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. Specialty caffeine 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 ‘80s 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) who jump-started the portable device craze. It
was in the mid- to late-1970s 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 for their
reliance on 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., messaging. 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. 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 are interested 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 save gobs of paper and allow
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 smartphone. 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
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
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 into 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 devices.
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
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 him/her 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 or
Angry Birds addicted officer, who seemingly cannot be extracted from his/her
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
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 breaks 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 distracted as 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 30-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 the Public Agency Training Council and instructs
at ILEETA and other various leadership academies and conferences on police
topics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.