How Cell Phones Have Changed The Classroom And What To Do About It

  • Alanna Harvey
  • 05 November 2019
  • 07:07 PM

There's something all of us remember about the year 2008. It was the year that Apple launched the first ever App Store for its iPhone 3G, forever changing the way we use our phones. It was the same year that GPS capabilities became a feature of these early smartphones, establishing what would become the everyday experience of ordering an Uber to finding our way around a new city. And it was during this year when Facebook was only a toddler, and product designers were tinkering away at what would soon be known as the Like button. Though the economy may not have been doing so well, 2008 was certainly a golden year for innovation.

It was also the year that Robert 'Bo' Luttrell of Salisbury University began his now 12-year long career as a professor of analytical chemistry. Had you asked Bo before 2008 whether this would be his career of choice, it wasn't. "When I began graduate school to get my PhD in Chemistry, I had no interest in becoming a college professor. I figured I would become a research scientist for either a government lab or a company," he recalls. "It wasn't until I became involved in teaching during graduate school and having to interact with general chemistry students that I fell in love with teaching."

In the years since, Bo has focused his teaching exclusively at the undergraduate level. Although he teaches a broad range of chemistry courses, including those specifically for junior and senior chemistry majors, his general chemistry courses make up a majority of his student load, since these courses are much larger than his upper-level courses. "Interacting with freshmen that were taking general chemistry was where I had my positive experiences in graduate school. I also wasn't that far removed from being an undergraduate," he describes about his early teaching years. "There's a lot of intimidation taking a college-level chemistry course, so it was nice to be able to reduce that intimidation and make the course more accessible to them."

Bo remembers how enjoyable his first six years of teaching were, and how his students were among the highest performers in his department. "I always refer to the years of 2008 to 2014 as the golden years in my career," he laughs. "My DFW rate was among the lowest in the department, my classes would always perform among the best, and I felt like I was able to develop a good rapport with my students. I could get them to buy into the course and to do the things they should be doing in and out of class to be successful." 

"My DFW rate was among the lowest in the department, my classes would always perform among the best, and I felt like I was able to develop a good rapport with my students." 

But after 2014, something changed. Bo started to notice a dramatic shift in the classroom: students suddenly weren't doing as well as in previous years and they were withdrawing from his course more than ever before.

"I started noticing a slide in performance, and overall, grades became more polarized. I still had several students performing well in my courses, but I began having more students than before in the F-range and not as many students in the middle. Also, I noticed student motivation was not quite where it used to be," he remembers. "Then 2017 was like an implosion. Attendance was down, tardiness was a plague, and I had the most students drop my general chemistry course ever that year."

"2017 was like an implosion. Attendance was down, tardiness was a plague, and I had the most students drop my general chemistry course ever that year."

In addition to a decline in attendance and performance, Bo recalls noticing a distinct difference in his learning environment at this time. "I started noticing that my ability to develop a rapport with my students became very difficult, mainly because students wouldn't look up from their phones," he says, remembering how the smartphone innovations of 2008 had now become mainstream.

"By 2017, everyone had one. I would walk into class five minutes before it starts, and only a third of my students were there. No one's talking to each other. It's silent. And because I didn't have that rapport, my lectures felt very rusty. I wasn't getting any feedback, and there just seemed to be a bit of a disconnect. It kind of threw me off my game." 

"I started noticing that my ability to develop a rapport with my students became very difficult, mainly because students wouldn't look up from their phones."

As a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), Bo cares first and foremost about setting his students up for success. He's there to help, and what he saw then was worrying. "I want my students to succeed, and when I see these kinds of changes happening, I want to find effective ways to keep these students on a successful path," he explains. "These last couple of years I've seen some drastic changes happen really quickly. It's alarming, and I take it personally."

Armed with the belief that smartphones were a key contributing factor to these new challenges, Bo set out to find a solution. He started using Flipd in the spring of 2019 in order to address attendance, lateness, and phone-use in class. "The classroom experience has been significantly improved," he says of his first year using Flipd. "It puts a very professional tone on the course."

With freshman students especially, Bo describes how Flipd has become an asset in his classroom in a short time. "The benefits have been almost instantaneous,” he says. “I know for a fact that I'm putting my students in a better position and setting them up for success in the course. It's helping them come to class, show up on time, keeping them focused during lecture, and they're taking notes now. They're actually looking up at me when I'm lecturing. These are all massive benefits."

"Flipd is helping them come to class, show up on time, keeping them focused during lecture, and they're taking notes now. They're actually looking up at me when I'm lecturing. These are all massive benefits."

Aside from showing up to class, Bo believes that being present and engaged is a key component to a successful learning experience.  "General chemistry is probably one of the more difficult courses a freshman can take in their first semester of college. And students who approach it like, I'm going to memorize everything and then regurgitate it on an exam, it doesn't work that way," he laughs.

"For general chemistry, many of the required skills a student needs to develop are learned in person when they experience the professor approach a problem and describe the underlying concepts that need to be mastered in order to find a solution. These are the experiences you just can't get from simply reading the lecture notes that are posted online. You have to be in class, focused, and engaged to experience that dialog and thought process."

"You have to be in class, focused, and engaged to experience that dialog and thought process."

This is a sentiment shared by many instructors using Flipd — that the lecture is about a lot more than simply showing up. "A professor has to realize what his or her strengths are and play to those strengths in the classroom," Bo says, recognizing that his is the in-person engagement that a lecture warrants. "For me, personally, I feel the human aspect of learning in lecture, which is facilitated by the strong rapport I typically am able to develop with my students, is really valuable. Flipd provides me with a more engaged and less distracted classroom, allowing me to establish that human connection."

"Flipd provides me with a more engaged and less distracted classroom, allowing me to establish that human connection."

Bo plans to continue using Flipd and is excited to see more data that supports the positive impact it’s had on his classes. “What I would hope to see is a decrease in my DFW rates,” he says. “I don’t think there’s an app that will fix every problem that many general chemistry students struggle with, but improving the classroom environment and setting students up for success by having them be present both physically and mentally in class is key. You have to start with a positive classroom experience, and Flipd has definitely allowed me to achieve that.”


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Robert D. Luttrell was born and raised in the southern state of Georgia. In 2002, he graduated from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA, with a B.S. degree in chemistry. After working in the pharmaceutical industry for 1.5 years in the south Florida area, he began graduate school in January of 2004 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN. He obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry during the summer of 2008 and started his career the following August as an assistant professor of chemistry at Salisbury University.

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How Cell Phones Have Changed The Classroom And What To Do About It