Thursday, 8 September 2016

Digital distraction

One of the biggest current discussion points in educational technology is the impact that technology is having on our ability to focus, more commonly know as digital distraction.

Last year I put together a keynote presentation for the ISKL iPad conference , based on some interesting research I had been finding on the impact of technology on our ability to focus. The video can be viewed below:

On reflection, some of the research in this video, taken from a range of websites on distraction and also a book called "The Organised Mind: thinking straight in the age of information overload" by Daniel Levitin, may be a little questionable, but the fundamental, inarguable fact is that children (and adults) are distracted by technology.

How distracted are our learners?

A survey of our own learners (Year 5 to 13) from 2015, which we undertake every year as part of the International Research collaborative backs this up (the data below is from 2015, but this years data shows a similar picture).

The statistics are based on results where Agree or Strongly Agree is the given response:

And Nexus is not unique in reporting these figures on distraction. These results are reflected across all of the schools (more than 20) that have taken part in this survey.

What about teachers?

From our IRC survey this year and last, our teaching staff are also finding that they are distracted by technology.

45% believe technology more easily distracts me

Following on from my post last week, this might be emails from other teachers, notifications, SMS messages or pop-ups from chat sites. It may also just be the simple temptation to watch a cat video.

So, what can we do?

Now, before we decide to go ahead and ban technology outright, there are some important other statistics (amongst others) that our learners shared:

60% believe technology has had a positive impact on how much they learn

63% believe technology makes them more interested in the subjects

77% believe technology makes it easier to keep track of assignments

Lastly, forgetting all of the above, we are preparing our learners to work, live, play and communicate in a world with technology, so it might not be the best idea to stop them from using it. Unless they are planning moving to the northeastern United States to join a religious group.


Unfortunately for teachers, the attention span of the average child can range from 2 to a surprisingly low 20 minutes (but can be much longer when they are doing something intrinsically motivating), so we have to be mindful of things that we might do that can cause our learners to be distracted.

A survey by UWCSEA on a small number of students identified the following things that teachers did that made them more likely to be distracted:

  • Researching online (I'm putting together a post on this soon) 
  • Long lectures / long presentations / no interaction 
  • Allowing us to use earphones 
  • Independent work on long writing tasks 
  • When the subject isn’t engaging 

There is also the difficult task of pitching our work correctly. If we want to encourage our learners to be in a state of "Flow" and not be distracted, we mustn't set the work to be too hard or too easy.

Managing distraction

So, in the 1:1 classroom, there are things that we as teachers can do with technology that will help our learners (and ourselves) to avoid being distracted.

  • Turn off notifications on devices. This is the number 1 reason that we get distracted. Do we really, really need our devices to tell us when we have an email?
  • Always close / turn off / put away devices for class discussions 
  • Don't send emails in lessons. 
  • Set a time for checking emails for yourself or your learners 
  • Get learners to work for blocks of time; Use a timer - there are lots of great apps, or you can use an online one such as Google timer
  • Sit learners where you can see their screen
  • Break the lesson up with different activities, even for older learners who are doing independent research