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Avoiding digital distraction

An oft expressed concern from teachers and parents when contemplating a class full of students using their own device is the risk of 'digital distraction' - i.e. "how will we know they're on-task, and not off using the device for something other than what we intended?"

There's no doubt that digital distraction is an issue for all of us - not just our learners. These devices we have provide all sorts of opportunities to go off on tangents and follow where our interest may take us. I have collegues who struggle in meetings when we're using our devices to collaboratively record minutes who find they just can't help checking their facebook page for instance. 

There appear to be two responses to this problem in BYOD classrooms:

  1. impose rules and limitations on access to enforce behaviours (extrinsic), or
  2. promote self-managing behaviours and personal responsibility (intrinsic)

I'm personally biased towards the second of these - I find little long term benefit in establishing rules and boundaries as the first line of defense as these aren't effective strategies for establishing behaviours that will endure once the class is over. However, the pragmatist in me realises that there is a bit of a continuum here, and there is a need to consider a range of options, depending on the age, stage and context of the learners in question - and that the interventions will always need to be fluid as we move students towards the goal of self-management. 

An article by Kyle Albert from the Global Digital Citizen Foundation prompted this post from me. Titled, how to minimise digital distractions, Kyle recommends exploring 'rules and regulations' as one approach, and the use of monitoring and surveillance as another. He also notes the importance of making learning engaging in the final paragraph - something that I think deserves more attention and perhaps a separate blog post ;-)

It would be interesting to discover what is happening among the schools in NZ where students are using their own device? What strategies are you implementing to mitigate the risk of digital distraction? 


  • Hamish McLean

    Awesome post Derek!

    I totally agree.  My position, is that as educators we should focus on engagement of our students, which results in students not wanting to waste time on digital devices,  and to do this we need to give students choice. Let them use their strengths to learn, give them opportunities to follow their passions.  It's my job to link that to the fuller curriculum,  give it a world perspective.

     In my blog (VLN profile)  I talk about what my school does and what I do that helps students not be distracted. 

  • Abbie

    Admittedly the 'digital distraction' is a problem. We don't have byod but have about 1:2 ratio of devices in our school. 

    I whole-heartedly concur with the idea of greater student engagement in their learning, so they won't want to be distracted by other things on their device. I also acknowledge (as someone who is very easily digitally distracted) that devices allow a broad host of distractors in one easy place, without being easily noticed by the teacher. 

    I would, however, posit that digital distractions are just that: distraction in another form to the traditional (albeit more enticing than staring out the window). Do the students get just as distracted but in different, less obvious ways without devices? 

    The advantage of school devices is that you know what is on it. In my case I know that if they are off task they are still probably learning (as they tend to play the high-octane learning games).  

    I use the intermittent: show me your screens as a on-task encourager (I teach 7&8 year old semi-rural students). Additionally they know I'll check and that someone always dobbs them in if they are on the wrong game!

    Ultimately I guess a distractor is a distractor. Some are just less obvious than others. 

  • Alison Taylor

    Hi All

    My take on this issue of digital distraction is that teachers will become more attuned to students who are disengaged due to digital distractions.

    As a teacher you are constantly monitoring student engagement in learning activities. When wanting the whole class to engage together, there are times when you  ask for everyone to give their attention to an individual or group. There were obvious cues you would look for to ensure that everyone was focussed - eye contact, participation in activity. I think these cues work for digital and non digital situations.

    However, one thing with BYOD is that it can be very seductive and misleading for a teacher. A student can present as being intensely focussed on their screen, and can appear on task and can consequently be overlooked  - where a teacher assumes student engagement. In an environment where students are recording learning in a digital environment teachers need to be aware that what appeared to be engagement in a traditional pre-digital environment is in fact distraction.

    I agree with Abbie, teachers will develop routines to monitor student engagement in a BYOD environment  and a classroom culture of transparency - where students will monitor the learning engagement of each other. As I write this, I am also thinking about the importance of well planned lessons and pedagogical variety within  lessons that actively involve students in learning activities.




  • Viki

    Hi Derek, you raise the very valid point that I am sure most of have either experienced or are concerned about. Interestingly a school I have just served a term at in the capacity of Acting Principal is in the beginning stages of introducing BYOD. I had the 'pleasure' of hosting the first community meeting for this and the questions around digital distraction, closely followed by digital safety (which I think are kind of linked) were the most prominent by far. It is quite easy to answer the digital safety issue by discussing the policy and digital citizenship expectations that are in place. It was really hard to convince families that it is when children understand and adhere to and act as responsible digital citizens that digital distraction is less likely to happen. As a staff we spoke of MLP (modern learning pedagogy as having significant responsibility for preventing digital distraction. So with this in mind it becomes clear that for digital devices to used as effective learning tools there is quite a lot of work to be done around these underlying issues. Having been fortunate to be quite instrumental in introducing BYOD at my last school I have learnt that 'slow and steady' is most important factor. Take time to develop a school wide cyber safety and digital citizenship policy. Take time to introduce these to the students an community. Take time to slowly integrate BYOD.