Blogstitute: Digital Distraction or Engagement?

June 29th, 2015

Welcome back to Week 3 of our Summer Blogstitute! We are starting out the week with this very practical post from Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts, authors of the new book Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning. Diana and Jen address an issue that many teachers who use technology in their classrooms on a regular basis face: what to do with distractions — online or otherwise? Please share some of your strategies in the comments or on Twitter using #blogstitute15. Diana and Jen are at #ISTE15 today and we’ll be live-Tweeting their presentations and their mini-sessions at our booth. If you happen to be there, stop by and see them at booth #134, or follow the sessions on Twitter.

power-upDigital Distraction or Engagement in Action By Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts

We recently received a question from a middle school teacher asking about digital citizenship and digital distraction. Specifically what to do about students who are off task or using their device for something other than school work. She wrote:

“In the past I have removed computer privileges from students who were either playing games or using Gmail accounts to chat (not about the content)…What do other teachers/schools do to implement responsible use of computers/devices while in the classroom? What do you recommend…?

Before we jump into what we think is the heart of the matter, let’s make a quick digression. Many teachers who are new to 1:1 often feel that, since their school or district shelled out the money to provide the devices, teachers are supposed to use them every minute of every class period of every day. We have yet to meet an administrator who pushes this policy. Many of the challenges teachers face with distracted students come at moments in class when students aren’t really actively doing anything. We may be giving instructions, or reviewing a sample of an assignment, or setting up an activity. This is prime distraction time. (Just look around at the next faculty meeting during general announcements for teachers checking email or sending off a quick text; digital distraction is pretty common.) It is for this reason that we encourage teachers to build norms into their class routines, and verbal cues into their lesson transitions. Jen’s students know that during silent reading time, their laptops need to be closed. Diana’s students have gotten comfortable with her cue to “chill out and listen” while she gives directions — hands clasped behind their heads (where they can’t type), reclined in their chairs, eyes off their screens. If distraction during these brief windows of time is an issue, it’s completely reasonable to have students power down.

But our hunch is that’s not the entirety of the question. What do we do when it’s time to power up for learning and our students veer off topic? When our classrooms are 1:1, and our students truly need their computer or tablet to do their classwork, then we have moved past a time when technology is a privilege and into an age when it is a necessary learning tool. Very rapidly, computers and tablets in our classrooms are becoming as critical as textbooks were several decades ago. When our students need technology to be productive, removing it also removes any chance they have for doing their work. The issue, then, is not about the technology; it is about disengagement from the learning task. The challenge is that with a screen in front of our students, a whole host of more engaging activities are close at hand.

In some cases, taking away the computer may be exactly what a student wants us to do. Consider this story from a few weeks ago in Jen’s classroom.  A student, who should have been collaborating with his partner on an activity, was reading his book instead. Jen asked him to please put the book away, open up his laptop, and help with the task. He did, but a few minutes later Jen’s colleague, a co-teacher who is new to 1:1 teaching, brought her the student’s computer. “He was playing a game, so I took it away.” she said.  When Jen looked over, the student had his nose back in his book, an activity now seemingly sanctioned by the removal of his laptop. Jen told her colleague she should return the computer; she protested that the student had been off-task. “Yes,” Jen explained, “and now he is still off task because without the computer he can’t do the work today.” Taking his laptop was more of a reward than a punishment. Without the computer the student was free to read his book without having to collaborate with his peers. With his computer back, and a bit of closer supervision from his teachers, he spent the rest of the period working with his partner.

Taking a computer or tablet away from a student should be our last resort, and only if we are ready with some other equally rigorous task. Consequences for off-task behavior should be the same whether the work is analog or digital. We wouldn’t take away a student’s pencil because the child was doodling or writing notes to friends. We think part of the solution for off-task students is to reframe the problem. Students who are doing other things are not being willfully defiant; they are looking for something more engaging to do. Let’s admit that many of the things we expect students to do in school are not always going to be interesting to them. Making sure we have taken steps to create a student-centered curriculum is the crucial first step for increasing engagement, and thus, limiting digital distraction.

Beyond curricular changes, students need to know that the work they are doing matters, and that we will hold them accountable for completing it. Having clear consequences for completing work is a useful way to motivate students to stay on task. Additionally, we suggest partner work activities that rely on the contributions of both students.  Moving around the room, and having direct conversations with off-task students about why they are choosing not to do their work are other ways to show students we care about their success. We suspect  many of these strategies sound familiar from the pre-1:1 days. In short, our recommendation for encouraging responsible use of technology is to be sure that our learning tasks are engaging, the consequences of not finishing work are clear, and the spirit of  productivity guides our lesson planning. There is work to be done.

Making our 1:1 classrooms an engaging place for learning is the subject of all of Chapter 3 in Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning (which we highly recommend, of course.) Chapter 3 explores three core conditions for student engagement—connection, perplexity, and curiosity—and uses a series of classroom vignettes to illustrate these conditions. The second half of the chapter details five strategies for increasing engagement in your 1:1 classroom. We share reasons why each of these strategies works to encourage and integrate all student voices, put students in conversation with one another, and transform teacher-centered instruction to personalized learning. Using back-channeling, online discussion boards, polling and data collection, interactive feedback systems, and educational games, you can easily enrich the great teaching you are already doing. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of disengagement and offers suggestions for ways to detect and reduce distractions in the 1:1 classroom.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,Technology

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dan  |  June 29th, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    I love the anecdote about the co-teacher who took the laptop away from the student. it is true that we wouldn’t take a pencil away from someone who fooled around with that, why do it with the laptop? Setting the norms is so important and I must include it going forward. I just recently got a netbook cart and noticed students not paying attention while I gave instruction. Simply establishing the norms will help a great deal.

  • 2. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 30th, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Great insight here as more and more schools are going 1:1 with technology devices. I like that the stress needs to remain on procedures, norms and routines. So important no matter which age you teach. Also, I think Neebe and Roberts are wise to point out the engagement factor when teaching kids. A device is just another tool to deliver learning, but the teacher and students are still responsible for the use and planning of that content.

  • 3. Sarah  |  June 30th, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    My school is 1:1 and we definitely have these issues with distraction. I appreciate the reminder that these distractions are like other distractions we have always struggled with. One of the strategies that I use to minimize distracting use of electronics is creative seating. I try to design my classroom so that no student has their back to a wall or a screen that faces a direction I can’t see. I walk around my classroom a lot while students are working, which helps as well. I will admit it is not 100% effective. I also use the discussion strategy mentioned above, talking about reasons for being off task as well as reinforcing the importance of the work we are doing.

  • 4. Julie Clay  |  July 1st, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    The juniors and seniors have ipads at my school, and many of their teachers use the Canvas program to lock them into an app to avoid distractions. This program is paid for by the district. It didn’t take long for these teachers to realize something needed to be done to redirect students from a gaming free-for-all.

    As a freshman teacher, I have access to laptops on a cart for my students. When I include technology in my lessons/classroom, it is often technology that easily engages students. This includes blogs on, the online bulletin board Padlet, backchanneling with TodaysMeet, interactives on, practicing vocab on Quizlet, and organizing info/ideas in a mind map on Students type major writings in Google docs and “share” them with me electronically. For the most part, I really don’t have a problem with students gaming or messaging because they know they will miss out. Also, our district has done a pretty good job of blocking gaming sites and social media sites to students.

  • 5. Kelly Mogk  |  July 1st, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Love this — “We wouldn’t take away a student’s pencil because the child was doodling or writing notes to friends. We think part of the solution for off-task students is to reframe the problem. Students who are doing other things are not being willfully defiant; they are looking for something more engaging to do.”

    In any situation, technological or not, reframing makes all the difference!

  • 6. Cheryl  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 11:05 am

    Technology is an amazing addition to instruction, but as others have commented, it is still US, the teachers, that have to model and reinforce what is acceptable and responsible behavior. No matter how much technology adds to our instruction, there is some reassurance in remembering that the human factor remains a critical piece of growing well-rounded, responsible young citizens!

  • 7. Teresa  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    My school does not have much technology, so I am looking for ideas to incorporate BYOT in my room. One issue that I am worried about is how to handle students that are off task. This post provided good ideas. I need to establish the rules and expectations up front. Students need to know that technology is the tool they are using to complete the assignment not just a new toy to play with. There should be consequences, but they still need access to the technology. I like the idea of closing the laptop. A coworker makes them put their phones face down when they are not supposed to use them. This book will be added to my wish list.

  • 8. Elisa Waingort  |  July 5th, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    This post is very timely for me as my school is expanding its BYOD pilot this year. Even though my grade (5th) is not part of the pilot this year, my team is highly encouraging our parents to allow their students to bring a device every day. Your comment about being clear with students about when it’s time to “taco” their computers because a discussion is happening or directions are being given, is key. I also think that making the digital learning engaging is key; it always has been regardless of whether the tool is a pencil or a computer. I will take a look at chapter 3, for sure. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  • 9. Diane Anderson  |  July 5th, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    We have more and more opportunities to use technology in our elementary school. Students have access to laptops and IPads. Routines and procedures have to be in place, along with modeling of different ways to use technology for learning.

  • 10. Joanne Bell  |  July 6th, 2015 at 6:56 am

    As a teacher that is going to deal with more laptop use next year, I found this article very interesting. I hope to be able to read this book and remember the three words- connection, perplexity and curiosity.

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