Digital Distraction: When Should We Pull The Plug On Classroom Devices?

Dealing with digital distraction and multitasking in technology-rich classrooms is a beast, especially with struggling students, and the following questions continue to challenge me: Should we meet students “where they are” with regards to their digital lives or design lesson plans with less tech. and a focus on deep reading and sustained attention? Can learning “stick” if students are constantly distracted and multitasking on devices? Do ed. tech enthusiasts give too much credit to the power of self-directed learning?

This post originally appeared on Smartblog on Education.

When discussing my classroom cell phone policy with students at the beginning of the school year, I made what proved to be a mistake. I told the students that I wouldn’t obsess over policing their phone use in class; after all, smartphones can be powerful tools for learning.

But for the majority of students, I often lost the battle of classroom management and attention despite showcasing and integrating how I — and they — could use a phone to learn, to connect curiosity with knowledge, and complete course assignments.

Here’s the bottom line: Attention and digital distraction is perhaps the most overlooked instructional issue in today’s classrooms.

Changing –- or perhaps chipping away at — the entertainment and leisure paradigm for digital tools is tricky and downright frustrating at times. It doesn’t matter if you ban cell phones in the classroom or embrace usage; many students will distract themselves without thinking twice, or, given the freedom, will tweet and text away at a staggering rate.

University of Nebraska professor Barney McCoy attempted to quantify digital distraction in his college courses in a 2013 study. According to his survey, nearly 86% said they were texting, 68% reported they were checking email, 66% said they were using social networks, 38% said they were surfing the Web and 8% said they were playing a game during any given day of classes. High-school students may not be using email often, but the numbers are certainly just as high — or higher — when it comes to non-instructional distractions.

In addition, students mistakenly believe they are effective at multitasking. Annie Murphy Paul’s article “You’ll never learn! Students can’t resist multitasking, and it’s impairing their memory,” provides a solid primer on the research supporting the deleterious effects of media multitasking. She cites inefficient use of time, mental fatigue, impaired memory and more shallow information processing as some of the results of multitasking.

Despite my own drive to help students tap potential uses for digital tools in the classroom, I’m often left wondering: Can deeper learning be fostered in an environment where kids are encouraged to bounce from screen to screen, app to app? Should I meet kids “where they are” or push back and try to train them to focus on one thing at a time, sans screens?

I’ve struggled mightily at times as I now realize. I’ve perhaps been too lenient and technology-reliant during many instructional units or class periods. Admittedly, part of the issue has been poor instructional design; another part of the struggle has been simply the difficulty in breaking student habits and routines as it relates to social media and entertainment on their devices and laptops. And as somewhat of an autodidact, it has become apparent that most of my students will not unleash the power of their technology to seek out new knowledge without serious structure and direction.

It’s also easier for adults who grew up — mostly in an analog world — to extol the virtues of unbridled technology integration. Many of us have enough of a background in deep reading and the awareness of focus to overlook the simple fact that many of our students have only known one mode of being: hours upon hours of multitasking, multiple-screens, headphone and game-playing and social media connecting — all at once.

I’m not going to give up, but as I prepare for the upcoming year, I know I’m going to devote more time to technology-free lessons. If we don’t teach students – and give them practice — in sustained attention, they certainly won’t be doing it on their own time.

  • Bill Ferriter

    Paul wrote:

    Paul wrote:

     If we don’t teach students – and give them practice — in sustained attention, they certainly won’t be doing it on their own time.


    Hey Pal, 

    This is a great bit.  Really enjoyed it.  

    I think my pushback would be if we don’t give kids the chance to practice sustained attention WITH digital devices, we are failing them.  The fact of the matter is that they WILL be surrounded by devices for life — so a skill that is essential is figuring out how to focus despite the potential to be distracted.  

    Howard Rheingold writes about attentional blink in his book Netsmart.  Here’s a few bits that I pulled together after the read:

    Rock on, 






  • KipHottman

    Teachers being models


    You make an interesting point when you say students will tweet and text at a staggering rate when given the freedom.  I find my self in your shoes at times and wonder what is the cure.  I am curious if we (adult role models) aren’t digging our own graves when it comes to this discussion.

    I attended the TALK conference in June and looked around the ball room during one of the key note sessions and about 80 percent of the crowd was engaged in their device and not the conversation.  I remember this also happening during one of the President’s speeches.  Congress was digitally distracted while the President addressed the nation.

    To teach students appropriate usage, I sometimes wonder if we are being appropriate models in society.  Any thoughts?

    • PaulBarnwell



      I’ve made more of a concerted effort to be 100% present whenever I’m at meetings, presentations, etc. Kids are like adults in that if the material isn’t compelling or there isn’t expected participation, we all default to our devices.  

      So far this year I’ve dedicated one day a week to “Digital Fridays” and the other days I’m enjoying less tech-heavy reliance in class. Makes me think and execute more real-time, face-to-face engagement with students (and students with each other) more.

  • KrisGiere

    Digital Interactions


    I too struggle with this, and my students are adult learners.  As Kip pointed out, many adults do not know how to do this either.  I think the key is that we jump into the fray with our students and learn along side them.  It isn’t easy.  There will be struggles.  However, good learning requires struggle, inquiry, not knowing the answer, and discovery.  I encourage you to discover with them as you and they explore what it means to be a learner in the digital landscape.


    • PaulBarnwell

      I’m with you.


      I’m all about the messiness of figuring out the best means to balance learning in the digital world! But I have found that, even with reasoned discussion, modeling, and messiness, it may not be worth the effort to unleash open-tech use with a good proportion of students. Thoughts?

      • KrisGiere


        Messiness is right.  I do understand your frustrations.  I have the same ones.  I have more thoughts than answers, more questions than statements, and probably a few contradictions as well because I am still wrestling with the subject myself. 

        One of the issues – as I see it – is that there is no blueprint for success because technology and connectivity continue to evolve.  Whatever answers we find in the upcoming year may need revision before the next year, even semester begins.  However, there are some human factors that aren’t technology dependent that can be used to direct behavior.  1) Focus & Purpose.  Without focus and/or purpose, most humans lose interest in or motivation to do what is considered productive.  So, any use of technology or other tools, practices, etc. needs to be purposeful.  But is purpose/focus enough?  I don’t know.  What can we learn about motivating and empowering our particular students that will enable them to self-regulate their technology behavior?  2) Distractions.  Most educators (regardless of their stance on tech in the classroom) would agree that distractions amplify dischord and decrease learning in the classroom.  I just read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed discussing one faculty’s choice to encourage the turning off of cellphones in her psychology courses.  The result was the elimination of a distraction, and it showed marked improvement in the students’ behaviors and success rates.  Does this mean we should remove tech from every classroom?  I’d argue no.  Some classrooms and even just some class sessions are markedly enriched by the use of technology.

        All in all, I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that the world outside of the classroom is filled with distractions and the choice to engage those distractions.  As we all learn to best handle our ever-evolving existence, we’d benefit from trying a variety of approaches along the way.  I honestly don’t know if any of my above rambling helps, but I do want to thank you for challenging me to confront my views on and uses of tech in the classroom.  It is an ever-present reality in the modern classroom.

  • NancyGardner

    Digital tools in a 1:1 school

    Since I teach in a 1:1 school district (Mooresville Graded Schools–all kids from 4-12 have laptops–started in 2007), we have had to just work through this as we go.  In the last 5 years, even 2, things have changed drastically.  We have various ways to control some of what they can access on their laptops, but so many students have smart phones now so we have lost some of the control.  The computers are no longer the distraction, but the phones are.  Initially, I used the phone to my advantage–“please text Paul to see if he is coming to school today”  “Please find out how Nancy is feeling” etc.  I remember in the early 2000s, we wrote kids up if we saw a cell phone on their person (we assumed they were all drug dealers).  So this year, as a school, we are taking a stronger stance on the cell phones.  The students can use them in the halls and during lunch, but they are not to have them out at all during class.  However, if you need a “Poll Everywhere” or you want to take a picture of the assignment on the board, go for it.  The twitter/instagram dramas really build up over the course of the day, and last year, the parents also continually contacted their kids through texts.  I think we are all just feeling our way through all of this…we live in a digital world, we need to embrace it, but we have to figure out how to help our students use the tools effectively, safely, and courteously.  And we need to model that behavior.  I turn my phone off while I am teaching, and then check messages,etc after class.  I also feel compelled to continue to warn them about pictures/comments they post.  We’ll figure it out, but the technology is moving so fast that it is hard to keep up!

    • PaulBarnwell



      When we’re dealing with adolescents, you raise the complex variety of pros/cons with tech. use. I’m learning towwards more measured class use this year and so far, so good. I still teach digital literacy concepts.  I still want the students to understand what it means to be a literate citizen interacting with screens.  But all things considered–and I’ve thought and experimented a lot!–I’m happy with reverting to more face-time discussion and “old-fashioned” methods!


  • marsharatzel

    Phones big and important part of my room

    Phone use is essential in my class….we have little access to computer labs and the only 1:1 equipping would be 1 computer per classroom!!!  Hardly an ideal situation when you want to use digital tools.  Honestly, students may do some extrangeous texting but as I circulate through the classroom, it’s easy to spot who I need to stand near or raise my eyebrows towards.

    We use phones for so much everyday.  Students are busy using it as a calculator, for example.  Today they needed to know some simple metric to standard measure conversions and looked them up in Google.  What I might have given them in the past…I now push them to look up for themselves.  Today as we were talking about taking Cornell Notes over the textbook chapters, we talked about the Dragon Dictation app that could help them “dictate” a paraphrase of what they’ve read and then cut/paste that into their Cornell notes template.  Other students suggested we use the Evernote app instead of Cornell notes template I’ve supplied on Google Docs.

    Can we really use effectively use something like Dragon Dictation?  I don’t know.  But I feel like this is the progression I need to keep on testing…somethings will work, some things won’t.