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May 2015 | Volume 72 | Number 8
Teaching with Mobile Tech
We've all seen it: A couple at a restaurant for what could be a romantic dinner with noses down, engrossed in their smartphones. Or a group of adolescents, together yet alone, barely conversing as they fixate on texts and tweets. Or otherwise responsible adults sneaking peeks at their phones or tablets held just beneath the table during meetings.
In just a few short years, human behavior everywhere seems to have changed. We seem compulsively drawn to our mobile devices and hardly able to look away when we should be paying attention to something—or someone—else. As we consider the use of smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and e-readers in schools, we might do well to ask, why are we so addicted to our devices? And will introducing them into our classrooms help or hinder learning?
Although some educators are using mobile devices in innovative ways, for the most part such approaches are too new to have been subjected to rigorous research. The research we do have on digital devices provides some caveats:
Daniel Goleman (2013) worries that information overload—"the explosion of news streams, e-mails, phone calls, tweets, blogs, charts, reflections about opinions about opinions that we expose our cognitive processors to daily" (p. 56)—may be depleting our ability to concentrate. Focusing our brains, Goleman writes, is not easy. "Selecting one sharp focus requires inhibiting a multitude of others. The mind has to fight off the pull of everything else, sorting out what's important from what's irrelevant. That takes cognitive effort" (p. 56).
Fortunately, according to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (2010), current laboratory research does not suggest that mobile devices have fundamentally rewired our students' brains. However, walking around with continual diversion makers in their pockets may have left students with the faulty perception that they can do what no humans actually can do—multitask.
Cognitive psychologists have long warned that we're not really doing two or more things at once when we multitask; rather, we're switching back and forth between different tasks—and doing each one poorly and inefficiently. As Willingham (2010) puts it, the bottom line of years of study on the subject is this: "Multitasking is never a good idea if you really need to get something done" (p. 26).
Consider the following study. To tease out effects of resumption lag—the time it takes after an interruption to return to, and complete, the task at hand—researchers (Altmann & Trafton, 2004) asked university students to engage in a complex computer simulation game. Normally, the average interval between players' actions in the game was about two seconds, but when returning to the task after a brief interruption, that gap doubled to four seconds, presumably as study participants had to ask themselves, "Now, where was I?"
Even if we have concerns about mobile devices' negative effects on concentration and learning, we may have to conclude (as my own teenage daughter recently pleaded) that they're a fixture of modern life. So instead of banning them, perhaps we should teach students how to live and learn with them. To do that, we might start by offering students these two pointers for fending off technology distractions when they need to concentrate on learning.
Focus learning in short sprints, followed by brief breaks. The study on text interruptions mentioned earlier also reported on observations of high school and university students during recommended 15-minute intervals of focused study; students who could better stay on task for 15 minutes and avoid technology-related distractions performed significantly better in school (Rosen, Lim, Carrier, & Cheever, 2011). The researchers concluded that dangling the "reward" of technology after spurts of concentrated effort can make it easier for students to focus.
Take notes … by hand. Recent scientific study has confirmed what might seem obvious: We listen better and comprehend more when we take notes (Gur, Dilci, Coskun, & Delican, 2013). Another study (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014) concluded that taking pencil-and-paper notes supports better learning and comprehension than typing notes into a laptop, presumably because writing by hand requires summarizing and engaging more actively with what we're learning, whereas when we take notes on a laptop, we tend to fall into a more mindless pattern of simply recording what we're hearing verbatim.
Here's a pop quiz. What's the name of the chemical released in our brains when we get a text message? And what term do psychologists apply to delays between interrupted tasks? If you can't recall what you read only moments ago, was it because of that distracting little rectangle of glass, plastic, and metal on the corner of your desk? And now that you're thinking about it, are you feeling tempted to reach over and see if you've gotten any messages since you started reading this paragraph? What will you do—succumb to the distraction, or stay focused on your professional learning?
How you answer that question could help you better understand how to guide students to make their own prudent decisions.
Altmann, E. M., & Trafton, J. G. (2004). Task interruption: Resumption lag and the role of cues. In K. Forbus, D. Gentner, & T. Regier (Eds.), Proceedings of the 26th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Fried, C. (2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers and Education, 50(3), 906–914.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York: HarperCollins.
Gur, T., Dilci, T., Coskun, I., & Delican, B. (2013). The impact of note-taking while listening on listening comprehension in a higher education context. International Journal of Academic Research, 5(1), 93–97.
Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multi-tasking in learning environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(1), 46–64.
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168.
Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.
Rosen, L. D., Lim, A. F., Carrier, M., & Cheever, N. A. (2011). An empirical examination of the educational impact of text message-induced task switching in the classroom. Psicología Educativa, 17(2), 163–177.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don't. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
Willingham, D. (2010). Have technology and multitasking rewired how students learn? American Educator, 42, 23–28.
Bryan Goodwin is president and CEO of McREL, Denver, Colorado. He is the author of The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day (ASCD, 2013).
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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