Have you noticed anything different recently in the training classroom? Decades ago newspapers, crossword puzzles, and stale coffee in Styrofoam cups littered the room. Scan the modern day class and witness the change. Specialtycaffeine shots in white cups with green lettering adorn each row of tables. Behind the piping hot shot of life-sustaining nectar sits a student hopelessly addicted to more than just the java jolt. The Generation Y classroom reeks of an electronic dependency ultimately resulting in a distracting learning environment.

For instructors and agencies there are two responses to this electronic impairment- they can ignore the influence of the devices in the classroom or they can embrace them. Either way, it is incumbent upon the instructor and the agency to develop a comfort level with the changing classroom landscape- and to develop a consistent policy that is communicated upfront- if the learning environment is to be preserved.

Many of today’s law enforcement instructors are classroom veterans. Instructors who began their training career ages ago remember a classroom with a completely different vibe than exists today. Decades ago the grizzled police veteran arrived to the eighties in-service classroom in his blue jeans and Member’s Only jacket (and of course, uniform shoes), armed with the local newspaper to read the sports section and tackle the daily crossword. Training participation was the last thing on the veteran cop’s agenda that day. Instructors of that generation knew if you wanted the officer to retain any information from the course, it was necessary to prepare and distribute an outline, as very few veterans arrived to training equipped with a writing instrument.

Fast forward to the present-day classroom; tables are filled with laptops, iPads, smart-phones and other electronic devices with wireless capability. Connecting cords, extension cords and multiple outlets are strewn all over the tables and floors like a multi-legged sea creature and creating an OSHA nightmare.  No need to bring the sports section of the paper or the daily crossword to today’s training- who has the time- with e-mail, Twitter, text messaging, Candy Crush and other distractions needing constant attention?

While most blame the Generation Y- Millennial generation(born after 1980) for this electronic boondoggle it was actually the late phase Baby Boomers (born 1956 to 1965) that jump started the portable device craze. It was in the mid to late 1970’s when Pong and other pinball and arcade games were the rage. Soon Mattel and Sega and other electronics companies developed home and portable sports and arcade versions. Portability spread to other electronic products like the Sony Walkman and soon all the Boomers had one. In 1983 IBM produced the portable computer and the generation that became hooked was the generation now closest to retirement- not the easy to indict Millennials. This revelation is further supported by observation that the technology virus that initially infected Boomers as teens- and eventually spread to Generation X and Y- has returned to re-infect the Boomers even as they ridicule Gen Y fortheir relianceon technology. Scan the classroom. Sitting next to the 25 year old wunderkind posting to his Twitter account is the paunchy 55 year old lifting his cheaters to scan his messages and tap his one finger reply.

The effect of portability is evident in the unique distractions technology brings to the law enforcement classroom. A veteran police instructor recently presented a class on officer mental health and wellness to recruits and later to veteran officers. The instructor was sympathetic to the reality that two hours of “how officers fail during their careers” was probably not the most enjoyable topic and was expecting to experience some distractions.  During recruit training the recruits (who were allowed to utilize laptops with the power-point pre-loaded) were regimented and frightened enough to not do anything too distracting (i.e. message, etc).  The recruits knew the material would show up at some later date in the form of an exam so other than a few seconds of nodding off, the recruits mostly paid attention.

Veteran in-service was an entirely different encounter. Veterans loathe training. (If you dispute that statement please feel free to attend your department’s next DOT refresher class). Training pros will tell you if veteran cops aren’t interested in the training topic they will tune out. If they don’t respect the instructor they will tune out. If they areinterested in the topic and/or do respect the instructor they will still most likely tune out at some point during the training Veteran cops don’t want to be stuck in a classroom. Where tuning out used to mean the crossword puzzle- now it means the iPhone. Even tech novices will habitually check their phone every few minutes. The need to be constantly entertained and distracted has become a societal addiction.

So how do agencies respond to the challenge of keeping officers engaged? Other than adding a budget line for specialty coffee as an inducement, what could agencies do to effectively accomplish training in this age of technological distraction? First, agencies should acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to approve the use of a table top device or phone while in the training environment. Electronic outlines saves gobs of paper and allows for the instructor or the academy to update materials on the fly. Students who have recently experienced academic curricula are likely to be more comfortable taking notes electronically rather than in written form. Veterans (who still cannot remember to bring a pen to training) could voice record or jot class notes on their smart phone. With classroom internet capability, students who need clarification on a particular topic or want to research a specific citation or a quote, find information is readily available electronically. Students who learn at a faster pace might be intrigued or engaged enough to use the device to expand on the instruction, while other students might just be more comfortable looking up a word or topic on a search engine rather than raising their hand and risk looking foolish. Keep in mind while Gen Y is communication-challenged when it comes to face-to-face encounters, they have unparalleled skill in utilizing electronic devices to gather information.

The downside to having classrooms populated with electronics is some students bring devices to class under the guise of being more productive or to have an electronic advantage, but fall to the lure of the more entertaining distraction of messaging or games over the tedium of training. As addressed earlier, even the dinosaurs of the Boomer generation cannot go a few minutes without habitually checking their device. To the instructor, the classroom landscape eventually looks like an unrehearsed electronic ballet; in the pocket-out of the pocket, up from the desk and back on the desk, tapping the keyboard, sending and receiving, vibrating and yes, sometimes actually ringing in class.

The best defense against this electronic invasion is to review the rules with the class prior to instruction. Do you allow electronic devices and if so, to what extent? Should students follow your course outline on their device? Are students who follow you on their laptops allowed to also be checking e-mails, messaging or playing games?  Would you prefer students to step outside the class if they need to use their phones? Is the temporary disruption better than them taking a moment to check or answer, but remaining seated?

If you are easily offended you might want to restrict electronic devices. Another remedy would be to use the time tested veteran instructor tool of making an example of a student who is otherwise distracted and asking them a question relative to current instruction material. Another option is to hold students responsible for the material in the form of an exam at the end of the training (and yes, this can work with police veterans).

Many successful veteran instructors use the following classroom methodology. First they review the rules prior to instructing. They don’t restrict devices, but they make it clear they will deal with any individual creating a distraction. Dealing individually rather than collectively earns the respect of police veterans quicker than many other types of supervisory techniques. During the review, veteran instructors should authorize students to briefly check and respond to messages as long as it is not disruptive or lengthy. Students are advised to exit the classroom quietly if they have an emergency or situation requiring a lengthy response.

As for the e-mail, text messaging, Sudoku, Candy Crush and/or Angry Birds addicted officer, who seemingly cannot be extracted from his device, it is imperative the officer be instructed to immediately put the device away and pay attention. A procedure should be in place to remove the officer from training and to contact the officer’s training supervisor if necessary.

As a final note to instructors, not all classroom distractions are intentional or meant to be disrespectful. In the example given earlier it was discovered that some of the students who appeared to be distracted during the police wellness training later contacted the instructor for additional information. The lesson here is some students might be uncomfortable with a training topic and appear aloof. While the “tough love” approach is appropriate for the student misusing his device, one suggestion might be to take note of the distracted student and intervene during break or after the training. The instructor of the wellness course reported later intervening with officers with undiagnosed addictive issues, medical issues, anxiety and other behavioral issues, and relationship and financial crisis, discovered only as a result of a quick glance around the classroom.

Of course even some officers who appreciate training cannot overcome their attachment to their devices. The numbers of these distracted students can be mitigated by presenting interesting material, having a passion for your topic and having a delivery that doesn’t seem rote or robotic. For example, avoid starting out your course of instruction by stating you are a substitute instructor called in at the last minute and this is not your material. Insert material that is specific to the agency being trained.

Review training policy and class rules prior to instructing. Remember to scan the room and note who seems distractedas opposed to students who are distracting. Address distracting students immediately. Try to make a connection later with distracted students as there might be a good reason for their inattention. And good luck. Generation Z and a spate of new smart devices and apps are just around the corner!

Brian Nanavaty is a thirty-year veteran of law enforcement and former adjunct faculty at Indiana and Purdue Universities. Nanavaty is currently an instructor for the Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute at Public Agency Training Council and instructs at ILEETA and other various leadership academies and conferences on police topics. Contact Nanavaty at [email protected].


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