Classroom decorum has gone the way of the schoolmarm and the dunce cap, and "good riddance," some say. Behavior such as eating in class, arriving late, and challenging the teacher has become commonplace in high school and college classrooms, and increasingly so in corporate classrooms.

Some educators welcome the freedom of expression that this represents, while others deplore the loss of civility and control. Is there a pandemic of incivility in the classroom or are we seeing students take control of their learning?

In June 2000, the University of Indiana's Center for Survey Research asked faculty about the frequency of "incivility in class," ranging from chewing gum to groaning in response to a teacher's comment, to harassing teachers and other students, to physical violence. Although the teachers reported some incidence of every behavior listed, the frequency in all cases was low. That was 10 years ago.

Today it is common for educators to have to deal with an increasing range of behaviors in their classes - some considered disruptive to learning. A newsletter from the James Madison University's Counseling and Student Development Center advises instructors to curb disruptive classroom behavior before it becomes problematic. Faculty face "serious issues of disrespectful and inappropriate classroom behavior that previously were of little concern," warned the newsletter, which followed up with these examples:

  • eating in class
  • monopolizing classroom discussions
  • failing to respect the rights of other students to express their viewpoints
  • carrying on distracting side conversations
  • constant questions or interruptions that interfere with the instructor's presentation
  • overt inattentiveness (such as sleeping, reading the paper, using laptops for non-class-related activities)
  • use of cell phones in the classroom
  • inordinate or inappropriate demands for time and attention.

One notable difference about this newer list of disruptions is that some are technology-enabled. Students today are using cell phones and computers in class, and some instructors are having a hard time with that when it's not related to learning. Proponents of personal technology devices in the classroom, especially social media tools, point to their contribution to learning in the form of broad reach and real-time feedback. Opponents find it rude and disruptive.

At Syracuse University, if professor Lawrence Thomas catches a single person texting during his philosophy classes, he ends the class on the spot and walks out. Teachers at other schools impound cell phones that ring during class and give grades of zero to people who text or tweet.

Not bad grades all around

Other instructors are taking personal technology in stride. Allison Rossett, professor of educational technology at San Diego State University, says, "Teaching in the classroom is very much affected by technology. Most effects are positive." In her classes at SDSU, students do some collaborative note taking, with several using Etherpad to make notes and add, correct, comment, and reflect on them throughout the session. "It's a pretty interesting experience for them and for the students who review their notes later," says Rossett.

"Also positive (well, sometimes positive) is the pressure that technology places on instructors," says Rossett. "Students want, and expect, their lessons to be lively, vivid, meaningful, and engaging. When they are, they're with you. When they are not, they're on Facebook or eBay.

"This is so typical that some universities and professors have forbidden contact with the Internet during class," says Rossett. "I think their response is too regulatory, but obviously, the classroom is becoming more of an open marketplace and less of a sanctuary."

Today's classrooms have become centers of multitasking. People are texting, tweeting, managing their calendars, and processing email while trying to follow the instructor and take notes. For most people born after 1977, doing many things at once is a natural state of affairs. For people who grew up linear, multitasking can seem like technology-enabled ADD. But as younger workers replace older ones, the expectation for speed and efficient use of learning time will only grow, even if the ability to pay attention suffers. Contrary to what your high schooler may tell you, recent research shows that multitasking decreases attention.

How to get and hold the floor can also be a challenge for the trainer in the corporate classroom. While most of their students are mature adults who've mastered civil behavior in order to keep a job, they, too, must come to terms with the use of cell phones and computers during class. The Twitter backchannel, seen in many universities and conferences, is making inroads into the corporate classroom.

Sharon Bowman, who excels at keeping students' attention, says, "If they're not engaged, then technology is going to interfere. If presenters made their content relevant and interactive, we wouldn't be seeing this problem. Listening to a lecture doesn't work for younger generations, but trainers are still lecturing students to death. Learners need to be active - taking notes, writing on the walls, and discussing things with other people. They only turn to their PDAs when the class is boring."

Bowman is the author of two books filled with techniques for keeping students engaged: Ten-Minute Trainer and Training from the Back of the Room: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn.

Karen Tischer, who has been teaching mainframe database and data communications software for more than three decades - first for IBM and now as a contractor - sees very little disruptive behavior in her classes, now or in the past. "I'm teaching techies. They want to suck your brain dry. They have long attention spans."

Tischer occasionally encounters students who want to show off their knowledge. "That's disruptive," she says, "but there's an easy solution. Move close to them and usually they will stop talking." Recently, she notes, more people leaving the room to attend to business. "I understand that with fewer people to do the work, people in IT have to continue to support their systems even when they are in class," she says.

Elaine Biech, president of ebb associates, and known as the trainer's trainer, says, "I have not seen disruptions increase or decrease, but they have changed. I find that the Gen Yers are texting, and the baby boomers are checking their BlackBerrys. Is this disruptive? Only to the person who is not attending to what is occurring in the classroom."

Biech defines disruptions as behavior that bothers the people around you, such as side conversations, clowning around, or making verbal attacks on the trainer or other participants. "Those are the behaviors I try to control," she says. She asks students to put their communication devices on silent mode and doesn't allow them to answer cell phone calls during a session. However, if texting or email doesn't bother the rest of the class, she allows it. "I believe I have a responsibility to make the session so exciting that people won't want to text," she says.


Attention, please

Getting and keeping students' attention appears to be at the heart of good teaching.

Doug Lemov, founder of Uncommon Schools, a network of U.S. charter schools, has been filming "good" teachers (those whose students make good grades) for the past five years. His observations of their methods resulted in the book Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.

Lemov believes that getting students to pay attention is not only crucial to good teaching, but it is a specialized skill that can be learned. This art, sometimes called classroom management, is not always taught in teacher preparation or train-the-trainer courses. And as yet, such courses rarely prepare teachers to manage students who are using personal technology to do non - class-related things.

A growing number of educators are getting on board to figure out how to harness social tools such as Twitter and Facebook for teaching and learning. According to research by ASTD and i4cp, these and other social media are already being used by people at work to find resources, share knowledge, improve communication, boost collaboration, and other work-related purposes. It is a short step, many believe, to the use of social tools for work-related learning.

At Penn State, Scott McDonald, assistant professor of science education, and Cole Camplese, director of Education Technology Services, have collaborated on a course titled "Disruptive Technologies in Teaching and Learning." A disruptive technology, by the way, is not one that disrupts a class. It's an innovation that displaces an existing technology, according to Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who coined the term.

McDonald and Camplese wanted to test the notion that Web 2.0 would lend itself to classroom pedagogy because of its ability to support social interaction. "The idea was to think about how technology, particularly social tools, can influence teaching and learning," says McDonald.

They found that students quickly began blogging and using Twitter to share notes and comments. Web users outside the classroom began responding to the blogs and Twitter posts. "We were getting a thousand unique visits per week," says Camplese. "The outside community - people not even enrolled in the course - created a whole new social dynamic." The tool that drove most of the activity turned out to be Twitter.

Step away from the podium

There is much discussion among trainers about moving into the role of learning facilitators and transferring control of learning from the teacher to the student. Is this pedagogical wisdom or a movement born out of the realization that technology does give more control to learners, and resistance is futile?

Bowman favors learners taking more control. "Learners should set up the norms for behavior in class and exercise the right to control their learning. They should have choices about how they learn. And we, the teachers, need to practice what we preach. If we know that learners need to be kept engaged, why aren't we building interaction into all our courses?"

Her advice: "Every 10 minutes, get them out of their seats. You don't have to dumb down your content. Just break it into 10-minute chunks."

Biech adds, "I think technology-based training is actually hurting trainers who are trying to increase involvement and allow more experiential learning - learning from within. Technology-based training tends to have one right answer instead of allowing participants to start where they are and then explore other options through discussion, experimentation, role play, experiential learning, and other activities."

However, she believes that technology is an excellent tool for learning facts and processes fast, cheaply, across geographic hurdles, out of time synch, or when it is convenient. "The bottom line is that the trainer needs to attend to both for different reasons," says Biech.

Technology, especially social tools, can turn students into instant authorities who challenge their teachers. Do instructors really welcome people in the classroom challenging them as they work?

"The confident, competent, good communicators do - emphatically YES," Biech says. "That phrase, 'I learn so much from my participants!' is not just a parting line. We really do learn from them, and so we welcome all the authorities in our classrooms." Biech sees challenges making a class even better. "What a way to get classroom participation!"

As Gen Y ages, and some yet-to-be-developed technology enthralls future generations, a key skill for trainers will be keeping up, not just with the technology, but with the social changes it will inevitably bring. In time, tweeting in class will seem as innocuous as passing notes once did.