No cell phones allowed: Some colleges ban modern-day gadgets

Erin Milligan has to surrender her cell phone to school officials before going back to college this year.

Milligan isn’t being punished for violating any rules. She’s just following Wyoming Catholic College’s technology policy, which bans cell phones at the small liberal arts school.

And even more surprising, as someone who grew up in a generation that has never known a world without the Internet, Milligan says she likes it.

“It’s a release, really, not having a cell phone,” said Milligan, a 20-year-old junior from New Hampshire. “When you are no longer captivated by technology, you find your true and real self.”

Also banned at Milligan’s school are televisions and access to most websites in dorm rooms. Administrators allow only limited Internet connectivity throughout the campus, so students can do online research.

Before the start of each school year, Milligan and her 111 classmates at the college relinquish the devices most of their peers elsewhere use to stay constantly connected to friends, family and classmates. Student leaders lock the phones in a box in each dorm room.

Students can check them out for emergencies or if they leave campus for travel.

“We are so tech savvy these days,” Milligan said. “But something that is really prevalent is our inability to genuinely communicate at a human-to-human, face-to-face level.”

At Wyoming Catholic College, located in the picturesque mountain town of Lander, 150 miles northwest of Casper, the ban on technology is part of the school's mission to foster more traditional debate between students and their peers and also between students and faculty, Dean of Students Jonathan Tonkowich said.

“We’ve all have the experience where you are talking to someone and their phone goes off, or their text goes off, and they stop talking to you and begin talking someone who is not there,” Tonkowich said. “I’m worried about that direction in our society, where people you aren’t with are more important than the people you are with.”

Milligan said the students actually appreciate the freedom of being disconnected and become accustomed to the unusual policy after a few weeks at the school.

“We realize that spending too much time on a computer prohibits us from doing something that we should be doing or something that is fun,” the college sophomore said. “I don’t want to be someone who is just texting friends and not talking to them, and have a Facebook profile to define who I am.”

Tonkowich said in his four years at the school, there have been only two violations of the policy. One was a blatant violation where a student tried to sneak a cell phone onto campus and use it. The other incident was a misunderstanding where a student had signed out her phone because of a medical emergency and thought she could hold onto it longer than was allowed. Wyoming Catholic College has banned cell phones since its first class in 2007.

The penalty for violating the technology policy is performing community service.

The school is not entirely a Luddite utopia, however. Students in their dorms do have limited Internet access via personal laptops and Wi-Fi that allows them to access only a handful of sites. The college email service and Skype — to call home — are allowed. But if students tried to log on to Facebook or any other social media site, the site would be blocked. Video streaming sites are also not allowed. A few public computers scattered around campus allow access to a broader range of websites.

Parents, not students, tend to grapple more with the tech ban. Parents go through a two-day orientation when students first enter the school to allay any fears about not being constantly connected with their sons or daughters during emergencies, and to also meet other students and families. Many of the college students have had cell phones since they were children, and their parents are accustomed to being able to reach them at any moment.

The school is so small that administrators know where everyone is on campus at any given time, Tonkowich reassures the parents. And school officials — who are allowed to use cell phones — are always reachable by the students’ parents or guardians.

The school’s policy represents a dramatic break with the trend of students using more and more technology in their daily lives and while studying. A comprehensive study by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the media habits of young people showed that more than 60 percent of people aged 8-18 do their schoolwork while also using some other form of media, such as TV or instant message. And two-thirds of college freshmen in a 2012 survey said they sometimes or frequently use social media sites while in class.

Some researchers, led by Stanford Communications Professor Clifford Nass, say the constant multitasking encouraged by smartphones and other devices is making people less productive and worse at learning complex new concepts .

Even so, some education experts have encouraged universities to adapt to the expectations of this generation, by making classes more interactive and limiting the amount of time students are expected to focus on any one speaker or task.

Wyoming Catholic College rejects this premise.

“We don’t see this as thumbing our nose at tech and modern culture,” Tonkowich said. “We’re allowing a freedom and a vacation from all that so that students can work on something different: true friendship, true virtue, true study.

The private coed university isn’t the only one to eschew the trappings and wires of modern day life. At Deep Springs College in Big Pine, Calif., the small student body recently voted to ban wireless Internet service in the living area at their elite two-year school, where tuition is free for the 13 students admitted each year.

“The student body felt that looking at screens might distract from communal living and might distract from interacting with others,” said Zach Robinson, a second-year student at the college.

While there’s a formal ban on technology at Wyoming, the geographic remoteness and the spartan philosophy of Deep Springs College keeps students there disconnected from most of the world.

“There’s no service out here,” said 21-year-old Robinson. “So you can have [a cell phone] if you want, but it won’t do you any good.”

Robinson, who transferred to the school after two years at Dartmouth, said he was hooked on the school’s focus on labor, academics and self-governance.

At Deep Springs, the 27 students staff the college’s alfalfa farm and cattle ranch. The school is mostly self-sustaining through its farms and cattle, and the students manage their school through committees. The rustic valley life encourages a spirit of cooperation and communication without the many technological distractions at a larger university, Robinson said.

But Robinson said he misses the “little things,” like getting news on his phone and not being able to download new songs.

After his two years living in the remote and communal college lifestyle, he plans to return to Dartmouth and pursue a career in management consulting.

“It might be a little hard for me, but I’ll be prepared to be more engaged with the Dartmouth community and [to have] better face-to-face interactions now than I was when I first came here,” he said.

For her part, Milligan says her friends are often baffled at her choice to live without constant connection and communication.

“Technology is a mask and can be a deception in this world," said Milligan, who is studying to become a teacher but is also considering a life with the church. “I don’t think I will be behind other people, because I will be developing something that will be dying – the ability to communicate.”

“Developing that over the years is more important to my growth than figuring out whatever Twitter or Facebook is,” she added.  

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