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Why Innovative Educators Are Turning Toward Phone-Free Classes

Tech-free and phone-free classes make for more engaged learners.

jayk7/ Getty Images
jayk7/ Getty Images

In the fall semester of 2016, Syracuse University professor Kivanç Avrenli was teaching his statistics class and noticed something wrong with the picture. “I saw one student constantly on his phone,” he said, describing how the behavior got him thinking. “That student was wasting his time — he was wasting his investment. You’re there to learn, and he wasn’t learning.”

“I saw one student constantly on his phone. That student was wasting his time — he was wasting his investment. You’re there to learn, and he wasn’t learning.”

Kivanç became fixed on solving this problem, but he didn’t want to ban phones from his class entirely or pick on a single student who broke a traditional cell phone policy. He wanted to motivate students, in a positive way, to spend the lecture unplugged and engaged. “Some professors confiscate phones or ask students to leave the class,” he explains to me. “I really didn’t want to do that — the goal is no drama or tension.”

It’s clear why he feels this way — a scan of student feedback over the years illustrates that Kivanç is a highly engaging, fun, and well-liked professor on campus. The name Kivanç, he says to me, is pronounced a bit like Crunch, which explains why some of his students call him Captain Crunch in many of his testimonials. “Captain Kivanç is the greatest and most passionate teacher I’ve had so far. He loves teaching and keeps the class very engaging with special incentives for class engagements,” expressed one student.

“Professor Avrenli is absolutely amazing. He made every student laugh each class and had amazing powerpoints which simplified complex statistics. He is easily one of the funniest and most kind and understanding instructors I’ve had,” another described.

So why would an engaging, passionate, and funny instructor like Kivanç even be bothered by phones in his class? In this article, we explore how even the innovative educators are faced by phone distractions, and how Captain Kivanç has solved the problem with Flipd.

Engaging Students in Learning

Kivanç begins our interview by describing his experience when he was a student, explaining how he attended a research-focused school which, to him, was not a positive learning environment. “My alma mater was very research-focused, and teaching always came second,” he says to me. “It was challenging to learn in some courses.”

It was this experience that led the statistics professor to establish a personal goal where he would not put his students through the same learning challenges — which meant giving each student every opportunity to understand the material. “Everything they learn in class should be crystal clear during class,” he explains. Online testimonials from his students illustrate exactly the same thing. “He cares that you understand the material and will do whatever it takes to help you understand,” said one former student.

Over recent years, however, Kivanç noticed distractions creep into his classroom at a rate he’d never seen before. He became troubled by the growing the trend when it began to impact his teaching. “You can be a stand-up comedian and there will always be people distracted,” he laughs. “But one or two people on their phones is enough to distract or frustrate the instructor, and that’s a problem.”

“You can be a stand-up comedian and there will always be people distracted. But one or two people on their phones is enough to distract or frustrate the instructor, and that’s a problem.”

Technology is not the Solution in Higher Learning

The affable professor’s comments are a refreshing and honest take on what seems to have gotten lost around the purpose of learning in the digital age. In the fall of last year, University of Michigan professor and co-director of the University’s Education Policy Initiative, Susan Dynarski, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explaining why she doesn’t allow laptops in her classroom, citing strong evidence that supports the same idea.

Despite her forward thinking, however, her argument was widely opposed and created a stir across the internet. Those with opposing views argued her ideas were “archaic” and nothing short of “policing”.

Innovative Educators Move Away from Technology

Like Dynarski, Kivanç is an educator who’s determined to help students — but technology isn’t part of it. “The goal is to get everybody involved,” he says. “Not 95 percent of students involved — it’s to get 100 percent of my students involved in the lecture.” He describes how phones have become a terrible distraction in the learning environment, mostly because getting distracted by your phone or social media is so easy and often unintentional, and it disconnects many students from the learning experience entirely.

Not surprisingly, Dynarski and Kivanç are not the only educators in favor of less technology in learning — in fact, some of the most engaging and forward-thinking professors are speaking out about limiting phone and laptop use in class. 

“Other than the technology I use when I’m teaching, there’s no technology in my class,” says Adam Alter, a 34-year old professor of psychology and marketing at NYU and author of the book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. “I often spend half of the first class explaining the research about screen time and how they learn better without their phones,” he says to me in a telephone interview. “I tell them that phones are just a crutch in case of boredom.”

Getting distracted by your phone or social media is so easy and often unintentional, and it disconnects many students from the learning experience entirely.

Similarly, influential organizational psychologist, Wharton professor, New York Times bestselling author, Adam Grant, also agrees with Dynarski, Alter, and Kivanç. “Long live unplugged interactions,” he says. 

I ask Kivanç about this growing movement, and what students can learn from spending an hour of class disconnected, thanks to tools like Flipd. “The biggest benefit is that they learn they can survive without their phones,” he laughs. “They learn that you don’t need to be on your phone all the time — when you’re in class, when you’re crossing the street. You’ll turn into a robot.”

How Flipd Teaches a Valuable Lesson

Kivanç continues to tell me how Flipd has taught his students a lesson about unplugging from phones more effectively than a policy or sharing research with the class. As an app, Flipd helps motivate students not to use their phones by enabling gamification mechanics that they connect with — like leaderboards and nudging notifications — which he says makes it far more effective for getting the point across in a positive way. 

And since incorporating Flipd last year, Kivanç says he’s not seen a single student use their phone in his classes. “It’s a genius app that’s effectively reducing distractions,” Kivanç says of his experience. “Every student cares about using Flipd.”

Since incorporating Flipd last year, Kivanç says he’s not seen a single student use their phone in his classes.

He goes on to describe that Flipd has been only a positive experience for his students, and by including it as part of their engagement grade his students are excited and willing to cooperate. I end by asking the statistics professor what’s really in it for him. “It’s not for my benefit,” he says, enthusiastically. “Students know it’s good for them, and they discover that they can survive without their phones. Something so simple — all you have to do is flip it off.”

This article originally appeared on the Flipd Blog.


Find out more about Flipd and how to enjoy unplugged interactions into your classroom by signing up here

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