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.”
Kivanç became fixed on solving this problem, but he didn’t want to ban phones from his class entirely or pick on one student who broke a traditional cell phone policy like some educators do. 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 on his professional website, is pronounced a bit like Crunch, which explains why some of his students call him Captain Crunch in online 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 student described.
In this article, we explore how even the most engaging and passionate educators are faced by phone distractions in their classes, and how Captain Kivanç has solved the problem with Flipd.
Engaging Students in Learning
Kivanç begins our conversation 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 came in second place,” 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.”
Technology is not the Solution to Higher Learning
His comments are a refreshing and honest take on what seems to have gotten lost around the purpose of higher learning in the digital age. In the fall of last year, renowned 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, her argument was widely opposed and created a stir across the internet — particularly among people who equate the use of technology to higher learning.
Innovative Educators are Moving Away from Technology
Like Dynarski, Kivanç is an educator who’s clearly determined to help students. “The goal is to get everybody involved,” he says. “Not ninety-five percent of students involved — it’s to get one hundred 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.
But 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. “I tell them that phones are just a crutch in case of boredom.”
I ask Kivanç about this movement, and what students can learn from spending an hour of class disconnected. “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 understand — 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.”
He goes on to describe that Flipd has been 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. “They 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.”
Professor Kivanç Avrenli, pronounced Kvunch, was raised in the historic streets of the Ottoman city of Bursa, and attended Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. Kivanç earned M.S. degrees in both Statistics and Civil Engineering, and he completed his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He's earned multiple teaching awards, including “Outstanding” Rating in the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Students for 5 consecutive semesters, based on official course evaluations. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Statistics at Syracuse University, Whitman School of Management, and his teaching interests include all fields of Applied Statistics and Transportation Engineering.