What strategies have instructors used to deal with digital distractions in class (students texting or off-task distractions like social media)? What worked for them? Why not ask the faculty who must deal with this every day.

Rather than surveying students about their self-reported use of their smartphones and laptops, or observing student off-task digital distractions in class, Cheong, Shuter, and Suwinyattichaiporn (2016) interviewed a  sample of 65 experienced university instructors instead, to find out what strategies they had tried to use in the classroom to deal with student texting or off-task use of their laptops, and what worked and what didn’t.

Image result for instructors and students on laptopsnewyorker.com

Looking at the instructors’ attempts to control the classroom setting to reduce the occurrence of technological distractions applies a Contingency model, that predicts that much behaviour depends on the situation it occurs in.

Although it probably won’t solve the problem of our addiction to our phone and laptop access to texts, social media, and all the other activities the internet offers us, situational control might help deal with the strong temptation to lose focus on the class because of the variable ratio reinforcement we receive from our texting and social media use.

Internal factors like personality, distractibility, or emotions like boredom or disinterest, or cognitive factors like need for cognition, have been identified as factors influencing students’ likelihood to be distracted in class by texting or Facebooking. Students with poorer self-regulation seem to be more likely to drift off-task to social media or other distractions, whether in class or while studying, according to many researchers. These endogenous (internal) factors are difficult or impossible for instructors to control or counter.

I’m sure instructors don’t set out to bore their students in class, but try as best they can to capture and retain the students’ attention with various strategies. Trying to teach complex challenging concepts when half the class is texting or on Facebook certainly makes for a challenging instructional context. Some instructors are  distracted themselves by seeing so many of their students paying more attention to their devices rather than to the lecture. And some instructors, particularly ones who are not digital natives themselves, are insulted and offended by it. It was not the educational context of their own undergraduate years, or of their teaching experience a scant five years ago.

Image result for instructor at university and distracted students cbc.ca

Instructors can’t control the personal internal factors, but their strategies to create an engaged and respectful learning environment might help. It could be that situational factors that make off-task technological distractors more or less likely to occur could be under instructor control and be a source of solutions. Even very habitual responses (conditioned by variable reinforcement to be very resistant to extinction) can be decreased by a change in the “antecedent conditions” through antecedent control (control of the situational factors that directly lead to the habitual behaviour you are trying to change).

For example, distracted driving while texting (DWT) or on the phone can be prevented before it happens.

How?  By putting the phone in the truck before starting the car. No phone, no DWT.

As parents knows when shopping for groceries with their pre-schooler (an age not known for its good self-regulation), it is better to control the situation by feeding the child beforehand and avoiding the candy aisle, rather than have to deal with the temper tantrum that follows the parents’ “No candy”, or even worse, reinforce it by giving in and creating a four year old candy tyrant. No candy, no temper tantrum.

The qualitative study by Cheong, Shuter, and Suwinyattichaiporn (2016) interviewed instructors to find out what strategies they had used in the classroom to deal with student texting or off-task use of their laptops. The instructors had an average of 17 years experience, teaching classes ranging from 15 to 500 students. Asked how they would rate their own “tech-savy”ness, there was an average self-rating of 6.8 (of 10).

The problem of digital distraction was clear to the instructors, that in the classroom, disruptive distractions from mobile phone ringing or text notifications, and off task use of social media for entertainment or connection lead to decrements in note-taking, memory, and test performance, and reduced understanding of the lecture material according to many recent studies. Cheong et al. (2016) found that the instructors searched for and used a variety of strategies to manage digital distractions, trying to create a classroom climate that promoted learning, to be able to lecture or lead discussions free of the interference of digital distractions.

Cheong et al. noted that these distractions can “threaten professors’ authority to instruct..” and it is difficult to persuade students of this, they note, as students have a sense of “entitlement to the freedom to direct their attention wherever they want” (p. 273).

Others have expressed concern that behaviour transfer from home to school to work is likely. Instructors have a role in “coaching productive and effective use [of technology], and teaching their distracted students more acceptable classroom behaviour” (Cheong et al., 2016, p. 273) that will be essential to transfer to their future (or present) workplace.

Instructors instruct through communication, within a specific situation – the classroom – which has a set of long-established norms, or expectations, for instructor and student behaviour. And instructor-student communication, their connection and engagement in learning, is obviously powerfully affected by the students’ shifting attention to a digital distraction rather than focusing on the teacher. For one thing, distracted students are likely to miss key points, to understand the lecture at a superficial level, or not at all, and are less likely to join in discussions or ask questions.

What have instructors done in response? To prevent the behaviour some instructors had clear and explicit classroom norms and policies, often with rationales. This was the most popular strategy instructors reported using –  explicit rules against texting or off-task laptop use. This might be a complete ban on the devices, or if not a ban, an explicit description of when and where and why laptops and phones can or can’t be used. (Not all instructors were so absolute – some were more relaxed in their policies, such as “as long as it doesn’t bother others”).

The second most popular strategy was “strategic re-direction”; during class when texting occurred they would remind students of the classroom norms as needed, verbally or non-verbally (with a look, or walking up to the student); in-class discussions of appropriate use or modeling of appropriate behaviour; or by purposefully integrating of technology in class such as use of clickers or online information searches; maintaining student interest by posing or eliciting questions. But, as Wei and Wang (2010) and many other studies have noted, there is a problem for these policies and strategies because student texting is habitual, and occurs despite policies or instructor “immediacy behaviours”. And trying to incorporate technology, and encourage on-line interactions and note-taking, may simply increase distracting off-task behaviour and decreased focus.

The third strategy was the use of sanctions such as reprimands (one-on-one, or openly in front of the class). Some instructors reported shaming students with a joke, using the student’s name with the reprimand, or asking students to leave class. Some disabled wireless access or took away laptops or phones during the class in punishment.

A very different approach was taken by some instructors, to deal with distractions by ignoring them. These instructors said that it was the students’ responsibility and choice. “It’s their loss”, one said. Unfortunately, other researchers have found that students’ off-task use of their devices doesn’t only detract from their learning but also distracts their fellow students, leading to decreased grades for both.

The participants were also interviewed about the instructional challenges they face in managing digital distractions in the classroom. The size of the room in large classes or the configuration of the classroom presented challenges in using any of the strategies. A major challenge to re-direction or reprimand based strategies was that they couldn’t detect digital off task activities (e.g. behind the laptop screen or under the table); much of the laptop use and texting in class is hidden from the instructor, so instructors’ comments, reminders and reprimands are ineffective. Others noted they didn’t want to waste valuable lecture time continually sanctioning distracted behaviour.

Some instructors noted that while they would like to ban technology from the classroom all together, they also realized it can be valuable for notes and content related activities, and that students expect to be able to use it. Aguilar-Roca, Williams, and O’Dowd (2012) noted the “strong opposition to banning laptops” from a majority of students, reported in their and many other research studies.

Overall, instructors were uncertain about the success or failure of their various strategies, leading some instructors to switch from using technology in their classes to limiting it, or on the other hand giving up attempts to enforce their policies or strategies as useless, no matter what they try, and drifting over time to a laissez-faire attitude.

Based on their interviews, Cheong et al. (2016) had some suggestions for instructors dealing with student digital distractions. Enhance student engagement through immediacy behaviours, questions, eye contact, and physical proximity. Keep discussing the classroom norms against off-task activity, noting the damaging effects of this behaviour on their and their peers’ learning. Cultivate courteous classroom etiquette. Incorporate collaborative engagement or purposeful on-task use of technology. Might even try deliberate technology breaks.

And the researchers suggest that instructors should not to be discouraged; this problem is not limited to the classroom. “The war on laptops and in-class use of other electronic devices…are symptomatic of a larger [cultural] battle over attention and informational control” (Cheong, et al., 2016, p. 286).

The profound changes in pedagogical norms and values in university classrooms are part of the larger cultural transformations inevitably brought about by a computer in every student’s pocket, similar to the revolution in education caused by literacy, and later by the printing press, and further by education in schools.

Cheong, P. H., Shuter, R. & Suwinyattichaiporn, T. (2016). Managing student digital distractions and hyperconnectivity: Communication strategies and challenges for professorial authority. Communication Education, 65(3), 272-289. doi:10.1080/03634523.2016.1159317