Helping Students Manage Digital Distractions in the Classroom and Beyond

At a recent conference (and some follow up chats), I invited people to suggest articles that they would like to see on in the upcoming year.  One person suggested an article on managing digital distractions. So, here is it.

Several years ago, I was presenting to a group of University faculty about the changing nature of teaching and learning in an increasingly digital world.  At one point, I invited faculty to break into small groups and develop a list of ways that they hope to respond to these changes.  One group of faculty, largely faculty that teach classes in the general education program, honed in on a problem that they saw in their classes, namely more students bringing laptops and cell phones to class.  The group collectively agreed upon a solution. Ban laptops and cell phone from their classes.  I’ve not stayed in touch with many in that group over the past few years, but one of them recently informed me that he maintains this policy.  Students in his class are prohibited from using laptops.  They must take notes in traditional notebooks or nothing at all.

This is certainly one approach to managing digital distractions, but it is not a viable option in the classroom that seeks to leverage laptops and mobile technologies for teaching and learning.  As more K-12 schools and a growing number of University departments are implementing 1:1 programs, the chance for digital distractions is greater than ever.

Of course, this is larger than school or the classroom.  Digital distractions impact many of us in school, work, home, while driving, while waiting in lines the store. Looking at the topic as an educator, my concern is not simply about managing distractions in the classroom, but about helping learners grow in their ability to balance the digital and non-digital aspects of their lives.  As noted by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, many of these daily experiences (browsing the web, checking email and texts, checking in our family social media outlets) provide an immediate gratification to the brain.

Carr writes,

“The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

Similarly, in the introduction to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, he muses about whether our future is one that resembles 1984 or A Brave New World. In the former, we give up our freedoms to protect us from our fears.  In the latter, we are consumed by our pleasures and immediate gratification. Impulse control, postponing gratification, and reflection remain important aspects of life in an increasingly digital world.  Without these, we find it difficult to make decisions that align with our values and convictions.  Instead, we just follow our desires of the moment.

So how to we manage this?  I do not see how banning devices will serve as a helpful solution in most circumstances.  I certainly appreciate the occasional media fast, but what seems especially helpful is to provide learners with a chance to read, reflect, and discuss these matters.  Provide them with the opportunity to document their current digital consumption practices, to reflect upon their core values and convictions, to learn about important ideas and perspectives on life in the digital age, and invite them to develop a plan of action in various spheres of their lives.  Some sort of journaling or goal setting can be helpful.  In other words, I am suggesting that this is something that we invite student to decide (with proper mentoring and guidance) and not an authority making all the decisions in advance, preventing learners from being active participants in the plan.

This approach gives students the opportunity to exercise their ability to self-regulate and to grow as more self-directed, thoughtful, and intentional people.  Boundaries are still important, but within those boundaries, it is equally important to give learners a chance to think, plan and act in a way that aligns with their beliefs and values.  This is what will equip and empower them to do so once they are beyond the more frequent direction of authority figures like parents and teachers.

This can be done in any number of ways.  One option is to give learners a chance to develop drafts of a plan to manage their digital technologies (anything from mobile devices to computers an game consoles), explaining the reasons for the different decisions in different contexts (classroom, in the car, at home on weekends, while hanging out with friends, etc.). What type of person do you want to be? Workshopping these plans with peers and getting feedback from parents, teachers, and other mentors can also be a valuable part of the process.  After getting some external feedback, the learner can develop a second draft and use this as a guide for a set period of time, occasionally revisiting and refining the plan as needed.

As I’ve noted in any number of posts, technology is not just something that we use.  It uses us as well, and awareness about the affordances and limitations of technology combined with an awareness of how different technologies can help or hinder us from living out our own core values and beliefs can be quite powerful. This approach is in contrast to pre-developed lists of do’s and dont’s. While moderate use of such lists can offer important boundaries. Overuse of such lists risks preventing students from taking responsibility, being unnecessarily restrictive, and losing a sense of shared ownership in the task.

In the end, I’m simply suggesting that we help learners take the opportunity to think deeply about the role of digital tools in their lives and to help them take responsibility for making intentional plans and enacting those plans.







Posted in blog, digital citizenship, digital culture, ethics

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

2 Replies to “Helping Students Manage Digital Distractions in the Classroom and Beyond”

  1. kevcreutz

    I appreciate the idea of allowing students to reflect on their own digital consumption and developing a personal plan of action, as I feel this is something that I need to be doing myself. Educators could provide a model for students in these areas.

  2. Dave Black

    A lot of the ideas are ones I have used. I have also woven the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) and the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10) into the narrative. The first passages talks about the importance of being intentional. The second looks at the issues of pride and arrogance that can come along with technology. The technology at the Tower of Babel was not this issue. It was the attitude behind it.

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