Technology Distractions in the Classroom

In the January edition of Edubytes, our guest editor, Andrew Owen (PhD), senior instructor and undergraduate director at the Department of Political Science, will be exploring the topic of technology distractions in the classroom.

Web-enabled devices, like smartphones and laptops, can lead users off-task in many settings. The classroom is no different. The distracting nature of these devices and the negative impact distractions and multitasking can have on attention and learning are widely known and accepted. At the same time, these same devices have an incredible capacity to enrich classroom learning.

The question is: what can teachers and learners do to limit the distractions these devices can promote?

Answers are more complicated. Many propose an outright ban on the use of such devices in classrooms. But this approach unfairly infringes on the rights of students with disabilities who need devices for their learning. A modified “ban,” with exceptions for students requiring devices, violates their right to keep a disability private (since using a device amidst a ban means publicly declaring a disability).

Technology bans also limit our ability to use these devices to aide in varied and innovative active learning techniques that promote an engaging and effective learning environment (via technology like web-based classroom response systems and collaborative spaces like Piazza and Google Docs).

Beyond the classroom, technology bans do not generalize well. All of us face the distracting nature of these technologies in many aspects of our lives. Banning devices is simply not possible or desirable in most settings.

Teachers, students and researchers are grappling with potential solutions to these problems. The articles below start by acknowledging the existence and allure of these distractions and explore how students and teachers can work together to create environments and build the skills we can use to stay on-task in the classroom and beyond.

Actually, handwritten notes aren’t better, and that’s probably the wrong question

One popular criticism against laptops in our classrooms is that handwritten notes are more effective than typed notes for most students. This claim emerges from the widely cited study “The pen is mightier than the keyboard.” It claimed to show that students taking notes by hand scored better on tests of conceptual understanding because they involve less verbatim content and, thus, more information processing than typed notes. The actual results, however, are less compelling. The paper finds no evidence that note-taking mechanism affects performance on factual tests. In two of the three experimental studies, scores on conceptual knowledge are about one-third of a standard deviation better in the handwritten group. In the third study, there is no difference. A recent precise replication further found no evidence that handwritten notes are better than typed notes. In short, there is no evidence that either mode is better. Note that laptop users in the study were unable to access the internet or other applications. So the findings say nothing about the distractions laptops can offer.

The debate about mode overlooks the arguably more pressing challenge of helping students write effective notes. This article by Karen Costa, a facilitator at Faculty Guild and a Massachusetts-based adjunct, starts by discussing why one-size-fits-all policies like laptop bans discount important differences among students. She then focuses on the value of empowering students by teaching them different approaches to note-taking and letting them decide the approach that works best for them.
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A student-centred approach to meeting the challenge of distracting technology

James Lang, author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, is poised to publish his new book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, this year. A preview of the book appears in a series of blog posts at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this post, Lang offers a broad theoretical framework that might motivate the design and selection of practices we can use to limit electronic distractions in the classroom. His “three pathways” forward include transparency (explaining our policies and why we choose them), autonomy (working with students to develop class policies), and pedagogy (engaging students, so their minds stay on-task).
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OK, but what can instructors do?

Researchers at the University of Waterloo summarized their study of students’ and instructors’ perspectives on the problem and how to confront it. Students seem aware that technology can be distracting but see off-task use as a response to boredom. Instructors, on the other hand, are concerned but unsure of how to respond. The research team of Elena Nieterman and Christine Zaza provides a toolkit of strategies instructors might use.

Unfortunately, there is little scholarship on the effectiveness of these tools to date. But that’s where you can help…
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Enjoyed reading about Technology Distractions in the Classroom? Learn about other topics we covered in the January 2020 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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