Are smartphones classroom distraction or opportunity?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A study of 777 students at six universities in five states didn't yield a lot of surprises when it comes to smart phones, tablets and laptops in the classroom.

Barney McCoy, an associate professor of broadcasting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, lead a study that found 35 percent of students used their digital devices for non-classroom purposes 1-3 times a day, 27 percent did so 4-10 times, 16 percent 11-30 times and 15 percent more than 30 times a day. Only 8 percent said they never played electronic hookey.

Nearly 86 percent said they were texting, 68 percent checking email, 66 percent using social networks, 38 percent surfing the Web and 8 percent playing a game.

One sign of the times that surprised McCoy was that 79 percent said they used their digital device to check the time. "That's a generational thing to me -- a lot of young people don't wear watches," McCoy said.

They may do so again, after a fashion, once new smartphone watches hit the market this Christmas.

Students said they used the digital devices for non-class purposes to stay connected, fight boredom and do related classwork.

Still, only 5 percent considered their devices a "big" or "very big" distraction when classmates use them, and fewer than 5 percent considered their own use of them as such. However, more than half said they were "a little" distracted when other students pulled out their devices, and nearly 46 percent said they were "a little" distracted by their own use of digital devices.

Instructors are certainly justified in banning smartphone use in the classroom if they choose to do so, and other recent studies about the fallacy of "multitasking" seem to back them up.

But the conflict between traditional teaching and modern technology is nothing new.

Instructors in the 1960s worried about competing with the television entertainment their students enjoyed at night -- was it the same with the radio in the 1920s?

Today's response is about the same as it was in those earlier examples: If you can't beat them, join them. Educational television invaded the daytime classroom before the time of widespread video recording, and videos are as much a part of the school day today as slates and No. 2 pencils were in earlier years.

But none of those earlier technologies presented the challenge smartphones do for modern teachers. A 2012 study showed that two-thirds of students age 18-29 own a smartphone, which gives them mobile access to the Internet as well as texting and email capabilities. A 2013 study by Experian Marketing Services showed that 18- to 24-year-olds send and receive an average of 3,853 text messages per month.

McCoy asks his students to be aware that using their devices can distract others, and asked them to step outside the room if it's a true emergency and they need to be connected. He said he limits the length of his lectures, and gives student periodic breaks so they can update Facebook or send a tweet. He said he also tries to get them to use their phones as part of their classroom activities, such as looking up information.

Nearly every school has computer labs, and those are now being replaced by popular, portable tablet computers like the iPad, replacing both traditional video players, textbooks and encyclopedias.

With portable, powerful technology intruding into every part of our lives, student and teacher alike will have to learn to adapt to the distraction and exploit its capabilities to achieve success in life.

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