Cambridge Schools Conference delegates engaging in discussion on the conference app.

Digital distraction

A few years ago, I was at an event run by a UK training provider when I found myself reflecting on digital use around the room. Almost every delegate had one or two electronic devices (such as a laptop, phone or tablet), and they were busy using them whilst the speaker was talking.

Some delegates were using their devices to take notes and to follow up references from the speaker. However, a quick glance around the room suggested that most people were checking their emails. Just in the same way that we might complain that technology is distracting our students, technology is also distracting us. This raised a lot of questions for me. For one thing, if we genuinely believe as teachers that we can listen intently and check our emails at the same time, why do we stop our students from doing the same thing? Is multi-tasking of this kind possible, or are we demonstrating bad practice ourselves? Should we develop our own listening skills by putting devices away if we can’t use them properly? Were the delegates at that event missing out on key learning points because they were unable to put their mobile devices down?

These are interesting questions but the questions do not stop there. The particular talk I was attending did not invite audience participation. It was not delivered in an engaging manner and it repeated information that most delegates had heard several times before at previous events. The speaker did not choose tasks which promoted active thinking and learning, and did not consider the prior learning of the ‘students’. Had we not had our devices, we might not have looked so obviously distracted, but we may not have listened to any more of the presentation.

When the next speaker came to the stage, she could not have been more different. She was engaging, covered relevant and highly thought-provoking subject matter, and posed a lot of very interesting questions for consideration. The atmosphere in the room changed at once. All emails were put aside and the only use of technology I saw was frantic note-taking or live-tweeting in order not to miss a single word that was said. Our use of technology was meaningful. It added to our experiences because we had easy-to-read notes which we could store effectively and share easily with colleagues. In other words, a more engaging speaker or teacher will often encourage greater focus and a better use of technology.

However, great learning is about much more than being entertained. In 2015 I attended Cambridge Schools Conferences in Dubai and Cambridge. At these events technology was used to enhance learning in a forward-thinking way through use of the conference app. During the plenary sessions I took part in thought-provoking discussions with other delegates. The speakers were engaging and interesting, and we were not simply being entertained. Instead, we were thinking actively about what was being said and adding to a rich debate by making contributions to digital discussions. We were even ‘joined’ by a colleague back in the Cambridge office who was following our discussions through the app. When we broke into smaller groups we carried on using the app, sharing our findings with other groups, raising questions, debating the answers, and highlighting further reading. We were recording what we heard as well as thinking about how we applied what we heard to our own thinking and learning. Technology was being used in a powerful way to develop our learning. Even after the conference, delegates were using the app to share how they had applied some of what they’d learnt back in the classroom.

As teachers, we need to be aware that our students can be distracted by their electronic devices. We need to help them understand the importance of self-discipline, and we need to reflect on our own practice to see if we are challenging student thinking sufficiently in our lessons. However, I believe that we should also be thinking about how we can use technology in a meaningful and creative way. Technology does not have to be a threat to learning. As teachers, we want our students to think. We want them to ask questions about what they are learning, to consider how it connects to what they already know, and to think about what they will do with this new knowledge.

What are your experiences of using technology in the classroom? What effect has it had on your teaching and your students’ learning?

Image: Cambridge Schools Conference delegates engaging in discussion on the conference app.


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  1. I teach AS Level Design and Technology. My classroom is equipped with desktop computers, one for each student. Very often the students have their phone out. My class is very student centered. On Friday, the students were using Photoshop to crop scanned images of drawings they had been working on over the past week. As I circled around the room, answering questions and demonstrating (again) what they needed to do, I saw a student on his phone, texting. I asked him to put it away in his backpack. He did. A short while later, the phone was back out again. It is a never-ending battle with them. But of course, when I assign homework from the online course collateral, they can’t find it. It is very discouraging. A colleague is leaving our school to teach at a different school. At that school, the students are required to surrender their phones when they walk in the classrooms. I think that is a good policy. If the teacher needs them to have their own device for a particular lesson, he/she can let them keep their phone for that class. In the morning, I stow my phone in my desk. At lunch I check for any urgent phone calls or text messages, then put it back. I don’t look at it again until the end of my day. I feel students should offer the same courtesy.

  2. Technology is deeply addictive in our society, including for teachers. The main problem is it controls our minds.
    Now all the teachers are expected to teach using laptops,tablets or other mobile devices. In my view, traditional teaching methods are more effective when they are child centred.

  3. It’s great to see that the blog has sparked discussion, and thanks to you both, Andrea and Abdulla, for commenting.

    For me, the key is that digital technologies are a resource. School leaders and teachers will want to use their professional judgement to decide on the appropriate use of that resource in their context, just as they decide whether they will use a particular textbook, or teach a particular syllabus option.

    You are right, Abdulla, that at the heart of whatever we do will be the needs of the learners. Teachers and leaders will want to start with “what do my students need to learn? What’s the best way, in our context, for them to learn this?”. In some contexts, digital technologies will provide exactly the right tool to help with that learning, and in other contexts it won’t. (In the same way, a textbook or activity that might work brilliantly for my students, may not be the right one for yours, because your students and your context will be unique to you. It might not even work brilliantly for me with a different group of students, because the context might be completely different.)

  4. An interesting post Anna. I was recently introduced to the term ‘cognitive empathy’ by a dynamic Cambridge school head. In my view, managing one’s digital life in social situations including learning environments is also about cognitive empathy and respecting each other. If I were in the shoes of the teacher or the speaker or the trainer, how would I feel and respond if the audiences were fidgeting with their digital devices during the session?

  5. Good post! I read your blog often and you always post excellent content. I posted this article on Facebook and my followers like it. Thanks for writing this!

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