by April, and reminder signs should help do the trick.