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Netflix and study: Why online students are more easily distracted

Digital distractions are everywhere, and even more uncontrollable for those in online classes. Source: Victoria Heath/Unsplash

For all the praise of online classrooms and how they could replace physical spaces, the latter still triumphs in at least one aspect: ensuring students focus on the academic subject taught.

Researchers have found, unsurprisingly, that students in online courses are often multitasking with non-academic matters – that refers to time spent on Facebook, browsing on Asos and scrolling Twitter timelines – more than their peers in physical classrooms. Sampling nearly 300 Kent State students enrolled in both online and on-campus courses, Andrew Lepp and his team found that students are 25 percent more likely to multitask in non-academic work when enrolled in online courses compared to their peers in face-to-face courses.

Students with higher multitasking tendencies (ie. those with high scores on the Polychronic-Monochronic Tendency Scale) are more likely to multitask in online classes. While many might assume they would be similarly distracted in actual brick and mortar classrooms, the study found otherwise.

Students can’t help but check up on their devices. Source: Shutterstock

The reason for this, as suggested by the research published last week, is because there are “teacher and other students who might look sideways at a student who is multitasking,” Lepp said to Inside Higher Ed.

“In other words,” researchers add, “students who have positive attitudes about multitasking and prefer to multitask appear to better control this academically disadvantageous behavior in face-to-face courses.”

“Norms of the classroom” ie. pressure from classmates and instructors are what helps control these students from their urges to multitask, researchers suggest.

Digital distraction

Distractions are aplenty in actual lecture halls and classrooms everywhere as it is. Lecturers have gone as far as banning smartphones and even laptops outright from their seminars. To them, it’s just wasting too many precious contact hours. A 2016 report found that students spent about one-fifth of class time on laptops, smartphones and tablets, with full knowledge that doing so can harm their grades. They check these devices for “non-class purposes” an average of 11.43 times in a typical day. The majority said they do so to stay connected, and equally, as an attempt to fight boredom.

In virtual classes, there are no prizes for guessing that these distractions are more common, with or without referring to Lepp and his team’s new research.

The researchers were motivated to pursue this study when they witnessed a student heavily multitasking on not one, but three gadgets two years ago. While listening to her online biology course on her smartphone, the student was using her desktop to input data into a spreadsheet, while simultaneously streaming Netflix on a laptop. The study only confirmed what the researchers guessed was true.

What universities can learn from this study is to differentiate their methods of preventing multitasking according to mode of teaching. Reducing distractions at brick and mortar universities will be “very different” from online courses.

Researchers also suggested that “the developers of online courses should explore technological and pedagogical solutions aimed at keeping online learners focused on their primary task in the absence of a physically present instructor.”

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