MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — An Augsburg University sociology professor has an unconventional way of getting her students to learn: force them to put their electronic devices away.

Diane Pike has, for 10 years, made her classroom go “tech-free.” When she started this method, she was teaching millennials, who researchers say look at their phones between 80-150 times per day. Today, her students are part of generation-z, the first generation to grow up completely immersed in technology.

“My goal is to have you not look at your phone for 70 minutes,” said Pike, who also works on faculty development at Augsburg. “The research is really clear that being on your phone in class is distracting.”

She has a very specific approach, saying banning the occasional PowerPoint or YouTube video often integrated with the learning environment would miss the point. Rather, she focuses on the individual devices—from smartphones, to tablets, to laptops—that prove as a distraction.

According to a study done by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, more than 90 percent of students admit they use their phone for non-academic purposes while in class. The key for her is in getting students and colleagues to thoroughly understand her strategy.

One challenge against it is the notion that students pay their way to college, so it should be up to them on how they spend it. Pike argues that those distractions often affect the surrounding peers, as well. It affected her too, when she started considering the tech-free zone 10 years ago.

“I found it really frustrating and annoying,” said Pike. “But I tried to get past my personal emotions to think about, ‘Okay, what is this doing to the classroom environment?’ Because I work really hard to think about the readings you need and [the things] we can do together. It should matter that we’re all in the classroom at the same time.”

Occasionally students or staff will argue that technology helps their learning. After all, technology in itself is built around making things more convenient.

“Sometimes students will say, ‘I take notes on my laptop.’ The research shows, yeah, you can take notes on your laptop, but that’s actually more like transcription than it is about learning and retention.”

In a study, a Princeton University professor explained how people are able to retain information better when they write things down manually, because the brain has to be selective with which information to write down, since the writing process takes longer than verbal communication.

Pike acknowledges common challenges she doesn’t have to deal with—the benefit of class size. She says most of her classes are at around 25 students, which is easier to manage than a lecture hall. She also says she gives her longer classes a five minute tech break, during which they can stand up and check their phones if they want to.

In her 10 years since implementing her tech-free zone, Pike says, she has only had to discipline one student one time.

Christiane Cordero


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