Students will often have several devices about their persons on any given day. Smartphones are almost de rigueur, but if your school has a BYOD policy, many will also have a tablet or laptop. This opens up some great learning opportunities, allowing students to search for information and use digital authoring tools to create content of different kinds. But these devices can often lead to distractions. Some teachers are so concerned they are arguing for devices to be banned from the classroom entirely. Many students are seemingly surgically attached to their phones, and struggle to overcome addictive behaviours. I have some sympathy with the notion of creating device-free zones or periods of time, but believe that the benefits of digital devices far outweighs the dangers they present, not least because as teachers we have a duty to help students learn to manage and control their digital consumption.
Here are five strategies which can be implemented in the classroom and in homework/study routines to address this issue.
1. The Digital Traffic Light
If you are going to allow students to use devices during a lesson, you need some protocol for signalling to students when they are, and when they are not expected to use their devices. The digital traffic light signals what state a classroom is in at any stage.
When the light is amber, students have an option. They may use their devices for note-taking or to answer questions, but it does not form part of the task at hand directly. For example a class is reading and discussing the English set-work in class. Some are taking notes on paper, others on their iPads. Some are reading the text on paper, others from as eTexts. The class then needs to break into groups and answer some questions. In the group the meaning of a word is queried. Students do a Google search to find out what it means.
When the light is green, the teacher is signalling that students must use their devices. The task depends on the use of a device.
This strategy has the benefit of removing doubt from students’ minds as to whether or not they should have their devices on or at hand. It also forces teachers to think about the issue up front.
2. Work First – Reward Second
When students are working on homework, many procrastinate, and so seductive are web platforms like YouTube, that work can quickly become a distant memory. A useful work ethic to develop is to reward yourself for any work done by giving yourself digital entertainment time upon completion of a block of work. If I study for an hour, I can have a break and fifteen minutes screen-time! This strategy is difficult to implement, but once it becomes habitual it can offer huge benefits.
3. Do One Thing At A Time!
As I write this I have several tabs open, a few devices at hand, and several applications running simultaneously. My email is running on my second screen so that I can deal with any issues that arise. I am listening to some music and checking my whatsapp messages regularly. Many screenagers like to multi-task and are very good at minimising their screens whenever an adult passes by! The injunction not to run multiple apps, multiple tabs or multiple devices is hard to follow, but should be a strategy one tries to adhere to. Of course there are occasions where running more than one application is beneficial. If I am writing an essay in Google docs and using another tab to research a quote I can use, for example. Or I am using PhotoShop to create an image for a project, watching a YouTube tutorial on PhotoShop on my iPad, pausing and rewinding as I go to help me work on the image I am making. But striving to do one thing at a time can really help students focus on what they are doing.
4. Monitor Your Distraction
Trying to implement the strategies above will only work if you are able to monitor your distraction. This sounds obvious, but is actually very hard to implement if you do not have a strategy for ensuring that you do it! A simple log of what you are doing can help.
16h00: studying Biology
16h48: Watching YouTube music videos
17h02: English essay
17h45: Rick & Morty!
Keeping a log can help you see where the problem lies and start to address it. In a classroom the teacher can help students monitor how focused on a task they are by reminding students what they should be doing and noticing distractions.
5. If All Else Fails, Go Cold Turkey!
Sometimes the only solution may be for a student to have their parents keep their phone in safe-keeping while they work or study.
In a classroom sometimes the distraction is so seductive that only a temporary ban will work! When the Matric Dance photos were released, even students with iron wills were covertly scrolling through the pictures when they should have been working on their spreadsheets. At first I tried a work first – reward second approach and promised them five minutes at the end of the lesson to view the photos, but when that didn’t work I had to become a policeman, imposing a ban on all devices and open tabs!
I believe that helping students manage their digital distraction is far more worthwhile than imposing blanket bans on digital devices or cracking down on all digital entertainment by blocking sites on the school firewall. Trust me, kids will find a way to circumvent the bans and then you as a teacher have absolutely no traction to help them deal with the curse of digital distraction.