Students use laptops in the classroom

The Conundrum of Classroom Technology

Have you ever spotted a student lost in an Amazon shopping spree or engrossed in a football game during your class? Such incidents are on the rise in today's classrooms, engaging a critical debate among educators. The question we face is whether to embrace technology, with its potential to enhance learning, or to set boundaries to curb the distractions that technology may bring. Opinions vary widely, with some advocating for the full integration of digital tools and others banning students’ use of personal technology in the classroom (Bayless et al., 2013). Striking the right balance is complex; technology can make lessons more engaging and interactive, but it can also serve as a gateway for students to retreat into their digital worlds. Some research suggests that outright bans on laptops may not necessarily lead to improved student performance (Elliott-Dorans, 2018). As educators, we are tasked with navigating this nuanced landscape, weighing the opportunities against the challenges, and crafting an approach that respects diverse perspectives while prioritizing effective learning.

The Choice Is Yours

Ultimately, the decision to ban devices lies with the educator. Consider your students, your teaching practices, and how technology use may or may not align with your learning goals. By setting clear expectations, involving students in the decision-making process, and staying informed about best practices and ethical considerations, educators can create an environment where technology acts as a catalyst for learning rather than a source of distraction.

Balancing Act: Policies and A Culture of Engagement

In the quest for effective technology use in the classroom, Dr. Cabrini Pak, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Busch School of Business, and Dr. Julia Young, Associate Professor in the Department of History, provide standout examples.

Dr. Pak's approach involves conducting hybrid classes that blend in-person and online learning and incorporate a workplace simulation. Class sessions are run like team meetings. She uses the Zoom platform to share her screen with students so that they can follow along on their laptops and observe the cues she provides with her mouse. Students can stop her anytime to review a concept that everyone is observing together, whether in person or online. They can also use the chat box or share their screens if they have an example or question to share with the class. This innovative use of technology transforms the traditional classroom by connecting in-person and online students and fostering a dynamic interaction that enriches the learning experience for all.

Similarly, Dr. Young elevates her use of Brightspace by fully integrating it into her face-to-face teaching. She leverages the platform's capabilities to build structured classroom discussions, help students develop in-class and at-home note-taking strategies, and review collaborative slides and historical documents in order to ensure that students are not just passive recipients of information but active participants in their learning journey.

These examples are not just about the adoption of digital tools; they reflect a deeper commitment to fostering a culture of engagement and interaction through thoughtful technology integration, underscoring the transformative potential of such approaches in enhancing the educational experience.

Strategies for Managing Technology Use

Navigating the digital landscape in education requires a multifaceted approach, balancing clear policies, student involvement in policy creation, and innovative teaching strategies to minimize distractions and enhance learning. Here are four strategies to consider:

  1. Engaging with Syllabus Policies

    Start by clearly outlining the expectations of technology use in your syllabus. But don't stop there—make this an interactive discussion. Involve students in shaping these norms and policies. Discuss when and how technology should be used, the consequences of misuse, and the rationale behind these guidelines. This collaborative approach not only fosters understanding and accountability but also empowers students to self-regulate and respect the established norms.

  2. Understanding the Root of Distractions

    It's essential to reflect on why students might be distracted. Vahedi et. al (2021) highlight the complexity of students' in-class technology use. Their study found that students often engage with digital devices for non-academic purposes when they perceive the class content as non-critical or when they feel disengaged. The same study also revealed that students are open to, and even appreciate, the educational integration of technology that enhances engagement.

    While it's easy to blame a short attention span, consider how student learning preferences, responsibilities, and daily experiences–on or off campus–might impact their behavior on a given day. Similar to faculty, life happens beyond the classroom for students, and that should be taken into consideration when understanding the root of student distraction. As a panelist for a D2L (Brightspace) webinar on Understanding the Whole Student (Clarkson, 2023), Carissa Fralin, licensed social worker and adjunct faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver shared:

    “I think in academia sometimes we still have a tendency to see students as students, as learners, and that’s all. And that’s not all that they are. They have all kinds of influences, life events, and emotions. I think we just need to continue to be aware of that, that we’re looking at a whole person, not just a student in our class that has to learn this stuff.”

  3. Leveraging Technology Wisely

    Technology in the classroom isn't just a potential distraction—it's also a powerful tool for engagement. Guide students on using technology constructively by integrating digital tools into your lessons. Assignments that require technology use can keep students focused and provide them with practical skills. From interactive quizzes to collaborative projects, technology, when used purposefully, can transform passive learning into an active and engaging process.

  4. Fostering Positive Relationships

    Teaching is not one-sided. It is a collaborative process of give and take that should lead to learning. The relationship between instructors and students is foundational. Building a rapport based on clarity, transparency, and mutual respect can significantly influence classroom behavior. Engage in open communication, show interest in their perspectives, and co-construct the learning environment together. A strong relationship can motivate students to stay engaged and respectful, even in a technology-rich setting.

Additional Considerations

While managing distractions is a significant aspect of integrating technology in the classroom, there are accessibility and ethical considerations that also require our attention:

  • Ensuring Inclusivity: How accessible are the technologies we employ?

    Equally important is the commitment to making our classrooms inclusive for all students, including those with disabilities. The technology we choose to incorporate into our lessons must be accessible, ensuring that all students can engage with the material and participate fully in the learning process. This means selecting platforms and tools that comply with accessibility standards and being prepared to make accommodations to support diverse learning needs. By prioritizing accessibility, we not only adhere to legal and ethical standards but also embrace the richness of diverse perspectives and experiences in our learning environments.

  • Ethical Use of Technology: How are we safeguarding our students' privacy?

    Integrating technology into our teaching practices comes with the responsibility to consider the ethical implications, particularly in terms of student privacy and data security. As instructors, we must be diligent in selecting and using digital tools that protect our students' information and uphold the highest standards of privacy. This involves being transparent about the tools we use, understanding how student data is handled, and ensuring that our choices align with the ethical standards of our educational institutions and the broader academic community.


Bayless, M. L., Clipson, T. W., & Wilson, S. (2013). Faculty perceptions and policies of students’ use of personal technology in the classroom. Faculty Publications. 32.

Clarkson, K. (2023, March 7). Reimagined series: Understanding the whole student. D2L.

Elliott-Dorans, L. R. (2018). To ban or not to ban? The effect of permissive versus restrictive laptop policies on student outcomes and teaching evaluations. Computers and Education, 126, 183–200. (CUA Library Permalink)

Vahedi, Z., Zannella, L., & Want, S. C. (2021). Students’ use of information and communication technologies in the classroom: Uses, restriction, and integration. Active Learning in Higher Education, 22(3), 215-228. (CUA Library Permalink)


Diego A. Boada, Ph.D., is an instructional designer at CTE. He specializes in finding scalable solutions for learning and performance problems in multicultural environments. Dr. Boada has designed online learning experiences for universities, startups, and organizations globally; consulted for the Inter-American Development Bank; and collaborated with Silicon Valley leaders.

Trish Wedderburn, M.A., is an instructional designer at CTE. Her work has included student and academic development, course and curriculum design, and faculty development in higher education for more than a decade.