A student is in class, their laptop or tablet open and ready to access the net, their smartphone on the desk beside it, light flashing to signal that a text, or social media post, or email has come in.

Do they read the text? Reply? Do they go on the net to surf or Facebook or game?

Will the students succumb to this compelling addictive temptation? Or be able to resist the impulse and habit? Fishbein and Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour predicts whether the student will respond or resist “cyber-slacking” (as cited in Taneja, Fiore, & Fischer, 2015).

In the Theory of Planned Behaviour, what precedes an action? The person’s Intention to do the behaviour, in this case their “readiness” to use their phone or laptop for non-class related activities. What leads a person to this intention?  Three factors:

  1. Whether a student has a positive or negative Attitude to off-topic tech multitasking;
  2. Subjective and Descriptive Norms: the social rules, what students think their peers accept or expect from them in the classroom. If cyber-slacking is approved of by the students’ peers, that becomes a social pressure to conform;
  3. Perceived Behavioural Control: the student’s perceives that off-topic tech multitasking will be easy to do. One of my student research groups discovered that students whose phone was on the table/desk in front of them were very likely to read and/or answer it if the light flashed – simply putting the phone away in their bag made that behaviour much less likely to occur.

Taneja et al.’s (2015) model went further, and analyzed some beliefs that lead students to have favourable or unfavourable attitudes about off-topic tech multitasking. Favourable attitudes are predicted by

Hey, I can do what I want, I paid for the course:

  1. a) Student “consumerism” (Taneja et al., 2015): students who see education as a “consumer-driven marketplace” don’t expect higher education to “involve effort, challenge, or negative evaluation from faculty” (p. 144). Taneja et al. (2015) suggests these students would feel entitled to text or use social media in the classroom since they see themselves as the consumers of the education.

I’m bored:

  1. b) Escapism (Taneja et al., 2015): When students find the course topics boring, or hard to understand, they want to escape the classroom, and there is never a need for boredom or mental effort when there is ready access to more personally interesting activities on-line.

I’m drifting off:

  1. c) Lack of attention (Taneja et al., 2015): When a student’s attention and concentration flags in a class, as it can easily do in a 80 minute lecture, they might cope with the stress of the mental effort of the class by shifting focus to easy, convenient, and (they may also believe covert) digital distractions. Of course, not all students drift off: paying attention or losing focus depends on the student’s level of academic motivation, interest in the subject, and class engagement vs interest in and enjoyment of the digital distraction (which is usually high – that’s why it’s so addictive).

On the other hand, students are less likely to cyber-loaf when they would be embarrassed or anxious about the instructor noticing and publicly reprimanding or reminding the student to put their phone away. And some students have been themselves distracted by other students’ off-topic tech multitasking, so have a generally negative attitude about cyber-slacking.

Taneja et al.’s (2015) model:

Image result for Taneja model of cyber slacking and theory of planned behaviour

Taneja et al.’s (2015) study surveyed 267 participants across all four university levels. Their respondents reported they did cyber-slack in class to message friends, text, look up information, Facebook, etc. Testing their model, based on the Theory of Planned Behaviour, revealed significant effect sizes for almost every factor.

So will the student obey their impulse and habit and text or Facebook during class? Yes, if the student is bored with the class, and/or lacks interest or motivation in the class, or class engagement. If the students lose attention, or take a consumerist attitude to education, or want to escape the difficult or boring subject, they are likely to have a favourable attitude about cyber-slacking. And if the student has favourable attitudes about texting or net surfing in class, they are likely to do it.

A powerful combination of factors, difficult for an instructor to counteract.

Taneja, A., Fiore, V. & Fischer, B. (2015). Cyber-slacking in the classroom: Potential for digital distraction in the new age. Computers and Education, 82, 141-151. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.11.009