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Weighing In: Banning Devices in the Classroom

In Technology by JD Dillon

Earlier this week, an L&D industry peer posted the following update on their social feed:

It’s demeaning and disrespectful of you as an educator and/or trainer to ban the use of a device in hand during class/training assuming “they’re probably just checking Facebook.” If they actually do access Facebook or some other experience during your facilitation, it’s because you are not engaging them.

Words like “demeaning” and “disrespectful” are bound to elicit passionate responses, and that was certainly the case with this post. Here are a few examples from both sides of the proverbial aisle …

I have to disagree with you on this one unless the instructor incorporates use of the device into the class. I’m not talking about the occasional glance, but rather someone who is outright on it continually. Respect flows two ways.

As a class we talk about how we will handle devices (step out if you need to take a call, respond to email on break) but I never ban them. I also use them.

I don’t want to babysit Participants, so if my time or the session is not valuable to you, please feel free to take a “break” and go be disrespectful in the hall.

Completely agree with this statement. If people are checking their phones and are not engaged with what is happening in the class, there is something wrong with the content or the facilitator.

Personal example … I once participated in an all-day management meeting hosted by the COO. To start the session, they required everyone to hand their phones to the person to their right, who would then put the phone in a plastic bag to be collected. Everyone in that room was AT LEAST a director within the operation. The experience made me feel like I was 5 years old. Given that I take all of my notes via my phone, I wasn’t able to record my thoughts as well as I typically could throughout the day because I was limited to pen/paper. And, because it was my personal phone, I didn’t hand it in anyway. I just kept it in my pocket … because I can control myself … like an adult.

If you can’t tell, I’m VERY on the side of the original commenter. Attempting to limit technology access within most workplace settings has become unrealistic. It’s even more silly when there isn’t a valid reason that directly relates to the execution of the person’s role. If you can do your job better with the device and using the device isn’t against a concrete, well-defined workplace rule, why can’t you use the device?

Now let’s apply the concept specifically to L&D. Why would a trainer want to ban devices during a session?

  1. They’re concerned about distractions.
  2. They think people may cheat on an assessment.
  3. Something super secret is taking place.
  4. They’re allergic to lithium-ion.

Let’s address each of those potential reasons – except #4.

  1. Banning devices – or overly addressing the issue to start a session – can easily be interpreted as “this isn’t going to be particularly useful or interesting so I don’ trust you to pay attention.” If you ask people to take time out of their busy day for a training activity, the value proposition should be clear well before they enter the room. Then, it’s up to the facilitator to maintain participant engagement and deliver on that value promise. If participant attention starts to wander, something is wrong with the experience – not the participants – and the facilitator should adjust accordingly.
  2. If your assessment can be “cheated” through access to information or people, it’s probably not a worthwhile assessment of knowledge and performance ability. Resourcefulness should be encouraged, and training experiences should mirror workplace context in terms of information access.
  3. If you are worried that people will share inappropriate information simply because they have a device in their hand, you may want to re-check who you are hiring and how well your conduct guidelines are understood. After all, if they are going to share something, they are going to do it regardless of how you attempt to limit device access.

I have always viewed it as my responsibility as a designer, facilitator and strategist to provide an experience that warrants continued participant attention. If I notice someone looking constantly at their phone (or doing anything else off task), I question the quality of my content and/or delivery.

Participants have had access to mobile devices for the entirety of my L&D career. In fact, everyone attending the first session I facilitated during my time with Disney was carrying a company-issued Blackberry. And yet, for some reason, I have never had a noticeable problem with “digital distractions” (or any other form of distraction really) during my 15 years of workplace facilitation.  Maybe I was distracted from their distractions and didn’t notice? Maybe I’ve had super participants in all of my sessions? Or maybe I’ve just been doing something right (humble brag)!

What do you think? Should facilitators ban device use during instructional activity? Have you been banned from using a device in a work setting? How did that make you feel? How did it impact your working/learning experience?


  • JD Dillon

    JD Dillon is the world’s foremost expert on frontline learning and enablement. He is also one of the most prolific authors and speakers in the workplace learning community. For 20 years, JD has worked in operations and talent development with some of the world’s most dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. He is the founder of LearnGeek, a workplace performance advising and insights group. He is also Chief Learning Architect with Axonify, where he builds technology, content and services that enable frontline employees around the world to do their best work every day.