Managing the Distractions

I came across something like this “unhelpful high school teacher” meme the other day and it got me thinking about the distracted landscape our students occupy.

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All too often the opinions you encounter on the web and in other parts of everyday life are one-sided; normally the work of someone with an axe to grind; someone wishing to provide just one side of a rather complicated issue and this is no exception. There are very valid reasons why educators have to be skeptical about the unrestricted use of electronic devices such as laptops and tablets in class.

In my previous job my office was located on campus at a fairly large university. It gave ample opportunity to view the electronic habits of typical students and was a never-ending source of amazement—both the good and the bad kinds.

One incident in particular stands out. I wished to confer briefly with a colleague who was, at the time, teaching a large class (around 160+ senior education students) in one of two large lecture theatres located in the basement of the building we both inhabited. I decided to just head over to the class and chat with him before it started. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I was briefly distracted, and, by the time I arrived at the door the class had already started. Out of curiosity I looked in. My vantage point was from the centre back and, as the lecture theatre slopes toward the front, I had an excellent view of exactly what the students were doing.

Almost all of them had either a laptop or a tablet device open and active. What was interesting was the fact that the majority of the students were not just taking notes on the machines but also had a web browser open. Well over half of the students would periodically switch from the note taking application (typically a word processor) to the browser. The browsers had the usual suspects, of course (Facebook, Twitter and other social media applications) but a surprising number of students were also shopping online during class time. I’d estimate now that somewhere between 10 and 20 of the approximately 150 students were doing this! Only a very small fraction—I’d estimate now around 20 to 25%–seemed to be totally focused on the lecture; at least as evidenced by their keeping the notes application open throughout the five minutes or so I was watching.

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I recall the moment quite well as it was one of those times when something became quite clear to me; a time that has sparked a considerable number of subsequent informal observations. Right then and there I decided to also take a look at the other lecture theatre. This one had a 2nd semester calculus class going on and, unlike the former one, was one in which electronic devices were not that well suited to taking notes (unless, of course, you had a touch screen or some stylus such as a Wacom device in which you could render back handwriting. After all, typing calculus notes is not something anyone can do on the fly!). Guess what? Same thing! Once again I saw a sea of laptops and tablets. Not quite so many, of course—I’d estimate around 50% of the students had them open as opposed to over 90% as was the case in the education class. Once again, though, the screens were dominated by not just social media but also online shopping!

Just a thought—maybe someone should run their own set of observations and verify this. At any rate, this short anecdote lends a bit (yes, I know “piling on the anecdotes” is a very flawed form of research) of credibility to the notion that we all have of how distracted our students really are.

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Which brings us to the point: as educators it is in our best interests, and those of our students, if we find effective ways of managing the many distractions that electronic gadgets bring to our classrooms. While it is certainly true that electronic devices hold incredible promise for all aspects of education it must also be acknowledged that the devices are equally effective at pulling students away from the tasks that should be at hand. The same conduit that brings research, information and activities right to the students’ foregrounds is equally adept at bringing in distractions such as off-topic interactions, irrelevant information and other distractions, particularly games that have nothing to do with learning.

Blocking unrelated content is a strategy that will never work. Go ahead and block Facebook at the Wi-Fi router. The students will hardly be slowed at all. Some will switch back to getting it through their phones, which you cannot block. Others will switch to a different social media platform—new ones pop up almost weekly, and still others will just connect through a proxy server which will just circumvent the router and firewall rules. It’s a losing game of cat and mouse.

Blocking the use of electronic devices is equally counterproductive. First of all, it drags instruction back to the 19th century—and we cannot afford to do that. More importantly, though, the whole practice of “blocking” or “banning” is anathema to the whole idea of schools as places of learning.

So what, then? What is the magic bullet? As expected, because it’s nearly always the case, there is no one simple solution. There are, however general strategies that can be applied and which will be found effective. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make a personal contact with the students: When students turn to the web browser they are turning away from you, the instructor. The less personal you are to the students the more they will do this.
  • Communicate your values clearly: Typically around 80% of people will respect your wishes so make sure they know what your wishes are. Make it clear to the students that you do value the use of electronic equipment but that they must also make the best use of their class time. To do this they should minimize distractions and, in particular, save the social networking and shopping for some other time. It’s also worth noting that of the remaining 20%, around three-quarters of them can be convinced to follow along too especially if you ensure that you move around the room to make it apparent that you are checking to see If students are engaged. It should also be noted that the small remainder—around 5% of the total—will do what they please regardless of what you do and you would be well advised that this small group may be regarded as “beyond the point of diminishing returns” so long as they do not distract others with their off-topic pursuits.
  • Find ways to leverage the potentially-distracting technology: You can always find ways to put the devices to some good use. Examples include: (1) getting the students to install “clicker” applications and build in “instant response” activities to your classes (2) provide electronic versions of partial notes (sometimes referred to as “gap notes”) that the students can complete online if they have annotation software (3) make effective use of simulations in class time if appropriate (4) use appropriate application software for in-class activities.

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Four Forms of Innovation

The word Innovation is one that is tossed around so much that it’s lost much of its impact. In some ways it’s like “awesome,” isn’t it? Once awesome meant something that literally took your breath away. These days it’s just a tired expression of assent; something that is deemed awesome is more likely just socially acceptable. Similarly, in a world where corporate press releases are grinded out in volumes that rival unit sales neither “innovation” nor “innovative” catch the readers’ attention much.

Add to that the point, already made, that scant few resources exist, whether in the form of HR or money, to engage in the various activities that one might immediately recognize as innovative. Besides in today’s busy, distracted world it’s often hard to spot it when it does occur.

That’s not to say it does not exist—it’s just generally buried under mounds of impressive looking but essentially shallow efforts. A recent journey to the Unemployed Philosopher’s blog reminded me that most of the important work happens far away from fanfare. Day after day, professionals of all kinds, including educators, toil away developing the small but significant things that make practice just a bit better. It is a shame, really. Much of the attention is given to things that appear significant but are really not once you take the time to peer beneath the surface; stuff designed to grab the attention and maybe further some goal, just not the goals one would associate with positive change for all. Sure it may look and sound great but in the end, you’re often left with the professional equivalent of election promises. The real innovations often lie elsewhere, often buried among the many other details that take up our days. They do, nonetheless exist and can be seen if you look hard enough, in one of these four forms.

1. Structured Engineering: The kinds of planned changes that take place in a more-or-less orderly fashion. You have identified a problem to be solved, planned a solution that involves more-or-less standardized equipment & procedures then will implement and test a solution.

For example, suppose you develop an online visual art course. You will carry out a procedure roughly like this:

  • review with the curriculum guide and outline the general instructional strategies, including the method by which they will be developed or acquired;
  • assemble the development and implementation team; formulate the overall plan;
  • select and assemble a system of effective tools and methods by which you will carry out the plan;
  • field test the course and revise as necessary.

Pros:

  • Good fit between need and response.
  • Robust system once implemented.

Cons:

  • Significant up-front cost.
  • Often significant resistance to system-wide change and adaptation.
  • Possibility of large scale failure if wrong choices are made.

2. Structured Deepening: This involves extending an existing system in a purposeful way. As an example, perhaps you chose to modify the aforementioned system by which you are teaching visual art so that you can now teach music online too.

Pros:

  • Significantly less costly than starting from scratch.
  • Less likelihood of large-scale failure.

Cons:

  • Less than optimal fit between need and response since you are modifying an existing system rather than building one to meet specifications.

3. Radically novel: Every so often completely new approaches are developed. It can be argued that before “Star Trek: The Next Generation” nobody thought very seriously about the use of multipurpose digital tablets such as Apple’s iPad or Google’s Nexus Tablet. Now, however these multipurpose devices are changing the way people interact with the Internet, with audio and video and, most importantly, with one another.

Pros:

  • Often based on new devices; carries a shink & new “wow” sense of interest;

Cons:

  • Teaching and Learning sometimes becomes a secondary activity;
  • New devices often lack institutional tech support and have a short lifespan.

4. Entirely new bodies of knowledge and practice: Radically new devices lead, in turn, to entirely new ways of doing things. Consider English Language Arts. In the pre-digital age the focus was on reading, writing, listening and speaking. Now, with so many modes by which we can communicate an additional focus—Representing—is becoming very important. The mobile devices, mentioned above, are also changing the way we interact. Who knows what’s coming!

Pros:

  • Generally a good fit for those who have had the benefit of the events that led to the new development.
  • Often well-suited to the time and place in which they occur; “ products of their times.”

Cons:

  • Often adopted by evangelicals who assume (incorrectly) that the new way is the best way for all.

Through it all, though, it remains as important as ever to maintain a focus on teaching and learning. While the new devices and methods are exciting, if the end result is not a strategically significant improvement in an identified area of concern in education, most notably increased achievement or cost savings, then the innovation is pointless.