In the previous post, I shared our three day program we are presenting this week to our students in Digital Citizenship.   This post shares our Managing Digital Distraction session, which I developed with the close collaboration of our Tech Director, Andrei Henriksen, and the advice of a group of students we convened.

Our goals for this session have included:

  • providing our students more information about the problems and issues of digital distraction and problematic “multi-tasking;”
  • developing in our students more self-awareness and metacognition about their own issues of digital distraction;
  • asking them to get closer to the emotional experience of disrespect digital distraction causes;
  • and providing tools and techniques for better management of digital distraction.

Our session, which is fully laid out in the slides, opened with my explanation about the challenges all of us, adults and kids, are facing in this day and age of digital tools and distractions.   I also acknowledged the issues  around multi-tasking are complex and hotly debated in many circles, but that we believe students should work hard to be more informed about the costs of multi-tasking and tools/techniques to alleviate those costs and be effective learners.

We began with a five minute session intended to help students experience the feeling of the effect of digital distraction.  Working with a partner, we asked them to take turns trying to talk to someone and get their support about an upsetting situation (“I’m so mad at my parents; they don’t understand me”) while their partner focuses attention exclusively on a digital device, texting, for instance.    Students took to this immediately and were highly animated in this role playing, and then reported in full group discussion that it felt bad, it was hurtful, it was upsetting to be ignored.  I asked them to try to universalize: a core element of citizenship is respect for those around us, and we are not respecting our peers or our teachers if we are digitally distracting ourselves.

Next we asked students to complete a self assessment survey to students.   We did not ask students to put their names on these, nor did we collect them; they were not for us to find out where students are, nor was it intended to be highly scientific.   The survey was really instead a tool to provoke and induce greater self-reflection and self-awareness for each student about their digital experience.

Enter next to each question the number that corresponds with your self-evaluation: (5) Always (4) Often (3) Sometimes (2) Seldom (1) Never

  • How often do you tune out from a conversation to communicate with someone else digitally, either by answering email, a mobile phone, chatting via IM, tweeting, or updating your status on a social networking site(s)?
  • How often do you find it difficult to work on a single task for a long period of time without toggling between applications, windows, tabs, and other items on the computer?
  • How often do you text either while driving, in bed, or at the theater?
  • How often you typically have more than two simultaneously open items on your computer (applications, windows, documents, emails, browser tabs, etc.) while working on a single task?
  • How often do you have more than one digital device open or in use (such as a computer and a cell phone) while you are working on a single task, such as homework assignment at home?
  • During class, how often do you answer emails, chat (IM), update status on a social network, or send personal tweets?
  • How often do you find it difficult to ignore a new message in your inbox or on your cellphone, even if you are busy with something else?

Add the numbers.
If you score higher than 21, then electronic distractions may have significant negative impact
on quality of your school work and even your personal life and relationships.
You could benefit from pursuing tools and strategies to deal with digital distractions.

Following a short discussion of the survey and how to think about the results each student received, we moved on to the topic of multi-tasking.  I explained that the very term is confusing, because sometimes is it a good thing to multi-task: being able to walk and chew gum, or sing and and dance, at the same time, is a great talent or skill.   We want students to be effective and skillful multi-taskers, and we want them to manage multiple channels of information and communication, but we also want them to be able to recognize their own limitation and be better informed about the compelling research that says that partial attention means limited comprehension and learning, and frequently shifting tasks has its own sharp limitations, including a steep cognitive loss in the moments after shifting.

To investigate this further, we then showed seven minutes from a PBS Frontline video, Digital Nation, in which these very issues are discussed.

Now it was time for the introduction of two tools for focussing and analytics, RescueTime and Freedom.

We explained that RescueTime, which is entirely private to each individual user, with no ability whatsoever for the school to monitor (the company tracks only aggregate, not individual, data), can help students recognize and reflect on how they are using the internet and then can help them better manage their own use.  They can also use it, or Freedom,  to block out access to specificied sites, or the internet as a whole, for a designated length of time they choose.


We told students too that we will assist them in downloading, installing, and employing these tools next week in Math class.  I should add that these tools were specifically recommended to us by a St. Gregory sophomore student who reported he uses them effectively and values them greatly.

In our last section of our training, we asked students to pair or partner with one or two others, and using a notecard, identify and write one or two suggestions for peers on how better to manage the problem of digital distractions, and, secondly, for teachers, how classrooms can be managed differently to better reduce the problem of digital distraction.   After five minutes of student discussion and writing, we facilitated a thorough conversation asking students to share their suggestions and underscoring/elaborating upon /emphasizing particularly sound suggestion.

Below are some of the suggestions collected:

  • Students advising students on managing digital distractions:
  • Don’t take cellphones to class.
  • Just use notebooks and write your notes instead of typing them on laptops
  • Do your assignment and then take a break on your device and than go back to work.
  • Disconnect your wifi while you are working
  • If you are writing an essay, download Q10; it’s a free full-screen writing program.
  • Be respectful to others when they need your attention.
  • Try not to be tempted into opening tabs with websites; get work done first.
  • Make a goal and then tale a break: work for an hour and then go on facebook for 15 minutes.
  • Tell someone to hide your phone
  • Set a time limit for your distractions.
  • Decide what you want to get accomplished for short periods.
  • Take breaks every 40 minutes, play some b-ball, walk, so you can focus when do homework.
  • Close all windows that are not what you are working on.
  • No internet after 9pm.
Students advising teachers on reducing distractions in class:
  • Teachers should stand in the back to see what we are doing.
  • Try to keep the students occupied so they feel they don’t have to entertain themselves.
  • Don’t do a lot of activities on the computer, and if you do, have a time limit or a test/quiz coming up so it’ll motivate students to focus.
  • Get students moving around talking in real life.
  • Simply don’t allow kids to have their laptops out unless being used for a class activity.
  • Make kids use the Focus programs (RescueTime, Freedom), in class.
  • Teachers should walk around more checking the computers.
  • Put up mirrors in the back of the room so you can see what the students are looking at in class.
  • During discussion, require us to close laptops.
  • Do lectures where we need to take notes.
  • More games and entertainment in class.
  • Engage students better: the responsibility is yours as much as ours.
  • Teachers should maybe write something on the board to get students’ attention and notice who’s not focusing.
  • Do something that involves more than notes or research or change things frequently.
  • Teachers need to keep the students interested and keep them involved.
  • Have more interactive classes.