Managing Student Personal Tech in the Case Classroom

By Emma Simmons

The website of almost any business school features classroom images of students, many with laptops open. But ubiquitous personal electronic devices create dilemmas, especially for case classes. Participants at a recent case teaching workshop identified this as one of their major classroom challenges. We explore international faculty experiences.

Benefits - theory and practice

Anne-Valerie Ohlsson-CorbozAt Copenhagen Business School (CBS), Ester Barinaga was recently sitting at the back of a colleague’s case class. While her purpose had been to observe, she couldn’t miss the direct view of participants’ laptop screens “My colleague is an excellent teacher and the session was compelling, yet many students were engaging - with their own technology.” It has become normal for students to take notes on their laptops, tablets or smart phones, rather than with pen and paper. Cases are often provided electronically rather than on traditional paper, so participants may have them open on their laptops during the discussion. But, as Ester observed, other functionalities such as checking and messaging on email, WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook, dipping into a sports match, catch-up TV or, indulging in a little shopping or gaming, are a mere click away. “The danger for students in a case class is that the discussion moves on while they are distracted, and they are likely to become less and less active contributors to their own and to the group learning. This can represent a passive disruption of the class which saps the collective energy.”

Shannon HesselAlso at CBS, Shannon Hessel recognises that many students are using their technology for legitimate class-related activity, such as checking back with the case text, making related searches, and taking notes. “There are some benefits to ‘thinking’ simultaneously on your screen, but there are also drawbacks when students create ‘their own little shielded universe’ within the class,” she says. “It is rarely true that multitasking works in a case class because even brief interruptions to engagement can lose the discussion thread, making it hard to re-enter. The greatest danger is when students believe that because they are being ‘quiet’ they are not disturbing others. In fact they can cause a significant disruption to the class and its relational energy by demonstrating what appears as an unwillingness to engage in a collaborative learning experience.”

The science

Daniel OppenheimerAt UCLA Anderson School of Management, Daniel Oppenheimer has investigated whether laptops in class support or inhibit learning. Three laboratory studies revealed that even if laptops are only being used to take class notes, those users learn less well than the ones making notes by hand. The acquisition and use of conceptual knowledge is particularly affected. These findings have since been replicated by other researchers in classroom settings. According to Daniel: “It seems that when taking handwritten notes, people have to extract the information they consider important, and rephrase it in their own words. Those taking laptop notes may be trying to transcribe, verbatim, everything they hear, a process that results in shallower mental processing.”

Jin Wook Chan“Perhaps I hold a traditional view that constantly responding to technology impedes learning,” says Jin Wook Chang at HEC Paris. He presents his students with the above research findings: “I try to convince them that taking notes in long hand will help them learn, but most of them still don’t like me asking them not to use their laptops, tablets or cell phones in class. I confess that, as a teacher, I can find it demotivating when many heads seem focused on private screens rather than actively following the class discussion around the room.”

Role of the school

Sarah Wilcox ElliottAt the Darden School of Business, an underlying philosophy of collaboration and teamwork, especially in case learning, is supported through the early formation of ‘Learning Teams’ and team exercises. Sarah Wilcox Elliott of the School’s Office of Student Affairs acknowledges: “Darden has a deep commitment to individual learning within the context of group learning, but we are not immune to the challenges emerging from the use of personal technology in class. Each individual faculty or department is empowered to set its own policy by course or even by individual session.” She adds: “When laptops are ‘allowed’, it is not unknown for a teacher to take a walk around the class to look at what is actually on them!”

Anita ElberseMost other schools we spoke to also delegate decisions on in-class student tech and its enforcement to individual faculty. Only Harvard Business School operates a baseline ‘laptops down’ policy as has been articulated in its ‘Honor Code’: “Engaging in behaviours or activities that detract from the in-class learning environment, including inappropriate use of technology. Unless authorized by a faculty member, mobile phones, tablets, and laptops should not be used in class.” According to Anita Elberse: “Listening without distraction, by both faculty and students, is crucial for learning, especially in a case class. The school norm on laptops makes things so much easier for the faculty. Participants are still free to bring devices that they may have used for pre-class group preparation, but many don’t, and they will only be used if expressly directed by the instructor. As well as communicating this norm to new students, we make sure to regularly re-brief faculty colleagues, which helps to renew a shared pedagogical understanding across the school.”

Anita stresses that the laptops down norm is not an indicator of an aversion to technology at the school; quite the opposite. “Outside class, students may be using their multiple devices in any number of ways to gather, process and share information and the school is certainly committed to the exploration and pioneering of innovative high-tech developments in management education, but when a class itself begins, the focus is on questioning, responding and group interaction. Ultimately, this expression of community values is the culture everyone ‘buys into’ at Harvard Business School.”

Different student groups

Vyla RollinsBut, is it reasonable to tell a senior business leader on an executive programme how to take notes, or to cease communication with the outside world, as one might an undergraduate or MBA student? At London Business School, one of Vyla Rollins' roles is the design of customised development programmes for senior executives. “The issue of technology in the classroom hinges on establishing how it might be effectively harnessed to support the learning journey,” she says. “It is an aspect that must be carefully considered in advance, at the programme design stage, when it is important to fully understand the culture of a company and how much exposure its executives have previously had to business school learning and to technology that enables learning. Together with the pedagogical objectives, this will all influence classroom strategy around the use of technology.” But Vyla does encourage executives to make notes on paper, backed up by the neuroscientific research on how adults best learn. “Many programmes include distribution of a personalised learning diary for participants to use for hand written reflections. I do share with participants the evidence-based research as to how this approach aids learning and retention. Resistance can still occur, in which case we simply suggest that participants try this strategy for the first 24 hours of the programme. Ultimately, it’s about stakeholder engagement in what will, for some, be a new learning opportunity or experience.”

Barbara ZunderBut there are students for whom personal technology in class facilitates, or even enables, learning. Barbara Zunder at the University of Virginia works with students with disabilities and collaborates closely with the Darden Student Affairs Office in ensuring they are appropriately supported. “Some students have conditions that require use of a technology tool to ensure they have equal access to learning,” she says. “Laptops can be essential classroom aids to those with a wide spectrum of disabilities. Blind participants may gain access to learning by using a laptop to record the class, while deaf students may use computer-assisted technology for a transcription of the session. Those with a physical condition which inhibits the ability to write, or those with a specific learning disability such as dyslexia, may also be eligible to class size ratiowork with the aid of technology in class. Students may arrive with a statement of disability, but the decision to allow them personal technology in class is made by the school on an individual basis. Faculty are an essential partner in this; we always recommend that they inform the whole class in advance of the course tech policy, but that they also use appropriate language to explain that some students’ needs necessitate the use of a laptop in class, which will be allowed.”

Learning objectives and communication

While his research has contributed to highlighting the relative weakness of laptop note taking for certain types of learning, Daniel Oppenheimer requires his students to bring their laptops to class. “I always plan any use of technology to support the course goals and learning objectives. I don’t let students use laptops during a case discussion but they are helpful for other activities and exercises that I run in class,” he suggests. According to the teachers we spoke to, such uses could include searching for relevant information at planned points during a class, using an application for calculations, tweeting as contribution to the group ‘discussion’, and voting electronically for a class decision. Communication with students is of key importance. “At the very beginning of a course I tell my students that everything we will do in class has been thought through and planned, including when laptops will be used,” says Daniel. “My door is always open out of class if any students need to discuss this. This helps manage expectations of how classes will be taught, and it also helps build student trust.”

Vyla Rollins concurs: “The key is to be transparent and clear with participants about ‘tech ground rules’ before they begin their programme or learning journey,” she says. “The ground rule can always be agreed that a participant may step out of the class if taking an important phone call is unavoidable. But it is important to help participants understand when that may impact on the learning experience of their colleagues, for example, when part of a session includes work in small groups or pairs.”

class size ratioAt CBS, Ester Barinaga sees an evolution. “The potential of technology in class can be fantastic, but we have not yet fully learned how to use it,” she observes. “Students themselves are beginning to recognise that it can pose a problem for their learning; this insight emerged recently as a side effect when we were studying the use and mis-use of technology in the workplace. Experiments with ‘tech free’ courses have shocked some, but been met with relief by others; they find it’s OK to ‘relax’ away from their technology!” Shannon Hessel also plans to experiment in pursuit of a more effective classroom learning experience: “We want to establish an ongoing conversation with students about classroom participation dynamics and the role of technology. Next year, I intend to ask students to try a case discussion at least once without their personal screens, and to compare it with another class with them up, and to get them to reflect on their learning preferences.”

Has anything really changed?

Ulf Schafer.pngESMT’s Ulf Schäfer, also an instructor of case teachers, observes that student technology in class can negatively affect faculty confidence: “Some facilitators have a vision of pursuing a ‘perfect’ case discussion and feel that banning student devices may uphold this illusion. But, we need to move with the times; ten years ago it might have been possible to impose a ban, but no longer,” he believes. “We have to question whether it is always our place to tell participants how to take notes, certainly with executives, but also with the younger generation that has grown up with personal technology. We need them to learn what works best for themselves, and there is something to be said for the fact that their notes are now legible!” Ulf‘s view is pragmatic: “Personally, I’ve learned to tolerate switched on devices in the class. Even in the past, do we really believe that every pen or pencil mark being made on paper was contributing to learning, or that some students were not distracted or even bored in class? While no one needs technology to make a strong argument in a case discussion, it does have its place in the classroom and the potential to unlock new learning experiences. We want our students to learn, but, as instructors, we need to keep on learning too.”

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What are your experiences of students using their tech in a case discussion? Do you see this as a challenge or an opportunity? We’d love to hear from you below.

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