Posts published on August 31, 2012

Digital Distractions In The Classroom : Advice For Professors And Students To Overcome It

Guest Blogger: Stephanie Brooks

In a 2011 study, students around the world were asked to go without technology for 24 hours. The experiment, called “Unplugged”, revealed that 4 out of 5 students responded to a technology-free world with intense anxiety, even experiencing physical symptoms of addiction withdrawal.

It should come as no surprise then, as we enter this new school year, that web browsing and texting serve as major distractions for students. Studies across the country are showing that college students are texting during class; and it only takes a few minutes of observation in a college lecture hall to see that Facebook and web browsing are prevalent behaviors.

Beyond serving as a minor annoyance and classroom distraction, studies show that the Internet is changing the way our brains process information. The Internet is also opening up new doors for independent studies, which is raising the bar for professors.

How the Internet is Changing Minds

Experts agree that patterns of thought developed by Internet browsing make it difficult for students to concentrate on a single source of information. Boredom or lack of focus serves as cues to surf the web for more engaging sources of information or entertainment.

A mind trained by the Internet jumps through multiple pages and articles and has difficulty focusing on lengthier sources such as books. Parallel to this change is the developing need for constant stimulation among digital natives and others who are immersed in media.

Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts suggests that the perceived need for technology could be traced to the stimulation it provides. Anderson was quoted in the New York Times article “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” as saying, “If you’ve grown up processing multiple media, that’s exactly the mode you’re going to fall into when put in that environment – you develop a need for stimulation.”

How Professors are Responding

Some professors are labeling Internet browsing as a classroom distraction and are responding to the trend by including anti-browsing policies in their syllabi. Professors are also trying to meet students halfway, adopting tech savvy approaches to teaching, including microblogging through Twitter to promote classroom discussion.

“Some of us may bring online teaching tools into our classrooms by, say, assigning a series of high-quality blog posts, showing a YouTube video or “Ted” talk, or arranging Skype discussions with professionals in our field,” writes  Barbara King in an NPR opinion piece. King is a professor of biological anthropology at the College of William and Mary. She discourages students from browsing in her class, writing that technology “fragments our attention and interrupts the joy of full immersion in thinking, problem-solving, and questioning.”

From a Student’s Perspective

Although some students admit that social media is a potentially detrimental distraction from learning, an opinion piece in The Harvard Crimson, written by Hemi Gandhi, argues that Internet browsing is often used at the discretion of students based on perceptions of their Return on Time Investments.

Even the best classes offer periods of lull or redundancy, and these are the times, according to Gandhi and her classmates, when surfing the Internet yields the highest return.

“During class, students will give their attention to whatever they think will give them the most utility in each moment. Past generations of students must also have wanted to maximize their ROTI during class. But technological innovation has provided today’s students with more options to do so in real time, via their smartphones and laptops,” Gandhi writes.

In a world of constant information sharing, professors no longer hold a monopoly over knowledge. Open courseware sites offer free classes. YouTube is teeming with instructional videos. In every aspect, the Internet is a competing source of information and engagement. Students have the option to educate themselves, and unless professors provide an actively engaging course, students will succumb to their distractions– every now and then, at least.


Stephanie Brooks is a freelance blogger who regularly contributes her knowledge of education trends to addition to covering topics related to education, Stephanie also enjoys writing about technology and pop culture. Feel free to leave questions and comments for her below!