As a college student, I would bring my laptop to class to take notes on and, while I would occasionally browse news websites or read jokes online, I knew I couldn’t get away with many other extracurricular activities. After all, I was surrounded by other classmates focused on studying and the screen was large enough that a teacher could easily see what I was doing if I was distracted.
Twenty years later, every student has a cell phone and is paying more attention to the three-inch screen than the teacher in front of the classroom. Unless there is a strict policy forbidding cellphone usage, it is unlikely that students will self-monitor their behavior. They are checking instant messages, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, playing video games, taking calls from friends during class, and watching live basketball games on mute. They are easily distracted by the virtual world and it is a challenge to redirect their focus to learning.
So how can we encourage students to focus on the seemingly intangible benefits of knowledge, when a piece of hardware is more rewarding to the brain’s pleasure center in the short-term? How will learning about subtopics and categories in a classification essay help them succeed in life when the career world they will enter is populated by Google and Siri who can quickly give them the answers they need? Perhaps the answer lies in a hybrid of teacher-motivation and student-interaction.
This semester I taught Remedial Composition at Middle East University. My students are all bright, yet easily fall prey to the electronic distraction. Not being native speakers, they quickly revert to this common excuse: “Please, Miss, I need to look up the words,” but as I pass by their desk, I see an instant message app open to a current conversation or their attention riveted on maneuvering a virtual army truck around an obstacle. I soon realized I would need to find a way to connect the two worlds of distraction and knowledge.
One way is to have students work on assignments in class using their phones. When they need to write a thesis statement on different reasons for divorce, they can type it on their phone and then send it to the class’s WhatsApp group. I can quickly edit it and their peers can give an emoticon reaction. Reminders of upcoming tests and homework assignments can also be posted in the WhatsApp group. They can use their phones to look up definitions or images of unfamiliar words. Other ways to incorporate the smartphone include polls and discussion forums, or apps and digital flashcards to enhance the student experience.
While there is immeasurable value in putting away the smartphone and challenging the mind through in-class interaction, there is a place for electronics in the classroom. As teachers, we have to recognize that smartphones are here to stay. It is now our turn to be creative and find ways to integrate the distraction so it becomes a tool to enhance the student’s knowledge experience.