Guest column: ‘No phone’ zones

John Kilbourne

Editor’s note: John Kilbourne is a professor of movement science and honors at Grand Valley State University. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.

Starting Wednesday, Oct. 25, pedestrians in Honolulu will be ticketed and fined $35 if they are caught viewing their electronic devises while crossing the street. Honolulu is the first city in the U.S. to enact such a ban. Might Grand Valley State University wish to consider a similar policy not only while crossing busy streets but in other areas of the university? 

Walking across campus, in building hallways and in classrooms, students are face-planted into their phones. Students are un-engaged from their peers and the surrounding environment. It is as if they are in an alternative world.

With smart phone technology, some students think they no longer must pay attention in class.  Their plan is to simply snap a picture of the white board following a spirit-filled lecture and discussion where the board was covered with notes, pictures and diagrams. 

I have witnessed the same absence of personal engagement at department and university meetings. During meetings, many faculty are simply not paying attention. They too are face-planted into their smart phones or notebook computers, checking in on email or Facebook, even shopping for shoes. 

What is more, colleges and universities seem to encourage this un-engagement by requiring students and faculty to bring notebook computers or smart phones to class or meetings. Some professors require students to have a smart phone with a clicker app so that they can “check in” during class. What these professors do not realize is that their effort to have them check in provides them with the freedom to also “check out.”   

Colleges and universities have bought into a world that Sherry Turkle, in her insightful book “Reclaiming Conversation,” says “… (has) sacrificed conversation for mere connection. We turn away from each other and toward our phones. We are forever elsewhere.”

This semester, to bring some measure of balance to these challenges, I have fashioned my classrooms into “no phone” zones. Once the students enter the classroom, their phones are to be turned off and placed out of reach in a backpack, pocket or purse. They cannot use them during the class. I do make one exception by telling the students that if they are expecting an emergency call to inform me prior to the start of class. If their phone rings, they may retrieve it and step into the hallway to take the call.

At the start of the semester, our “no phone” zones created a real challenge for the students. The unease on their faces from not having their phones was obvious. It was almost as if they were suffering from withdrawals from an addiction. 

To support the idea of not having their phones in class, I also give an assignment where the students are to go by themselves to a favorite place in nature, leaving their phones at home or in their car, and stay for 45 minutes to one hour. When they return, they are to write a one-to-two-page essay on the experience. Reading about their experiences makes me think even more about what colleges and universities have done by hurling themselves into the black hole of smart-phone technology. Some students write that they actually felt symptoms of withdrawal similar to people who quit smoking or refrain from drinking alcohol (e.g., mild anxiety, sweating and shaky hands). Most students, however, write that despite the challenge, the experience was a much-needed reminder of how important it is to have a conversation with nature and one’s self. 

At this point in the semester, most of my students seem to enjoy a classroom that is a “no phone” zone. The conversations with their peers and their engagement with the course content are enhanced. Again, Turkle says, “To empathize, to grow, to love and be loved, to take measure of ourselves or of another, to fully understand and engage with the world around us, we must be in conversation.”

Like in Honolulu, my hope is to expand my policy to other areas of the university where certain places on campus are also “no phone” zones, places where personal conversation is promoted and valued. If colleges and universities are serious about creating communities of engaged learners, they must consider balancing the use of technology with person-to-person engagement and conversation.