Students, Should You Put Your Smartphone Away?

Why using a smartphone, netbook, or laptop in class can get you into real trouble.

A few years ago, I was at in-service training for part-time lecturers at a local community college. Our facilitator was going over the process of syllabus creation, what to include, etc. She said, “you can even go so far as to ban the use of cell phones in class.” One of my cohorts in the room, an elderly woman who looked like she would be right at home in a Catholic boarding school wielding a long and substantial ruler for whacking kids, stated, “I give my class one warning and then I take the phone away.”

At events such as these, I sit up front. Instructors are always telling students, “sit up front if you want to learn and earn a good grade.” I practice what I and most others teach. Funny, though, at academic meetings the back chairs seem to always fill first …

I whirled to address her, as I had something to say about her attitude. “If I could say something. First, set a precedent of decorum and etiquette for the class. Tell them, “You are an adult, now. High school is behind you. If you would like for me to treat you like a child, I will, but I would rather stand in front of a fellow adult. In fact, we are all adults here, and you should be expected to be treated as one. Conduct yourself accordingly.”

I went on to state, “I have no problems with cell phone use in my classes, as I address my students as adults. I tell them I do not mind them having their cell phones out, as long as they are on silent. Many of my students truly are adults, with children, may be part-time First Responders for emergencies, may have a wife or girlfriend who is pregnant. It is unreasonable to place such onerous restrictions on such an important device. I tell them that if they get a call, to quietly leave and take the call outside. You would have to pry my phone from my cold dead fingers before I would give it up to you.”

Set the tone for use, and that eliminates 99.9% of problems. I did have one student Spring 2011 that sat in the front row and took a call, never getting up from her seat, in the middle of my lecture. I stopped my lecture, “Are you serious?! You’re going to sit right there and talk on the phone smack in the middle my lecture? Seriously, get out!” And, she looked at me like I was the one with the problem. Those types will never understand.

With this new school year opening, I have been reading syllabi dropped around campus by careless students. Many of these syllabi, in fact every single one (except mine), has a “Cell Phone / Smart Phone / Laptop / Netbook / Tablet / Wireless Electronic Device” policy. I think a student could literally use the Two-Cans-and-a-String social network and perhaps be safe.

These policies state: “If you have your {inset device type here} out and are using it during my lecture, I will take it. On the Second Violation, the device will remain confined for 24hrs within {insert academic office here}. On the Third Violation, the device will remain confined for X days within {insert academic office here}.

Wow! Really? I have heard of that in elementary school, but college? Can an instructor legally do that?

The answer is, Yes.

Most universities have policies these days that stipulate an instructor has the right to demand a student turnover electronic devices should said devices be used against stated class or university policies. These policies have been challenged in court (New Jersey v. TLO, 469 U.S. 325, 340-341 (1985). Also, read “Safe Schools, Cell Phones, and the Fourth Amendment” by Bernard James. Another very recent example is from Illinois State University, Education Law and Policy Journal, January 2011.

While these cases apply mostly to Secondary Education, there is no reason to suspect these cases cannot be used in Higher Education.

Furthermore, not only can an electronic device be confiscated, the device could also fall under “Warrantless Search” doctrine. The legal basis is this: a student has just been observed engaged in inappropriate behavior, using an electronic device against policy. Therefore, because of that single infraction, the administrator can legally assume other infractions have occurred. Then, the device itself can be opened, activated, and searched.

The student might cry that his or her “Fourth Amendment Right Against Unreasonable Search and Seizure” has just been violated. State Supreme Courts from New Jersey, Arkansas, Illinois, among others, have clearly sided with law enforcement on this issue.

So, when an instructor issues the warning that all electronic devices should be turned off, placed in stand-by, and put away, the best idea is to do just that.

Unless, of course, you are a law student and you want to test your legal chops against the State.

Good luck.

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