Technology to Engage, not Distract

Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction?

Digitally driven distraction is the bogeyman of the hour.

We ed-tech advocates should make clear in every way we can that we are more concerned about distraction, not less, than other educators: the difference is that we talk about the problem of distraction by framing the issue more positively:

What are we doing as educators to meaningfully engage our students, to give them the autonomy, purpose, and opportunity for mastery which they crave and to which they respond with focus, energy, enthusiasm, and diligence?

The approach we take is not finger wagging about what is distracting kids, but thinking harder about and doing more to bring about the opposite: engagement, focus, effort, process, practice, and accomplishment.

Do we think that before technology, most students avoided distraction?  Do we think they spent school-days sitting in lecture consumed with fascination for listening to a teacher talk about the Smoot Hawley tariff?   Have you seen Ferris Buller’s Day Off, a film made before cell phones and laptops?

Students report regularly that what engages them most in learning is doing projects employing technology, far more than listening to lectures.  (this is clear in the High School Survey of Student Engagement, HSSSE).    Clearly this is how young professionals (physicians, lawyers, engineers, academics, managers) spend their time: using computers to gather information, communicate and collaborate with others, and publish and post their answers, to  tackle meaningful problems.

This isn’t just rhetoric: there are more and more schools taking exactly this approach; you can find these practices at High Tech High and New Tech Network schools, and you can find an excellent articulation of these approaches in many new books, including several from ISTE such as Suzie Boss’ Reinventing Project-Based Learning with Technology.

Yes, of course, students can and do get distracted when their computers and smartphones are open on their desk or lap, and teachers need to respond thoughtfully to this problem.    It is fine for teachers to ask students to put them away in certain times.    William Stites has a terrific post about how schools can confront and manage the technological distraction issues.

But let’s not  forget that students have always been distracted, and let’s recognize that our schools are the best time for students to learn how to manage technological distractions, far better than waiting until we send them off to the far less supervised university settings.  The response to the anxiety of distraction is not to go backwards, is not to limit technology, but to learn to use it effectively to reduce distraction by improving engagement.

Don Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital,  writes in HuffPo:

there is no actual evidence to support the view that this generation is distracted, performing poorly or otherwise less capable than previous generations. In fact the evidence suggests that on the whole, this is the smartest generation ever. IQ is up year over year for many years, university entrance exam scores are at an all time high and it has never been tougher to get into the best universities.  This is a generation about which we can be enormously hopeful.

The world is changing, faster and faster, and we do need to be thoughtful and intentional about how technology is used by our students, and we do need to strive for healthy balance.  I appreciate that the Times’ Wired piece asks this of parents and educators.

But I don’t think we need to heighten fears and anxieties: let’s embrace the opportunity technology provides our educational programs to return to Aristotle’s call that we learn by doing: let’s lead our schools to become centers of technologically empowered active investigation, collaboration, and creation, the type of learning that will be engage, challenge, engage, and prepare our teens for their futures.

[a longer version of this post  was published yesterday at]


  1. Kristin Humphreys said:

    I also believe that school systems should use technology more in class. There will always be distractions for students, with or without technology. The main goal for teachers is to help students learn material. It is easier for students to learn material when they are engaged. More and more students want to use technology during class because they will be more involved with the lesson, therefore effectively learning the material instead of trying to listen to a lecture. I think we should take advantage of the technology we have now and move forward.

    November 29, 2010
  2. Brian Titsworth said:

    Technology has added another layer of distraction for students. This is a powerful layer that can be customized to meet the needs of individual interests. Therefore it is much more powerful than the traditional day dreaming or doodles on the desk. Smartphones and computers are not a passing trend and students treat them more like appendages than accessories. Educators who fail to realize this fact are usually the proponents of zero tolerance policies related to cellphones and use computer labs for nothing more than word processing. Focusing time on the management of student technology use in schools seems to be an unwise choice. It would be much more productive for educators to teach and guide student’s technology choices in the school setting. Unfortunately, a large population of educators lacks the ability to educate students in terms of technology use.

    December 7, 2010
  3. Monica Calligaro said:

    We have a different student in front of us than 20 or even 10 years ago and they are learning different. If we want learning to take place, we need to get “tapped” into this generation.

    December 14, 2010
  4. Technology is one of the most controversial and innovative subjects in recent modern history. It has been said that it’s what will preserve and cause us, the human race, to survive in the near but distant future. And then, there are those that claim that technology is destroying our minds, causing us to remain distracted and out of tune from everyday life, especially in the effervescent realm of education.

    In the “War on Technologism,” as I like to call it, many teachers and professors have struggled with their students being distracted by technology during class, whether it’s the students’ own, or whether the technology is furnished by the institution they work at. Let me give you a scenario. You have Mrs. Davis, a forty-six year old Economics teacher working at a high school in Wichita, Kansas. She’s currently teaching a class of thirty-two seniors who are at the brink of graduating, but the problem is that they’ve contracted the widespread epidemic known as Senioritis. Ninety percent of the shiftless seniors are either putting their heads on their desks, giving the illusion that they’re sound asleep, or hiding behind their walls of books that they’ve constructed into a tower-like form. What these students are really doing is texting on their phones and listening to their iPods.

    But what is the problem? Is it that students are thoroughly distracted because they don’t want to learn, or is it that the teachers and the subject matter are really just that boring? Should technology (mainly wireless devices) be taken out of the classroom, or should they stay put?

    Well, I personally think that it depends on the student. Some students are more involved into their technology than others. Besides that fact, technology should stay in the classrooms. It’s not as bad as researchers and some teachers might think. We’re going to have to move forward and grow with it if we’re going to stay a modern society. In class, technology has been shown to involve students more if the teacher uses it in their lessons. In an article written by US News journalist, Ryan Lytle, he writes about an Advanced Placement calculus teacher named Stacey Roshan, an instructor at Bullis. Bullis is a private school for students in grades three through twelve in Potomac, Maryland. According to Lytle, the students in her class “faced the problem of trying to keep her students engaged as she walked them through the difficult mathematics curriculum. During her previous three years at the school, Roshan notes, students were routinely stupefied by the traditional classroom lecture and often left class with more questions than answers.”

    “They wanted so much more time in the classroom to work on problems,” Roshan says.

    Ms. Roshan decided to act on her own initiative and take her students’ lack of answers from her lectures into her own hands. She decided to upload her lectures onto iTunes using a program called Camtasia Studio, and assigned her lectures to her students for homework. “We’ve kind of reversed the whole dynamic of the class,” she continues to say. “Instead of lecturing in class, I lecture to them when they’re at home, and we work problems together [in the classroom]. I liken it to an English classroom where the kids go home and do the reading and then they come into class and have this lively, engaging discussion.”

    The result of Ms. Roshan’s initiative led to her students in the 2010-11 school year scoring a 4.11 average on the AP Calculus test. The rise in the score was compared to the 3.59 average among her students that took the test. They were taught in a traditional classroom setting the year before. A third of the class—a ten percent increase from the previous year—scored a five, the highest score a student can achieve on an AP test.

    With that being said, I personally think that Ms. Roshan took an intelligent approach in this regard. She observed and witnessed the needs of her students, and took account to the betterment of her students’ education. There were a minute number of teachers like that while I was transitioning through grade, middle, and high school. But the thing is, closer to the end of my high school career, more technology was being brought into the classrooms for the students behind my graduating class.

    According to an article by Drew Hendricks, a tech writer for the Huffington Post, “it’s easy for students to fall into a passive role. Even the best students who have a natural passion for learning can have trouble paying attention to a teacher’s lecture. But when technology is involved, students are more likely to be engaged in learning. Students need to press buttons, think out problems, and manipulate the tools they have to achieve a goal. Educational technology can improve focus among students and it caters to students who learn independently and to those who are more collaborative.” He goes on to say that “studies have found that a technology rich classroom is the perfect place for that level of specialized learning. When teachers and students are trained to use the technology, there are many tools to help track growth, give extra resources, and accelerate learning based on each student’s unique pace.”

    What I really like about what Mr. Hendricks’s article is the fact that every single word in his article is agreeable. I’ve witnessed first-hand what the effects of technology can offer for students. I’m definitely an independent learner, but having technology in my classes has caused me to become more engaged, because there were times that I would just ignore the teacher just because of boredom, or for the fact that what he/she were teaching was so uninteresting. That and I had a hard time focusing in class. There were also times where I would feel like I could not retain the information I was taught, but with technology available to the class, it just seemed like the information would click better.

    In response to Mr. Richtel’s article though, I honestly don’t believe the statement he said about students in lower-income families are hurt more academically by using computers for entertainment. I grew up in a low-income family. My mom basically raised three kids by herself without my father’s help, even though we were all living in the same house. We invested in a computer for the first time in September of 2001. I was seven then. Nine times out of ten, I would use that computer more for entertainment than I would for school work. The reason being our teachers would always just teach us everything in class and not give us homework except for spelling words. You don’t need a computer for that. Being on the computer is how I took my mind off of school, the bullies, the nasty lunches, and the gross and lazy janitors with poor work ethics. Even though I didn’t have that much technology growing up in school until I got into my latter years of high school, it’s definitely saved me from dropping out, because I could barely learn from the traditional school setting. In elementary and middle school, my grades weren’t horrible, they were slightly over average, and I had the potential to soar to greater heights. There were invitations for me to enroll into the gifted program called Quest, but I didn’t feel the need to go in because of my lack of teaching and knowledge retention.

    It was until high school where I started involving myself in class more. Statesboro High School received money from grants, and from generous donors from around Bulloch County that enabled us to get a brand new school with technology at almost every turn. We as the students were given access to laptops, smart boards, new projectors and many other glorious things. And it didn’t stop there. All of the schools around Bulloch County started receiving full-fledged, physical, and technological makeovers. Retention rates at the schools have dropped, and more and more students are graduating with honors from the high schools, all because of a little “technological innovation”.

    For my conclusion, I would like to leave you with a quote by author David Warlick. “We need technology in every classroom and in every student and teacher’s hand, because it is the pen and paper of our time, and it is the lens through which we experience much of our world.” Hopefully my statements and providing of information by professionals has offered some insight and enlightenment into the use of technology in a classroom setting.

    February 12, 2016

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