Smartphones and training

For a long while, when training I let people know we’ll be working with adult rules. That people do what they want, when they want, how they want. For me, it sets up how I intend for the training to be. That it’s about shared responsibility and shared power in the room. As the trainer/facilitator I have a role to play and so do the group I’m with.

One of the things I openly advocate is that people don’t have to put their phones away. It’s just not my role to mandate what people should or should not be doing with their personal property.

I see and observe many trainers making clear that this isn’t part of the bargain of training. I’m just not convinced it needs to be. The argument is normally something like “if they’re on their phones how can they be paying attention to the training?”

Which is a fair question. Except it means that we’ve forgotten some important elements of human behaviour and of learning design.

Not everyone can pay attention to everything in a training session at the pace you need or want as a trainer. I’ve had plenty of people ask me to repeat something because they weren’t paying attention or because they got lost in their own train of thought or because they were thinking of something else at the time. That happens with or without smartphones.

Some people like to doodle or fidget when they’re processing what they’re hearing. If someone is doodling we often respond with “are you bored” type comments. Who are we to know what that person is or is not learning?

Smartphones do give the opportunity for distraction, I don’t doubt that at all. But, what if their use was actively encouraged in the training? Instead of “put them away” why not “on your phone plug in and watch this TED video so we can discuss after, or “here’s a URL for a great site about coaching. Read it and it’ll provide a great way to lead to the next exercise.” Those are valid uses of smartphones and lets people know that training is actually a modern learning environment.

One of the common arguments against traditional training is that they’re removed from the work context. That’s true. Advocates against training will also say people learn everyday via their smartphones. That’s true too.

If the session is designed to actively use smartphones what we’re doing is enabling people to better learn on their own terms by using their devices as learning tools as well as the many other uses it gets used for. If that’s a good outcome I’m unsure why it’s frowned upon.

My final piece here is that if the design of the learning is good enough, people will be engaged with the learning experience and not feel the need to have to use their devices until they feel appropriate. If they are reaching for their devices it probably says more about the poor design than it does the person’s attention capacity or capability.

Related to this is also that I reckon it’s often the trainer reacting to the lack of attention on them as the trainer. They’re in a role where they expect people to pay attention to them and when that doesn’t happen it’s almost like an affront and direct challenge to their role and their credibility as a leader of that session.

I’m definitely interested to hear people’s responses to this.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

9 thoughts on “Smartphones and training”

  1. Totally with you on this Sukh. I see it with my #DigitalMarketing #Apprentices every week in class, and have taken a deliberate view that I’m not there to police their behaviour in respect of attention on phones or indeed the computer screens directly in front of them. I engage with them in the classroom and in the workplace and will assess the quality of their work in their portfolios and in their general group interactions. The only behavioural consideration I will ask for is that, as I would expect in general, each considers the impact of their own behaviour in class on the others in the group (and I will challenge talking over others, ‘cos that’s just rude!)

    1. Really encouraging to hear this from your point of view, Niall. Observing and commenting on their performance. Almost sounds like that’s the thing which matters. Of course the learning experience matters too, and you’re right to point out they should be mindful of the impact of their behaviour on others.

  2. I would add that the smartphone issue is not about shared responsibility, power and control, but about what we’re all passionate about, and that’s learning.

    People learn best when they’re in a relaxed, comfortable state. Stress, agitation or worry make it difficult for people to focus in general, and specifically learning new knowledge and skills in such a state is nearly impossible. We live in a connected society. Like it or not, most people have been conditioned to be ‘on’ 24/7, and will more likely than not use their smartphone as the primary means to maintain their connection to the ‘outside’ world. By demanding learners in our courses turn off their phones is putting them in a disconnected state – some may see it as a threat to their lifeline. Will their focus be on our courses if they’re constantly worried about missing what’s going on in the outside world? Not likely. Having the phone on is reassurance that the world is ticking along just fine without them.

    Secondly, smartphones have become for many an essential resource. Google, Wikipedia, forums, blog posts (!) and the like have become vital for being an informed, responsible citizen. They have become an unmissable learning aid.

    Not for the first time, Sukh, you’ve inspired me. From now on, I will make explicit in my training that phones are not only allowed, they’re encouraged. With one caveat, of course. And this is where your blogpost (helped also by Niall’s comment) has inspired me the most.

    My passion is intercultural business, and my training focuses on helping managers in internationally-operating companies become aware of their surroundings and their own influence on their environment. How to lead more effectively requires awareness of their own cultural biases and how they react/adapt to the culture of another. This is the primary learning goal.

    The caveat to leaving the phones on would be to be mindful of your behavior and how it influences the dynamic of the group culture. Are there others who are also referencing Google regarding a point one of their colleagues has made? Or are you the only one? Is it acceptable to the group, or is your behavior causing undue disturbance? These questions and observations will of course be made at the time the behavior occurs.

    Another marvelous learning opportunity. Thank you, Sukh!! (and Niall!)

    1. Leo, your added thoughts here are very welcome. I agree with your observation that for many the use of smartphones provides a state of security for many. It’s not up to us to disrupt that pattern, unless we’re specifically seeking to address a problem or immerse people in an environment where they cannot use a device to enable them to perform higher.

      You are very kind about being inspired. And as facilitators of learning, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we correctly identify when behaviour is disruptive to the group, and when it’s generative and builds.

  3. My usual comment is “you might find it easier to research this issue on a tablet since I find it quite difficult to read this level of detail on such a small screen” – but that may be more to do with the areas I train on!

    What I do take issue with however is people ‘surreptitiously’ using their phone. It is extremely rude behaviour – not only discourteous to the trainer but to their fellow participants. If we are truly being adult then perhaps we should suggest that people leave the session if they aren’t interested or able to focus on the topic.

    1. Simon, thanks for your comment here. And if we can guide people to access the content on their phones, it will be readily available to them thereafter when they need to go back and review and reflect.

      Your point about surreptitious use is an interesting one. I think that’s where adult rules allow us to have a different conversation which gives permission for us to call that out and allow the person to choose what they need to do. Either use the phone openly, step out of the room, choose not to use it. or something else I can’t think of.

  4. Phones: part of the problem or part of the solution? (I like the way Andy Lancaster at the CIPD made this point in his talk about phones for learning at lat week’s CIPD Learning and Development Show.)

    1. Martin, this is why I am advocating for this approach. Smartphones are about daily living. We can’t escape that and we have to expand our skills as facilitators to actively incorporate the use of smartphones as a learning tool.

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