Technology sometimes more distracting than helpful in class

Story and video by Katie Bane, NewsNetNebraska

Technology is an excellent tool students typically add to their metaphorical toolboxes, but in the classroom, its effectiveness often is diminished by the distractions it causes, some faculty and students say.

“Students today have a lack of discipline,” said Brandon Thomas, a fifth-year senior fine arts major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  “As our culture progresses, people are frequently not held responsible for their actions.”

And that lack of self-discipline can cause a dip in student grades. Technology often aids in classroom discussions and makes for faster note-taking, but sometimes the temptation to check email and social media during class does more harm than good. Recent research shows students are aware of their distracting habits but might not realize the educational penalties they suffer. 

Thomas said many of his classes are free-form and allow students to get their work done at their own pace so texting and checking email aren’t major problems.  And he says students have a responsibility to stay engaged in classroom discussion or they deserve to suffer the consequences.

And those consequences can be harsh, said Kevin Smith, a political science professor.

Smith is one of many professors on campus trying new ways to use technology in the  classroom as a way to keep students engaged, not distracted.

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Several years ago he began informal research into the performance of his students in class.  Each semester he would alternate between allowing students to take notes on laptops and banning technology altogether.

He discovered students who weren’t allowed to use computers in class typically scored a whole letter grade higher at the end of the semester than students who were permitted to use technology.

“I found that students were present but not paying attention to the material,” Smith said.

And students are aware what they are doing is distracting.

Barney McCoy, an associate professor of broadcasting, recently finished conducting his own research into how distracting technology can be in classrooms.

Barney McCoy, Broadcasting Professor

He surveyed 777 students at six universities about how the predominantly journalism and advertising majors used technology in the classroom, what advantages technology offered in school and what classroom policies they thought would successfully work to limit their use.

Ninety percent of respondents said their technological use was distracting them from the classroom lecture, 39 percent recognized they were distracting others and 32 percent said their technological use was little distraction at all.

“Some students say, ‘It’s my grade. I’m paying for it. I can do whatever I want,'” McCoy said.  “But that’s not fair though if you’re causing a distraction.”

And McCoy wanted his own students to recognize their habits were often distracting to those around them. He started a new policy in one of his 100-level classes where he spoke to his students “like adults” and asked them what they thought were fair rules regarding their use of computers and cell phones.

As a class they recognized it was important to stay connected and, because the class is three hours long, they took breaks once an hour to do “whatever they wanted” on their phones.  McCoy also said he recognized emergencies happen and said students could go into the hallway if they needed to take care of a phone call or text.

So far, engaging students at the start of the semester and asking them to develop guidelines has worked for McCoy. But Smith is skeptical.

Professor Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith, Political Science Professor

“Call me a cynic, but more generally asking students if they’d like to use their cell phones is like asking vampires if they’d like a pint of O positive,” Smith said.  “What I’m interested in is not what students find comfortable, convenient or easy but what gets students engaged and to pay attention.”

Ngoc Ha, a senior forensic science major, agreed with Smith. She said students will almost always say they want to use technology whenever possible and asking them their opinion on the matter “wouldn’t be effective.”

Ha said she uses a laptop in class but infrequently checks Facebook or her email.  It’s useful and faster for her to take notes on a computer than take notes the old-school way.

She also said students often use technology in class because “it’s an empty form of entertainment” and “sometimes you need that mental break.”

Students might happily use technology whenever they can, but McCoy’s research also revealed 3 percent of students want policies regulating their use of technology.

But 90 percent didn’t want a ban on it altogether.

“Iron-fisted policies rarely work,” McCoy said.

One way to set limits while maintaining control is finding ways to incorporate smart phones into lectures by allowing students to look up information they might not know or look up facts related to what’s going on in class to aid in discussion.

The university has worked hard to make the campus operate efficiently on a wireless network, McCoy said, so students and faculty should use it. 

“But we also need to recognize, you know what, no one can multitask without taking attention away from any one thing,” McCoy said.

Student Thomas sees the issue as generational one. Teachers, he said, need to understand “phones aren’t even phones” anymore and contain tools that go beyond communication.  And banning them deprives students of educational research.

For now, Smith remains committed to keeping technology at a minimum in his classrooms – especially the undergraduate ones.  He sets clear policies banning students from using social media or cell phones in class and enforces his policies early in the semester. 

His said his policies help keep his students’ attention and engagement in the classroom, and he has noticed a significant improvement in their grades as well.

But Smith said technology has many positive aspects and does help him do his job better.  And some day teachers will strike the right balance and use technology effectively and efficiently.

“There’s a lot of experimentation going on. . . . Trying to keep the good stuff while avoiding the pitfalls of the bad, well, there’s just no clear road map right now.”


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