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New study demonstrates the danger of normalising social media in the classroom

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Off-purpose technology is causing distractions. Source: Shutterstock

Intertwining the classroom curriculum with the use of technology has become the norm for many UK teachers and professors.

In an attempt to prepare students for a world where people are glued to their automated devices, where flashing digital screens lace the streets and job roles depend on keyboards and internet searches, many headteachers and deans have welcomed technology with open arms and minds.

For example, research projects that heavily depend on Google search operations and deep dives into online videos mean most students are already free to roam their laptops while in class.

But who’s to know whether they’re splitting their time equally between educational and personal tasks?

Otherwise known as ‘off-task’ activities, personal pursuits of the World Wide Web and mobile devices lead to increased distraction in lessons and decreased student engagement.

Social media distractions are everywhere. Source: Charisse Kenion/Unsplash

Illuminating the danger of normalising social media in schools and the regular occurrence of off-task technology usage in lessons, a recent study published in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning surveyed 478 students and 36 instructors at the University of Waterloo – here’s what the study uncovered:

From the students’ perspective

During the survey, approximately  22%  of  students reported that the sound of students typing in class was ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ distracting.  Approximately  9%  of  students  reported  that  seeing  course-related  material  on  other  students’ screens was ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ distracting whereas approximately 49% of students reported that  seeing screens of off-task technology users was ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ distracting; and still feel like [technology] is still necessary when the classes are not engaging enough,” notes the study.

Blaming lessons plans for their dull and disengaging designs may be a strong stance to take on the issue of technology in classrooms.

But with almost half of respondents claiming to feel distracted by off-purpose usage, this issue may be more widespread then educators realise.

Should schools and universities embrace the use of tech or restrict it? Source: Xiaojie/Unsplash

From the teacher’s perspective

“Instructors perceived the off-task use of technology as especially problematic, both because it created distractions for other students and because it signified the students’ lack of self-control. Some also saw the use of technology as a sign of disrespect. One of the instructors commented in the written portion of the survey: I am constantly amazed at how brazen students are about using their  laptops  and  cell  phones  for  non-course  related  purposes,” the study outlines.

Pushing the blame back onto students, many professors take offence to the off-purpose tech usage and disengaged learners they try to communicate with.

Teachers tout a ‘lack of self-control’, but when contrasting the students’ and teachers’ perspectives, the issue inevitability evolves into a blame game.

Should both sides reach an agreement on how to lighten up lessons and restrict off-purpose technology during learning time?

What do you think about smartphone and laptop use in lessons? Source: Shutterstock

From the author’s perspective

In the study’s conclusion, both authors and teaching fellows, Elena Neiterman and Christine Zaza, explain their key findings.

“Expecting instructors to provide entertaining lectures may not be the most effective way to deal with off-task technology use in the classroom. Instructors can (and should) strive to make their classes engaging, but it is hard to compete with a multi-billion dollar social media industry over the attention of  our students.

“If we assume, however, that our goal is to prepare our students to the workforce, then perhaps we ought to teach our students how they could take more responsibility for their own learning and restrain technology use even in the lectures that are less entertaining than their social media feed,” Zaza and Neiterman conclude.

Highlighting the ongoing battle between technology and student engagement, it’s clear to see that students, professors and researchers have a mixture of opinions when analysing the current role of tech in classrooms.

However, as Zaza and Neiterman point out, restraining the use of technology and clamping down on social media scrolling throughout lectures and lessons may be the best approach, benefiting both the student and their teacher.

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