Distracted Students: How to Balance Tech with Learning

EpsonApril 18, 2018

Look around most university classrooms in this era of BYOD, and you are likely to find a sea of laptops, tablets and phones. But are the students busily taking notes and researching related information, or are they “Snapping” their friends or streaming a baseball game?

Truth is, it’s impossible to know—which is why some universities are increasingly instituting a ban on in-class devices, or at least sharply curtailing their use by implementing classroom technology policies, particularly during the lecture portion of the class.

Setting a policy

While tech bans are enacted by schools on a case-by-case basis, and there is no lack of robust debate over the matter, science may be on the side of those who favor at least a selective laptop lapse. According to a study published in the journal Computers & Education, students who multitasked on a device during a lecture scored lower on a subsequent exam, and the subpar scores even spread to peers sitting around the distracted student.

Another study published in Psychological Science found that students who took notes with an actual pen and paper did better in the class than those who used a keyboard. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them,” study co-author Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University told NPR.

Of course, removing devices and laptops doesn’t always sit well with students: In March 2017, the Cornell University Student Assembly adopted a resolution urging “greater freedom of student laptop usage.” The goal was to help faculty think more critically about where and when laptops should be allowed, such as during classes where heavy note-taking is required.

“We don’t want to say faculty should always let us use laptops in any class to take notes,” said laptop resolution sponsor Noah Chovanec to Insider Higher Ed. “We want them to evaluate their own classroom environments and see what’s working and what’s not.”

Smart students need smart classrooms

Sometimes the answer to technology is…more technology—but the right kind. In fact, most educators agree that tech enhances learning, when used correctly.

In the “Provosts, Pedagogy and Digital Learning” survey undertaken by the Campus Computing Project for the Association of Chief Academic Officers, 86 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that “digital learning resources make learning more efficient and effective for students,” and nearly 80 percent named “assisting faculty members in integrating technology into instruction” as a top technology priority for their institutions.

However, only 60 percent had a plan in place to leverage technologies to improve student learning and instruction, leaving plenty of room for universities to experiment with new teaching methods and materials.

One forward-thinking strategy of many institutions is developing “smart classrooms” that integrate a wide variety of audio/visual options to enhance lectures.

For example, classrooms at the Teachers College at Columbia University boast an array of technology that allow professors to feature a live Twitter feed on one screen and PowerPoint presentations or handwritten notes on others.

Other teachers incorporate websites that help bring the material to life in a visual way that resonates with students. Jonathan Rees, professor of history at Colorado State University Pueblo, says he uses tech tools like Scalar, an open-source authoring and publishing platform that lets students create more interactive projects as opposed to standard written essays. He also favors Hypothesis, another open-source platform that allows students to annotate readings as a group, which feeds their need for social collaboration.

That’s wise, says Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., a higher education consultant specializing in faculty development and instructional design. In a recent article in Campus Technology, she advocates that teachers mindfully create opportunities for discussion and group projects as a healthy break that removes students from the tech bubble/selfie society so prevalent in our culture.

Tech to help professors maintain control

Of course, there are times that when you give students an inch, they take a mile—but don’t worry: There’s an app for that, too. When even sanctioned devices seem to be enabling students to get too far off track, technology can help professors rein them back in.

Universities such as UCLA, University of Colorado Boulder and Penn State use an app called Flipd that starts as an attendance vehicle—when students “flip off” their phones on the app, they are given an attendance code which then links them to the professor. While Flipd doesn’t “lock” the phones, data from the app gives professors a window into how students are using their devices via a personalized dashboard that reports activity.

Instructors can monitor the dashboard to see when students are becoming less engaged and roaming the web, indicating it’s likely time for a break, and can also use historical data for insight into which of their lectures appeared to be most engaging. Instructors can use the app to encourage engagement even when class is over by creating a “Flipd poll” with a thought-provoking question for students to weigh in on.

Another mobile device management tool is TabPilot, which allows professors to supply an approved roster of links to students that will enhance the lesson, or move the browser of every students’ device to a specific app or webpage. If students stray from the sanctioned sites, TabPilot gives professors the power to “freeze” their screens and post a message or pop them back to the site the class is discussing.

Relieve tech anxiety by building in breaks

Finally, there is one solution to the tech problem that is decidedly low-tech: Just embrace it. That’s because at its root, device distraction often stems from the young adult obsession with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). One of the best ways to combat that is allowing a tech break so students can check their social media or texts and then return to the lesson with renewed focus.

That’s the finding of Professor Toddy Eames of California State University, Dominguez Hills, who abides by the device-free policy instituted by the communications department in 2016. At least most of the time. During a three-hour screenwriting class, an announced 15-minute break was a welcome relief, as reported in the Washington Post.

These planned tech breaks help relieve the real anxiety some students feel when they are separated from their phone, says Dr. Nancy Cheever, also of California State University, Dominguez Hills, who published research on the relationship between cellphone use and anxiety in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. “What helps with the anxiety is if you tell them, ‘Okay, for this amount of time, you’re not going to look at your phone, but then you’ll get to check in again,’” she said.

The bottom line is that professors may realize that an all-out ban might not be the only answer when they take the time to try one of these myriad strategies that selectively integrate technology into the college classroom in ways that enhance the lesson and the student experience.