Digital Distractions

A friend posted an article to Facebook about how one prof deals with digital distractions. In his class, students must pledge not to use their laptops for anything other than class business, and pledge to be honest if asked to check a neighbour’s screen. He also bans cell phones entirely. Overall, not the worst policy (although asking students to spy and snitch seems counter productive). The prof does, however, ask students to leave if they are caught distracted, whether or not it is distracting anyone else. I commented on my friend’s post, stating my own personal preference but had a feeling that I’d be one of the few not sure this is the best tactic.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate to think just how many students are sitting in classes and doing something completely irrelevant to the class. Those students aren’t learning what they are there to learn and they aren’t contributing anything positive with their presence.

I’m not the only one sitting on the other side of this question. Rob Jenkins at the Chronicle also has some concerns about rules that are difficult (or impossible) to enforce and what he calls the “electronics police.”

One common argument I see is that students are distracting other students with their laptops and that they are capable of distracting more students with a laptop than had previously been possible. Sure, who hasn’t seen someone’s laptop open and wondered what they were looking at? I can understand how this could be seen as a concern.

But then again, I would still argue that the students who are distracted by someone else’s laptop screen would probably have been distracted by something out of a window, by thinking about their plans for after class, or just about anything else because they want to be distracted. The made the decision to look in the first place and to look for longer than a second after they did look. Their curiosity and interest were engaged but it was not by the person leading the class.

This does not count disruptions like students’ cell phones ringing or pinging or noise from laptops or headphones. That is something that I would have no problem having my students agree about. It’s part of our culture that you should turn your sound off when in a situation where it would be disruptive.

The issue of distractions and how we handle the potential for them, though, is one that gets under my skin. I am a person who finds it significantly faster and easier to take notes digitally than to write them. I do still write notes by hand and do understand the cognitive theory of writing as opposed to typing, but it is so much faster for me to type. So I would be hard-pressed to ban laptops unless we were having a class discussion and I did not plan to ask students to use their laptops.

Moreover, I admit that I spent my fair share of time distracted during class. I never felt the need to blame others for it (except maybe the instructor). There were times when I was waiting for others to finish, parts of a lecture that I already knew or already understood, or days when I was tired or just not cognitively present.

I actually do not take issue with asking students to pledge to use their screens only  for class. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing. I do, however, think that that needs to be built as part of a bigger aim to teach them how to learn and to take ownership of their own learning. If we just make rules for them for a class, then great, they learn that rule in that class. Will they apply it elsewhere though?

Learning is not something that most people do without training. We have to learn how to learn. Being taught how to deal with distractions or potential distractions is part of that. There are many techniques out there for helping to manage distraction vs productivity (Pomodoro has gotten quite a bit of attention). Most of us have struggled with it. So learning how to cope is important.

So is making our classes engaging enough that students find it harder to tune out. If all students are doing is listening, writing notes or looking at slides, there is not much brain power required of them. They will be primed for a distraction. Yes, some will stay focused because they know they need to do so and are aware of the importance. But others won’t. That is where instructors come in.

The more active we can make learning, the less opportunity students have for surfing the net or texting. This doesn’t mean that there is no place for lectures. There are many instructors who are incredibly engaging lecturers. Others are not. So it is important to find a style that actually supports student learning and to use activities to support that. Discussions, in-class writing, experiments, etc are all ways to keep students learning rather than just memorizing.

When it comes to active learning, there are ways to use their electronic devices too. Why not use the laptops for more than typing? Engage the Google-fu of your students. Teach them appropriate ways to use their technology for learning. Use cell phones for response to in-class polling. Have them tweet questions or take pictures or video.

No, it isn’t necessary to let students use their electronics. Sure, you can ban cell phones and police the use of laptops. If you are making it worth their time, then they are likely to be willing to go with it. I wouldn’t necessarily encourage laptops during a discussion and definitely not if I was having students up and moving.

Just be aware that times have changed and they will continue to do so. Technology is becoming more central to how more and more people operate and we do our students a great service if we help them learn how to make technology part of a productive life. They can get a whole lot out of their technology that they may never have considered if we can only help them learn how.

I want to return to what I said before about having students take ownership of their learning. For me, that really is at the root of the issue here. It’s even at the root of students pledging not to use their devices for anything other than class. The important part for me, though, is teaching them why. Why does it matter if they are playing a video game, checking Facebook or even typing up notes for another class? “Distracting other students” is not sufficient. I always come back to the question of why those other students are then not taking ownership of their own learning.

One thought on “Digital Distractions”

  1. I agree, learn how to learn and rehearse skills. I like that part of introduction to class is teaching students how to deal with distractions which does not direct target anyone or use of media device. Instead, it puts focus on learning how to live on highly distracting environments. Like you I wasn’t always ‘present’ for a variety of reasons – we just didn’t have laptops or cell phones in my day. But I knew enough to just be quiet and not become a teacher target. Great post. Enjoyed.

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