Digital Distractions? Technology, Teaching and Learning in the Contemporary Classroom

Steve Volk, February 12, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

In my current day job, leading Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am frequently asked to observe colleagues’ classes to offer some “formative” feedback, remarks that go to them alone, not to department chairs or deans. (Let me know if you would like me to sit in on one of your classes, by the way.) Many of these classes are relatively large, and I park myself in the back of the class where I have a clear view of the class, including the students’ laptops and phones. Oh, the things I have seen! Chats and texts, Amazon purchases, sporting events and Netflix movies, emails and emoticons.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the disruption and distraction that digital devices introduce into the classroom, adding to the potential for a wandering attention that was already present in a pre-internet age. Reporting on the dangers of digital distraction is no longer confined to academic journals or the education press. Articles in Forbes (“Students spend nearly 21% of class time using a digital device for an unrelated activity like email or social media…They also check a digital device 10.5 times per class day on average”), the New York Times (“A growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures”), Fortune (“Score one for the Luddites. Taking notes with pen and paper may be more effective than with a laptop or tablet, studies show”), and myriad other sources have reported on the research findings (usually citing the same research study).

While I’ll go over some of these research findings in this article, let me summarize them here for those who are just about to stop reading so they can look at that text that just came in…

Digital technologies (cell phones, tablets, and laptops) have been shown to have a negative impact on a student’s ability to concentrate in class. They can prove almost irresistible both for the user and for those sitting nearby – a “second-hand smoke” effect. On top of this, some persuasive research suggests that even “legitimate” technology use, taking notes on a laptop, for example, can impede learning when compared with taking notes by hand. All of this provides a cogent argument for banning (with some exceptions) digital devices in the class room. My point in this article is to encourage you to think twice before adopting such bans.

In this article – which is based on the research literature and a recent CTIE workshop on the topic – I’ll  summarize some of the research about the impact of digital technology in the classroom, suggest some unintended consequences of outright digital bans, encourage you to consider policies that stop short of banning all devices, and, above all, suggest that encouraging your students to design a technology policy for the class, based on an informed discussion, may be the best approach of all.

What is Distraction?

Let’s begin by addressing the question of what is distraction. (Much of this is drawn from James Lang’s review in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Adam Gazzaley (neuroscientist) and Larry D. Rosen’s (psychologist), The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT, 2016). Lang recommends the book as “required reading for every teacher today.”) Distractions, the authors suggest, are about something blocking our efforts to achieve a goal that matters. Multitasking (texting, listening to music, watching a video, making a cup of coffee, reading email, etc.) on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not a distraction. Doing the same when studying for a calculus exam is.

Distraction, Gazzaley and Rosen argue, is the result of a conflict between our brain’s ability to conceive and plan long-term goals and our ability to control our minds and our environment as we work to complete those goals. To understand distraction, picture a huge wave (our goals) crashing into a sea-wall represented by the limitations to our cognitive control which “diminish our ability to direct and sustain our attention, to remember things, and to switch back and forth between tasks.” Barriers to sustained attention will always be there, but they don’t always defeat the pursuit of our goals. Further, what these barriers (limitations) are change over the course of our lives: they were different when we were children, are different for our students, and are different for us now.

OK, hold on to that thought (if you can!), as we’ll come back to it when talking about how to develop new approaches to digital distractions in the classroom that focus on helping our students (and ourselves) set and pursue goals.

When Digital Is Distracting: Cell Phones

It’s so annoying when I’m giving a lecture and half the students are talking on their mobiles! Well, duh! No one (at least no one I know) permits students to talk on their phones in class. And we don’t allow students to check their phones for texts, email, or interact with social media while in class. Of course, the fact that we don’t allow this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. (I’m always amused by student who are convinced of their own superpower: invisibility. They don’t think that we can see them looking down toward their laps while we’re talking away at the front of the class.) A study in 2012 found that 53% of undergraduate students at one university reported texting during class; a 2014 examination of 99 college students during a 20-minute lecture found that the average amount of texts sent and received among each student was 26.29 (14.10 sent, 12.69 received). Let me say that again: a 20-minute lecture, so, for each minute of class, students were sending or receiving more than one text.

According to a recently released survey conducted by Top Hat, 94% of students said they “wanted to use their cell phones in class for academic purposes,” and 75% believe using personal devices in the classroom improved their ability to learn and retain information even though more than half reported using their cell phones to text friends or browse social media. And these are among the more “optimistic” numbers. Other studies report 86% of students sending text messages in class, or 94% of students using their cell phones for non-academic purposes in class, or 125% of students using their cell phones to play Candy Crush in class. (OK, I made up that last one just to see if you were still paying attention.) But you get the idea.

Is this distracting? Of course, particularly when it comes to the ability of students to do well in their classes. Researchers at Kent State University surveyed more than 500 students, controlling for demographics and high-school GPA, among other factors. They found that more daily cell phone use (including smartphones) correlated with lower overall GPAs. (Correlation is not causation, but the findings are concerning in any case.) A number of other studies have also reported on correlations between cell phone usage and test scores (as usage goes up, scores go down).

Research also suggests that cell phone use has a differential impact on students. A recent study on student phone access and the achievement gap by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy for the London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, found that banning mobile phones “improves outcomes for the low-achieving students … the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

In short, we likely have enough data to suggest, at the very least, that instructors need to show some concern about cell phone use in class for other than allowable uses (e.g., taking photos of white boards or PowerPoint slides, looking up facts when requested, etc.)

When Digital Is Distracting: Laptops

The impact of laptops on student learning (or, to keep it accurate, on student grades) was equally troubling. In an experiment conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point, faculty teaching multiple sections of an introductory economics course found that when they took away computers and tablets in the classroom, student grades rose. The difference wasn’t monumental, but enough to tip students into higher or lower grades. Similar research, using experimental, semi-experimental, and anecdotal data, yields the same results (see here, here, and here, for example).

Researchers have also studied the impact of taking notes on a laptop versus taking notes by hand. The most frequently cited study was conducted at UCLA and Princeton where students using laptops to take notes were compared with students who took notes by hand. The researchers found that laptop note-takers performed worse on conceptual questions than longhand note-takers. The thought behind this is fairly evident: students taking notes on their laptops are essentially transcribing the lecture, whereas longhand note-takers, since they can’t write at the speed of the talker, must do some mental processing to isolate those parts of the lecture that seemed most relevant. (Of course, it is also possible that students can capture the less pertinent points rather than the most important ones, or that the laptop note-taker will go over her “transcription” to pull out the more relevant points, but we’ll let the observations represented in the study stand as the most likely outcomes.)

Equally troubling, researchers have found that, in the words of one article on the topic, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” Psychologists at two Canadian universities discovered not only that “participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask,” but also that “participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not.” Their results, in fact, indicated that the consequences, in terms of comprehending a lecture, were even worse for nearby students than for laptop multitaskers themselves. In other words, the impact of “second-hand smoke,” so to speak, was greater than the impact on the smoker.

Finally, studies of both workers and students have found that the impact of breaking away from a main task lingers even if you only spend a few seconds “away,” to check email, a text, or responses to the latest Tweet from the WH. One study cited by Gazzaley and Rosen in The Distracted Mind, found that it took research subjects almost 30 minutes to refocus and fully engage with the original task.

When Digital is Distracting: Challenges to Authority

I have taught more than one class where a student asked a factual question for which I didn’t have an answer. Look it up, I suggested, and they always did. Smart phones can give us immediate answers, provide needed information, and allow discussions to advance where the lack of information might have been stymied an important line of inquiry. But in-the-moment access to information can also raise issues that we need to be aware of. Two examples.

(1) Two years ago I was teaching a summer course for high school students on morality and decision making. I had posed, as a purely hypothetical, what was an actual British case from the 19th century (R v Dudley and Stephens) dealing with a shipwreck, cannibalism, and eventual charges of murder when the survivors were rescued. As the students were discussing whether the (still hypothetical) survivors should be charged with murder for the death of a young crew member who had, after many days without food, lapsed into a coma, one student was busy on his cell phone. He finally raised his hand and reported that my example wasn’t hypothetical at all, and he informed the class of the results of the actual trial of the surviving seamen. I didn’t feel undercut, since it didn’t matter if the case were an actual one or purely hypothetical. But the student’s Googling set the discussion off in an unwanted direction as students now wanted to know the outcome of the trial rather than putting themselves in the place of the jurors.

(2) A faculty participant at a recent workshop (female, fairly new to campus) reported that a student had looked up something she said and noted that it was incorrect. While her response, as reported to us, was welcoming and non-defensive, I have little doubt the student would never have challenged a senior (male) faculty member in the same way. In other words, in the context in which newer, female, or under-represented faculty need to be more concerned with establishing their authority in the classroom than more senior, male, or white faculty, access to information via classroom digital technologies can be a means not just of distributing classroom knowledge and participation (something I would see as positive), but of challenging the authority of specific categories of faculty.

Hold On; Wait a Minute!

Enough, you’re probably begging by now. Ban laptops, confiscate cell phones, turn tablets into cafeteria trays and get them out of the class. There is a lot of evidence that more and more faculty are doing just that, minus the cafeteria tray suggestion. But there are reasons to think again about the unintended consequences of a total digital ban, and there are reasons to turn the conversation around and think of potentially more productive approaches to digital distractions in the classroom.

In terms of unintended consequences, the issue of note-taking accommodations is an important consideration. Students with the proper documentation can apply to Office of Disability Resources either for a note-taker, or for permission to use a laptop in a “no-laptops” class as an accommodation. The problem with this should already be evident: if you’re the only student in class who has a laptop open in a no-laptop class, you have just been outed. Other possible options: Assign note-takers for the class, to rotate among students for credit or extra credit. The note-takers can take notes by hand or laptop, but if the latter, they should be encouraged to go over their “transcriptions” to prepare a summary of the class, not a textual recording. Note-takers would have one day to post their notes to Blackboard.

If you have been to a professional conference in the last decade, you’ll have noticed the large number of audience members who pull out phones and tablets to take pictures of the PowerPoint slides, particularly the ones that contain way too much textual information. Other possible options: Put less on your slides, allow each slide more time, or, better yet, make your slides available after the lecture. And allow cell phones for students to photograph white boards, the blackboard, or sheets of paper that have been put up, so that that can capture some of the discussion that occurred. (Or you can take a photo and post it to Blackboard.)

And, finally, we have been encouraging our students to read articles we have posted to Blackboard, rather than printing them out. But if they can’t use their laptops to access the readings during a class discussion, it forces them to print out the articles or not to bring them in. Without laptops, you can’t ask your students to quickly find the reading from two weeks ago and compare Hobbes to Locke. Other possible options: Allow laptops for discussions of readings, having gained an understanding from students that the pdf’s will be the only tabs open.

But beyond potential fixes to specific issues, there are many other reasons why we should think twice about an absolute ban on laptops or other digital technology use in the classroom. Obviously, technology, when used well, can add a lot to classroom learning, engagement, and interaction. I’ll just mention one way I have used laptops in the class to very productive ends. I’m sure that you have many others. I’ve found that one of the trickiest aspects of conducting small group discussions in class occurs when the groups are asked to report back on the insights they have gained or the questions that have been raised. If there are many such small groups, student report-backs can grow tedious and time consuming. I began to use laptops to solve this problem. I would split the class into smaller (5-7) groups, making sure that one student in each group had a laptop. Before class, I set up a Google doc, and I would give the laptop students access to it. Then, as the discussion in each group occurred, I would have the student with the laptop to record their answers to questions I had posed directly into the Google doc. This document would be projected onto a screen at the front of the class. I got a sense of what was going on in each group by simply looking at the unfolding Google doc. When I called the discussions to a close, I already knew what points they shared, where the differences were, and how to direct my remarks or questions. Finally, I would preserve the document and make it available to the whole class. (I did a “how-to” video on this which you can find here.)

The Bigger Issues

Let’s return to some larger issues before we join the rush to ban digital technology in the classroom.  We can start with perhaps the most important issue: our students’ ability to succeed in the future will depend to a significant degree on their ability to use contemporary technology responsibly and to their advantage, not to pretend it doesn’t exist. In that sense, it is better to encourage a conscious, targeted use of technology in the classroom than to banish it altogether.

One of our standard approaches to the issue of technology in the classroom is to wonder about why students don’t (can’t?) seem to control their behavior around its use. While many students report that they think that multitasking can improve their ability to learn, results of a study by Tassone et al (2017) indicate that a majority of students were aware that multitasking was detrimental to their grades. So, it’s not like they don’t know of the consequences of disruptive technology use.

New research points to the fact that students are increasingly anxious when away from their cell phones. A University of Illinois study found that high engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students. A review of 23 studies of the impact of cell phone use, anxiety and depression, confirmed this finding, although noting that the impact of increase cell phone use was weak to moderate. A psychology professor who wrote an “autoethnographic reflection” on his students’ cell phone “addiction in the classroom,” quoted one student, who observed that, “For just about everybody, their phone is their life. That is how they keep in contact with everyone; that is where all their pictures are, and so on… I do not think one could imagine life without technology and social media.”

We could benefit from more research on what appears to be a correlation between the amount of cell phone use and student anxiety (again, correlation is not causation). But the take-away for me when thinking about technology use in the classroom, is this: if, as the emerging research suggests, some students are tied to their cell phones in a way that is not beneficial for their mental health, simply banning them in class won’t address the underlying issues. Perhaps we should engage, as teachers, in a different way?

Which brings me back Gazzaley and Rosen’s The Distracted Mind as reported on by Lang. Gazzaley and Rosen, you will remember if you weren’t playing on your phones, suggested the conflict in our brains which goes on between two separate neural processes: the first directing our attention to goal-related activities, and the second blocking out irrelevant distractions. (Gazzaley’s experiments have also suggested that, as we age, we don’t lose the ability to focus our attention, but we do have a harder time blocking out distractions, which could be why older adults have a harder time focusing on conversations in a noisy restaurant.).

If this is the case, the challenge  – which Lang raises in his review – should not focus on modifying this second neural process, banning digital devices in order to block out distractions, but on the first, i.e., by helping students focus on goals.  As Lang put it, when thinking about one of his students who was a cell-phone-offender: “What goal had I established for Kate’s learning that day? How had I created an environment that supported her ability to achieve that goal? And perhaps most important — assuming that the class had a learning goal that mattered for her — did she know about it?”

Can Democracy in the Classroom Remove Digital Distractions?

No. We should be about what we can do. But the creation of transparent, student-centered classrooms can go some way to threading the needle between outright technology bans and an anything-goes approach. Again, we start with the assumption that students, to succeed, will need to know how to manage their technology use, and that just telling them to turn off their phones won’t give them practice, direction, or motivation for how to act when they are outside of class, studying, writing a paper, or doing their reading.

So, some suggestions:

(1) A technology use policy in the classroom is, in my mind, like any other policy one creates for a class: it can serve as an opening for a discussion as to why such a policy has been adopted (note the passive tense). Better yet, it can serve as a springboard for a discussion in which you would invite your students to come up with their own policies governing technology use in the classroom. Students may or may not think that a glance at a text in the midst of a lecture is distracting, but they likely don’t know the research that concludes just how problematic it can be. They probably don’t know that their watching of a music video on their laptops will negatively impact nearby peers even more than it will impact them. In other words, use this discussion to provide information (you’ve got all you need just in this article!) and help students develop their own classroom technology policy. And don’t expect that such policies will immediately solve the problem or that everyone will obey the class rules that they have established for themselves. Public health experts know very well that telling young people that smoking is bad for them doesn’t do the trick (nor have students stopped smoking on campus now that we have banned it). But, in the context of digital uses in the classroom, the rules have the potential of constructing a new social contract that might give students pause before they text in class.

(2) To the extent that you can, create an active classroom. Long lectures without breaks of any kind will make digital distractions much more likely as attention begins to flag. Cut down the time between the lecture and a task that engages students directly: asking questions, polling them, breaking them into group discussions. Digital distractions decline when students shuttle between short lecture segments and discussion groups or think-pair-share activities.

(3) Help students focus on the goals for that class, and remind them to stay focused on the goals. To rephrase Lang’s question, do students know what your goals are for the day? Distractions will win the game if the only goal a student has is making it to the end of the class.

The literature on the impact of that new technology is having on our brains, or better said, our students’ brains, is already large and will continue to grow, particularly with the advent of high quality virtual reality. Probably the most honest thing to say is that we don’t actually know how digital intrusions are shaping the lives of our students. But we do know that one of our greatest responsibilities as teachers, regardless subject matter, is to help students develop the capacity for deep and undivided attention as a means of problem solving, reflection, sustained engagement, and mental calm. Inviting our students into a discussion about digital distractions, and giving them the shared authority to establish policies, is at least a beginning.

Your experiences in this regard? Please share!

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