In September 2014, Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University, changed his in-class device policy "...from 'allowed unless by request' to 'banned unless required'." Shirky saw students struggle to focus in class, so he solved the problem with a device ban.
Of course, he had reasons. Shirky noted that people can't multi-task: a student can't process a new idea and stare at Facebook simultaneously. Worse, research shows that a visible laptop screen distracts other people—not just the owner of the laptop. Even when a student uses a laptop to take notes, the visible screen disrupts the ability of nearby students to focus.
Shirky is one of the most prominent social media commentators around. He built his reputation with cogent writing about how media helps us communicate, collaborate, and govern in new ways. He explored the 'net freely, yet now controls student access in his class.
I've seen plenty of people ban device use. A manager asks people to turn off and put down devices during a meeting. A principal prohibits phone use. An administrator blocks access to social networks over the organization's internet connection.
I choose a different default: I expect people to have a device and connect to the internet. I expect people to bring and use a phone, tablet, or laptop to classes, workshop sessions, and meetings.
However, my meeting and teaching methods had to change. I had to rethink my use of technology. Here are four things I've learned.
1. Everyone participates
In an effective meeting, everyone participates. Otherwise, people become passive observers. So, review your meeting agenda and invitee list before each meeting. If someone isn't needed for a session, let the person know. They'll likely appreciate your thoughtfulness and respect for their time.
Students need to participate, too. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, devised a method of "peer instruction." When one student learns from another, the process of explanation helps both learn. The method also avoids the need for a long lecture from a so-called "sage on a stage." Peer learning breaks instruction into much smaller bits, then builds over time, concept by concept. I restructured my classes to include plenty of peer learning time.
2. Documents are discussions (and discussions are documented)
Create a new Google Docs file, then share it to allow every meeting participant to add to the agenda. If you "publish" a non-editable agenda, you're no longer holding a meeting, you're lecturing, broadcasting, or performing. (Actually, this is a good test: Can you modify the agenda? If not, skip the meeting. You're not a participant, you're an audience member.)
Also create and share a Google Docs file to document the discussion. For example, I shared a document with all the members of a community foundation board. During the meeting, people could edit the document to take notes, make suggestions, or add ideas. This may empower soft-spoken people and introverts who may find it easier to type than talk.
3. Private votes; public results
Connected phones, tablets, and laptops also enable private surveys or votes—to test understanding or count votes. Without devices, people spend time counting hands, slips of paper, or tokens. A survey system—such as Google Forms, Mentimeter, or PollEverywhere—enables fast feedback.
I use a survey system to provide anonymity. A student—or a meeting participant—that taps a response into a device may remain unknown. This helps minimize the tendency of some people in the room to influence others (e.g., I'll raise my hand when a smart—or powerful—person in the room raises theirs).
4. Process, then post
Finally, devices can help people process information. When someone mentions an unfamiliar term during a meeting or class, we search. And, for the class I teach, students turn in work when they post it to a private Google+ Community for the course. Google Classroom provides a similar paperless system to handle assignments.
In an organization, meeting decisions and actions can be posted where all members may see the status—not just in the room, but on the road and from any device.
However, too many managers and teachers seem determined to deny, rather than embrace, the power of devices. There's even an app, Pocket Points, that disables a phone during class or a meeting, then rewards people with points. The points provide discounts on pizza, burgers, and bagels. We reward disconnection with pizza. Is this the best we can do?
The smartphone will soon be how most of the world connects. The sooner we embrace it as the primary device to connect with learners and colleagues, the sooner we'll all be better off. To deny devices in class or at work seems to be an attempt to deny the future. I think we can create a more lasting impact by asking people to turn devices on.
Media choices matter, as Shirky well knows. Learning through lecture is one method. And, yes, it takes work to make a meeting meaningful or to create a compelling course. But that's the work leaders and teachers must do. It's time to ask people to turn on and tune in, not turn off and tune out.
Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.