How Schools and Students Are Handling Digital Distractions

Technology is a double-edged sword for education. It offers new ways to present information and connect with students, but it can also create a serious 'digital distraction.' Read on to learn how some educators are confronting this problem.

Computer Student

Plugged In, Tuned Out

If there's one thing everyone can agree upon about youths from the Millennial Generation, it's that they're all wired. From Facebook to 'smart' phones, today's young people are constantly plugged in - even in school.

Walk into almost any college classroom, and you'll see an array of laptops, iPads and mobile devices in front of students. Ostensibly, they're taking notes, or participating in electronic classroom feedback programs. But a closer look at those screens often reveals web browsing, email checking, tweeting, Facebook updating, You Tube posting - basically anything but class-related activities.

Unsurprisingly, this behavior is affecting students' performance. A professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently compared the grades of students who used laptops in class to those who didn't. She found that those who brought laptops to class scored 11% lower than those who didn't on their first exams.

In response, many professors have started banning laptops and web browsing. As early as 2008, the University of Chicago Law School simply turned off Internet access in their classrooms. And last spring, a professor at the University of Oklahoma attracted nationwide attention when he poured liquid nitrogen over a laptop and shattered it in front of the class, declaring, 'Don't bring laptops and work on them in class. Have I made my point clear?'

He sure did - but a student still managed to capture the incident on YouTube, quickly drawing a million hits.

Texting

Digitally Distracted

The problem persists outside of the classroom as well. A recent article in The New York Times profiled Vishal Singh, a promising young high school senior. His teachers describe him as 'one of their brightest students,' but he's still pulling D's and F's in basic subjects like English and algebra. Why the poor performance? His parents and instructors point to hours spent on Facebook and YouTube instead of homework.

Like many students, Vishal's issue is truly one of focus, not talent. He's a passionate digital filmmaker, and gets A's in courses like film critique. And his time on computers isn't just limited to making and sharing videos. Vishal is remarkably technically proficient, building websites and serving as the family tech support guru. But Vishal and his Millennial peers prefer to use their tech skills for fun, not schoolwork.

The New York Times cites several studies that show that, left to their own devices, students will use computers for entertainment rather than learning. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently demonstrated that half of students ages 8 to 18 are using some form of media, such as watching TV or browsing the Internet, either 'most' (31%) or 'some' (25%) of the time while they're doing homework. Jacob Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University, found that this tendency can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families.

e-learning

Seeking Solutions

For educators, accommodating the digital generation can be a delicate balancing act. As noted above, many professors are outright banning laptops in class. But others are trying to harness students' love of technology to increase academic engagement. 'Clickers' are becoming more and more ubiquitous in college classrooms. These devices allow students to provide instant feedback when they fall behind and require them to answer multiple choice quizzes throughout the class period, forcing them to stay focused.

David McDonald, a professor at Georgia State University has done something similar with text messaging. Dr. McDonald created the Text Question System (TQS), which allows students to text questions anonymously to a live feed during the class. The system is also integrated into a wiki used by Dr. McDonald to allow students to gain points for answering their classmates' questions outside of class.

High schools are also jumping onto the technology bandwagon. The New York Times interviewed David Reilly, a principal at a Silicon Valley high school. Hoping to engage students on their own turf, he's encouraging his teachers to build websites to communicate with their students. He also got funding to use iPads to teach Mandarin and secured $3 million in grants for a new multimedia center. Mr. Reilly even introduced new classes on digital music recording and bumped first period back to 9 a.m. to accommodate sleep-deprived students who stay up late on their computers. His goal is to use technology to 'take back their attention from their BlackBerrys and video games.'

But research suggests that the problem can't be solved entirely by educators. As noted in the studies mentioned above, unsupervised computer time leads many students to, at best, multitask when doing their homework. At worst, they simply ignore their schoolwork entirely in favor of the lure of video games, social networking and the many other forms of electronic entertainment.

The evidence suggests that parents are a key part of the solution to the digital distraction problem. So many of today's students have their own computers (and tablets and mobile phones) that it's nearly impossible to supervise their wired time. But that's exactly what parents have to do. Overseeing their children's computer time to ensure that homework is getting done and restricting late night access to computers to ensure that students are getting sleep can go a long way toward bringing students' focus back to education.

Of course, college students are beyond the reach of parental guidance. But good habits taught in elementary and secondary school can go a long way toward improving performance later in life. And in the meantime, professors will fight the battle by both harnessing - and shattering - today's technologies.

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