I attended the DREI Summit in Chicago this weekend and became involved in a great debate regarding cell phone and laptop use in the classroom.

The DREI, Distinguished Real Estate Instructor, is a designation offered by the Real Estate Educators Association, a group of seasoned instructors from all over the country who  meet stringent criteria for having experience as a real estate professional, hours in the classroom, and abiding by the GAPE principles of learning. The session, “Learning Zones”, led by DREI Roger Turcotte, discussed how to engage students in the class and what keeps them from learning.

I found it an interesting debate whether computers/cell phones were disruptive or a benefit to the learner during real estate courses delivered in the classroom environment.  There were many opinions in favor of both sides, making it clear that this issue needed to be discussed.  I found it funny that some people against laptops in the class had them open while we were discussing it.  How ironic?

Laptops/cell phones usage in class really isn’t an age issue.” said Sam Martin, an experienced appraisal instructor from Chicago.  “It’s more based on the individual’s preferred learning style.”

Many classroom environments have Internet access allowing students to hop online as soon as they enter into the room but the instructor or room moderator has the ability to ask the student to stop using the computer depending on the instructor, association, or real estate commission rules for CE approved classes.

What do you think?

  • Should laptops be allowed?

  • Should there be certain rules for students if we permit to use laptops in the classroom?

  • How can we prevent disruptions if laptops are requested?

Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument then I will share my opinion.

We should NOT allow laptops.

Laptop volume

I’ll bet you’ve been in class where some students forgot to turn down the volume on their computer, a notification pops up, a video with sound plays, or someone is typing loudly with their fingers and neighboring students can hear. Some might not even know how to turn down the volume of their machine.  This is obviously a huge distraction and should be resolved quickly by the instructor or even a peer will reprimand the person on the computer.

Interrupted concentration

In addition to volume, laptop users may open up their email, instant message on Facebook, or work on material other than the class.  If one person is showing their screen to another and the conversation is off topic both students are not following and may miss an important point.

Temptation for others to open laptops

If one person has their laptop open others may be tempted to use theirs even though there was no intention of working on the computer.  If you grant one permission then everyone else will think it is ok to starting typing away.

We SHOULD allow laptops

Students can look up references

An instructor can mention anywhere from 10-100 websites during the course of a two day designation course.  The challenge is that even though the site is mentioned the student may not see what type of information may be presented or how it will benefit their business.  A student who has the laptop handy can quickly locate it, find related topics, and bookmark (using Delicious) it for the future.  If laptops were absent the student would have to write it down and then remember to go find it later.  Why make them work harder then they have to?

Kinesthetic learners benefit

Some people learn best by doing some sort of activity while the presentation occurs.  You can spot kinesthetic learners because they move around a lot, fidget with whatever is on the desk, or might even be knitting a sweater.  Great teaching aids for instructors to involve kinesthetic learners include role playing, case studies, and group work.  Don’t discourage kinesthetic learners to use laptops because they will research websites while the instructor is teaching.  Why not ask them to look up class notes to keep them occupied so they can explain them to the rest of the class?

Should mobile phones be allowed?

I’ve attended sessions or spoken at events where the room moderator announced that phones were not permitted in the class.  If the phone buzzed, beeped, or blinged the student donated $10-20 to RPAC or children’s scholarship fund.  My rule is that it is okay to have your cell phone turned on as long as it is your birthday, and then if it rings we can all sing.

Mobile devices such as the iPhone, Blackberry, and Palm phones can be exceptional learning tools when used appropriately.  It is when they are abused, or used excessively when it can be distracting for both student and instructor.  Since most think mobile phones can be a nuisance in class let me share with you some ideas on how they can be devices for engaging students.

Taking notes

Each individual has their own preferred method of taking notes and implementing what they have learned.  Some like to write on a notepad or handout and some like to type in their computer.  Others may hear good websites or ideas and want to type them into their phone because they carry the phone with them everywhere.  Websites, to-do items, and appointments can be set by typing quickly into the phone rather than having to write on paper to then have to store electronically elsewhere.  The phone saves the students time an increases the likelihood they will revisit the idea.

Should I Allow Students to Tweet?

Mobile Twitter users share their experiences during classroom activities whether they are good or bad.  They also can easily share websites and relevant blog posts with their peers at the same time.  Instructors can take advantage of this opportunity or remain clueless to what is being said online.  Here are some things an instructor can do to help their Twitter pals along with the material.

Get to know the registered students

The registration form includes name, phone, email, why not ask for their Twitter handle?  The instructor can follow the students to get to know them on a more personal level to understand who they are and their business.

Create a Hashtag for the class

Some of the conventions I spoke at last year created a hashtag for the event.  A hashtag is an online Twitter discussion that includes the # symbol following an abbreviated phrase.  Some examples are #trcon, #edcon, and #tp09.  This Twitter discussion included everything before, during, and following the event.  REALTORS® could search for the hashtag and participate right from their seats without having to use their computer.  You could hear some students praise some speakers and dismiss others.  Wouldn’t you like to know what people were saying about your teaching performance?

Time release Tweets

For the first time ever I tried this one during the ABR Recertification at the National Association of REALTORS® Convention 2009 in San Diego.  I had created my PowerPoint, online resources, and timed outline and knew when each learning objective was discussed.  I used a online tool called SocialOomph (now I use HootSuite which has fewer options but everything I need) to time release my resources at the time the learning objectives were being discussed.  Those who followed the #ABRIDW hashtag could receive the online resources right from their mobile device while I was on the specific learning objective.  Furthermore, students could review the #ABRIDW discussion following the class who did not have their phone or laptop handy.

Answer questions during the break

I have a Twitter alert set up using TweetBeep that notifies me who tweets certain key words or phrases including my name, company, or hashtag.  Before the break is over I can quickly check my phone to see who has said what and allows me to respond if I think others will benefit from the discussion.

Follow up with students

If I know which program attendees are using Twitter I can follow up with them in many ways.

  • I can send a link to a survey created in Google Docs to get feedback.
  • I can send a link to a blog post including an event recap, PowerPoint, handouts, etc.
  • I can send a Direct Message confidentially to someone if they have a specific question about the material.

Meeting in the middle

In my opinion if we set too stringent rules on the learners and limit their creativity some will be frustrated and not be satisfied with the experience.  However if we enable laptops or cell phones to be used in class that some parameters are set prior to and reinforced during the course of a full day.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

Insert a slide into the presentation.

It might be good practice to have a slide inserted into a presentation that discusses some of the ground rules for a successful class.  Include a slide that says:

  • If you have a laptop, please sit in the back to avoid distracting other students.
  • Wi-Fi access code is ________ (get from meeting planner or host ahead of time)
  • Warning and penalty for abusing privilege
  • Ask everyone for agreement twice

The class will move at the speed of the slowest person in the room.

This is something I learned early working for Pat Zaby teaching his Microsoft Office class.  For those of you who teach computer software, technology, and social media, many students will ask if it is OK to use their computer during the class.  If you let everyone use the computer and they are trying to follow along in the application and not the handout they will ask you questions like, “I can’t find the icon you are mentioning, Where is the next screen? Can you repeat the steps again?”  If everyone had their computer open and tried to follow along we would go as slow as the slowest person in the class.  This would irritate others who are begging the instructor to PLEASE move on.  Let everyone know this situation may exist so the laptop users are ok with you not walking over to their screen to help them and others who don’t have laptops don’t feel left out of the group.

Ask laptop users to sit in the back of the room.

If laptop users are in the back then others will not be disturbed by what is on their screen.  It is too easy to get caught up in what someone else is doing in front of you especially if they are working on their computer.   If you have time, place note cards on the last row and include the rules on the note cards for using laptops in the class.

Check with the rules of the client, group, or association.

We all know that it is foolish to assume that what works in one setting will work in another.  I think each instructor should check with the school, association, or meeting planner to see what rules they place on laptop users to make sure the students are well informed before the class begins.

Can you think of time when you were in class and someone was working on their laptop or was busy on their cell phone?

How did it make you feel?

Whether a student or an instructor, please leave a comment giving your opinion. There are good arguments for both sides of the debate. What do you think?


Organizations bring in Doug Devitre from St. Louis, Missouri USA when they want to dramatically increase operational performance, create breakthrough value propositions, and serve customers beyond geographical constraints on a minimal budget. For more than a decade he has been setting trends with how organizations engage customers with social media, video marketing, and custom-built software applications. Doug’s book Screen to Screen Selling published by McGraw Hill pioneered the way sales professionals sold homes without being physically present before the COVID-19 pandemic. He is one of a select few who have earned the Certified Speaking Professional Designation from the National Speakers Association and has experience as a REALTOR.

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