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College students: we’re ‘digitally distracted’


Eight in 10 college students point to smartphones, tablets, and laptops as a near-constant distraction in the classroom and lecture hall.

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Nine in 10 students are opposed to policies barring mobile device use in the classroom.

Awareness of the various digital distractions pervasive throughout higher education hasn’t stopped college students from turning to their myriad devices, as the average student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UN-L) campus and five other schools admitted to using a tablet, laptop, or phone 11 times every day during class, according to a study released Oct. 23.

Barney McCoy, an associate professor of broadcasting at UN-L, conducted the study that likely confirmed what educators have long known: web-connected digital gadgets are pulling students’ attention away from lectures, and not just a few time a day.

McCoy said in a university statement that he didn’t realize how many students had their attention split between the lecture and digital distractions until he sat in the back of a classroom and saw students perusing social media sites while taking class notes.

The results of the study, he said, were hardly surprising, as mobile device usage is an ingrained part of most college students’ daily lives.

“I don’t think students necessarily think it’s problematic,” McCoy said. “They think it’s part of their lives. … It’s become automatic behavior on the part of so many people — they do it without even thinking about it.”

The study included responses from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in Nebraska, Morningside College in Iowa, the University of North Carolina, the University of Kansas, and the University of Mississippi.

Fifteen percent of student respondents said they used their mobile devices more than 30 times a day during class, for non-class related purposes.

The study also revealed a lack of wristwatches in the college crowd: 79 percent of students said they used their smart phone during class to check the time.

Students, while acknowledging that digital devices were a persistent distraction during class, were hardly advocates for policies that would hinder their use of tables and phones during lectures. Nine in 10 students said they would oppose mobile device bans in classrooms.

Some educators have looked to leverage digital distractions for learning purposes.

Ronald Yaros, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, is hoping he has found a way to keep students so engaged during a class period that they won’t have time for distraction – by using the very same mobile devices that could lead them astray.

Yaros calls his model a “MEEC,” or a manageable educational environment of collaboration.

Yaros’ MEEC is an app packed with content specific to his journalism course “Information 3.0.”

Throughout a 70-minute lecture, his 60 students are presented with a constant stream of relevant course material on the iPads that have been provided to them.

There’s nothing on their iPads that blocks students from jumping to another app to find distraction. They’re simply too busy to, Yaros said.