The use of personal devices in the classroom (laptops, tablets and smartphones) can offer exciting opportunities to deepen learning through research, creativity, collaboration and connection. But these very devices may also be distracting to learners. In a class of twenty, how do you know that your learners are actually using their devices for learning and not for Facebook?
Some educators call today’s learners ‘digital residents’ (Jarvis, 2014) because they reside in cyberspace and don’t distinguish between offline and online worlds; others call them ‘the distracted generation’. Similarly, more and more parents complain that it’s a challenge for learners to remain on task when they do homework because of the various digital distractions around them.
So what can we do as teachers? How can we help learners manage digital distractions and regulate their off-task and multitasking behaviours?
Don’t ban technology
If you ban personal devices, you can avoid distractions to a certain extent, but you also miss out on technology as a learning tool. Your learners may well still be using their devices in secret, tapping out a text without even looking at you, while giving you the impression that they are paying attention.
Managing digital distractions is a learning skill in itself, so by banning personal devices, you’ll also deprive your learners of the opportunity to develop this skill.
Set appropriate boundaries for in-class device use and make these boundaries clear, e.g. ‘Phones should be on silent mode before the start of the class. Ringing, beeping or vibration is not allowed’. Try to find the right middle ground for you and your learners and let them play an active role in negotiating, agreeing and establishing these boundaries.
Use flashcards specifically designed to remind learners how they should be using their devices at different stages during the lesson, e.g. ‘All phones on flight mode, face down’ when you are about to give a lecture or explain a new concept; ‘Devices ready to use’ before a research or note-taking activity.
Make learners part of the solution
Involve learners in the decision-making and get them to research and set goals around technology use. Ask them to work on a group project to reflect on their own distractions and put together a plan for regulating the use of personal devices. You may be surprised at the ideas they come up with. I have created a detailed lesson plan here to help you with this important step.
Debunk the myth of multitasking
Some argue that the current generation of learners have grown up with digital devices and are better at multitasking, but according to neuroscience there is no such thing as multitasking. What people are actually doing is something called ‘continuous partial attention where the brain switches back and forth quickly between tasks’ (Goldstein, 2015). This may be less serious when the actions are routine, but it can have significant implications when learning a new concept.
Give learners some free time during the lesson
Let’s be realistic. If learners feel cut off they will use their device anyway, in secret. I usually give my learners a 5-minute break to check their texts and updates during the lesson. They really appreciate this and it’s easier for them to resist temptation when they know they’ll be online soon.
Make your classes engaging
Nobody wants to sit through a lecture or listen to a speaker for an hour. Teenagers in particular can barely tolerate more than 30 minutes of continuous lecture, so avoid this in your classes and dedicate as much lesson time as possible to collaborative and interactive activities. So get them up out of their seats, discussing topics, mingling around and problem-solving. Use multimedia. Have a lesson outdoors. Remember: the best classroom management tool is engaging lessons.
Jarvis, H (2014) Digital residents: Practices and perceptions of non-native speakers, Asian EFL Journal Professional Teaching Articles 75, 21–35.
Goldstein, A (2015) “Our brains are evolving to multitask,” not! The illusion of multitasking, UCSD Centre for Mindfulness last accessed 28/08/17.