Is Technology in the Classroom Distracting?

Technology in the classroom is as much a part of education now as pencils and paper were fifty years ago.

The technology we discuss in this article, though, is digital technology: the phones, tablets, and laptops students use during class. We’re not going to talk about PowerPoint presentations, online homework assignments, or research conducted on the internet.

We should back up for a moment to point out that pencils and paper are technology, too. So are compasses, protractors, and calculators – the difference is that it’s not possible to watch a youtube video on a protractor, check Instagram on a calculator, or share memes with a blank piece of paper – although we admit a clever artist could start a meme on a sheet of paper.

But we digress.

A study published in 2019 by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada surveyed a group of college students and professors to gauge their opinions on the use of technology in the classroom. They focused on two questions:

  1. How do students and instructors perceive technology in the classroom?
  2. Who do they believe should be responsible for minimizing off-task technology use in class?

Again, what the paper – and this article – addresses is the use of digital technology – i.e. laptops, phones, and tablets – by students during class.

No one thinks all digital technology should be banned from classrooms altogether. Well, some people do, and that’s fine for them. The rest of us understand that technology (barring massive unforeseen events) is here to stay, and that in most cases it enhances the learning experience and leads to positive outcomes for everyone, including students and teachers.

Let’s take a look at that study.

Student Opinions on Technology in the Classroom

Researchers invited students and faculty in the Applied Health Sciences Department at Waterloo University to take an online survey about their attitudes toward technology use in the classroom. In all, 478 students and 36 instructors completed the survey. The researchers followed up on the survey with in-class observations and individual interviews. They also conducted three focus groups: two with students and one with professors.

First, we’ll offer the student perspective on the question “Is student use of technology in the classroom distracting?

Here’s what they said:

  • 22% of students thought the sound of other students typing in class was somewhat or very
  • 49% of students thought seeing screens with non-course-related material on them was somewhat or very
  • 9% of students thought seeing screens with course-related material on them was somewhat or very

For context, we’ll offer these results as well:

  • 64% of students said they regularly view class-related material on screen-based technology during class
  • 20% said they regularly view non-class-related material on screen-based technology during class.

We’ll admit: no huge surprises there.

Now let’s have a look at what the professors thought.

Professors’ Opinions on Technology in the Classroom

Professors’ views on technology in the classroom fell into three categories:

  1. It’s just another distraction: ignore it or tolerate it.
  2. It’s a great learning support: embrace it and utilize it.
  3. It’s a negative influence, but it’s here to stay: explain to students why it’s bad and minimize use in the classroom.

Here’s what professors thought about smartphone and laptop/tablet use during class:

  • 68% thought student smartphone use during class was a problem.
  • 32% thought student laptop/tablet use during class was a problem.

During focus-group follow-ups, professors said they thought:

  • Student smartphone use meant students were viewing non-course material.
  • Student laptop/tablet use meant students were viewing course-related material.

As a whole, these two sets of responses don’t contain earth-shaking inisghts. Some students think technology in class is just fine, some think it’s a distraction, and some don’t think it’s an issue, one way or the other. The same goes for professors: some think it’s fine, some think it’s not, and some are relatively indifferent.

Now, let’s move on to the second research question: whose job is it to keep students from non-class-related technology use?

Who’s Responsible? Professors or Students?

Here’s where the results do get a little bit surprising.

First, we’ll confirm what most people can predict.

The professors who participated in the study, generally speaking, thought students should monitor their own off-task technology use. They did not think it was their responsibility to be more entertaining than YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or anything else. They felt that if students were present in class, then the students themselves should regulate their own technology use.

The students, on the other hand, had a different point of view.

For the most part, they thought their professors were obligated to keep classes fun, funny, and interesting, if they wanted to compete with Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. They also felt that professors did not have a right to tell them how or when to use technology in the classroom. They asserted that since they were grown adults, paying for class, it was a question of personal rights and liberties, and they should be able to use whatever technology they wanted without censure.

Here’s how the study authors summed up the students’ point-of-view:

“While students felt that it is their choice to use the technology, they saw it as the instructors’ responsibility to motivate them not to use it.”

We did not see that coming.

Perhaps we should have, though, because parents and teachers of teens and young adults live this paradox almost every day. While teenagers and young adults have virtually unlimited intellectual capacity, they also bounce back and forth in terms of responsibility and behavior. Sometimes they act like full-grown adults, and at other times, well, they say things like:

“Instructors should be more engaging, less boring, more organized, and less monotonous.”

Fair enough. Instructors should be all of that. And yes – that’s a direct quote from one of the student focus groups.

Education and Edutainment

On the other hand, an instructor might mirror that back to a student and say:

“Students should be more engaged, interested in the material, more organized with their thoughts, and more able to focus on material that isn’t designed for entertainment.”

That’s not a direct quote from one of the professors – that’s us, editorializing.

This entire topic raises important questions about education. We understand that the world is changing, and it’s the responsibility of adults – including teachers and parents – to meet students where they are. That means teachers need to adjust their teaching methods to adapt to the changing nature of society, as a whole, and to student attention span, in their individual classrooms. Teachers cannot, however, change the nature of the material.

Some things may be boring. There is very little chance learning the Krebs Cycle, for instance, will ever be remotely like watching funny videos on YouTube.

They may be boring no matter how differentiated the instruction, no matter how many Ted Talks exist on the topic, and no matter how personally engaging the instructor is. In those cases, we think students can rise to the level of the material.

Students do that all day, every day – and teachers work their hardest to make dry material come to life all day, every day.

At the end of those days, education must be a collaboration between teacher, student, and subject matter. That much is certain. Collaboration means compromise, and compromise means both sides get some of what they want and some of what they don’t want. That’s how we think it will be with technology in the classroom: when we work all these details out, we’re sure some will be happy, others will be disgruntled, and most will be somewhere in between.