Using technology to distract students from distraction

To give a student an iPad is to place him in front of a bay window open to an endless sea of distraction.

Yaros’ course uses an iPad app loaded with a constant stream of course material to keep students engaged.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, eMail, cat GIFs – with a mobile device and a WiFi connection, students have plenty of things to pay attention to instead of the lecture in front of them.

But 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.

Its similarity to the term MOOC is intentional; he’s trying to get the attention of educators who want to use media and technology to improve learning in their courses, but aren’t quite sold on some of the more publicized methods out there.

“MEECs are a large multifaceted approach to a collaborative environment,” Yaros said. “You must have a set of elements that engage students for an entire class, so there is no deviation whatsoever.”

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.

See Page 2 for details on how, for Yaros’ experiment, timing is everything. Take our poll about mobile device distractions on Page 3.

The lecture may begin with a poll. Next, they could be told to consult their peer’s blog posts written from the previous class. Halfway through the course, they must take a quiz. After that, they all watch a video. A review and class discussion of some relevant tweets follow.

Suddenly, class is done for the day. The pace may seem breathless, but the point, Yaros said, is to keep students engaged and free of distraction for the entirety of the lecture.

“The interactivity is a little overwhelming the first week for students,” Yaros said. “And some of them have to adjust. Some of them don’t like it. Some look up at the end of the period and can’t believe it’s a 70-minute class.”

The course is part of Maryland’s I-Series, a collection of courses more experimental in nature that attempt to challenge students in unconventional ways. In “Information 3.0,” the challenge can be just to keep up, but Yaros said his experiment is working.

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.

Whether the initiative is based on BYOD (bring your own device) or 1:1 Learning (in which every student is paired with a device by an institution), the use of mobile devices in a classroom setting has been a contentious issue in recent years.

Distraction has been a worry for educators, of course, but there’s more to it than that.

“They’re not all used to it,” said Susan Einhorn, executive director of the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation. “They’ve been perfecting their art, and on a certain path and trajectory for so long. This is a very different change in what they’re using. But it also provides a whole new host of opportunities.”

Effectively using devices in the classroom, Einhorn said, is not simply providing existing class material on a digital device. Just moving a PowerPoint presentation from a projector screen onto an iPad will not do the trick.

It requires a bigger change than that, in both content and attitudes. “Real transformation happens when you really shift to more active learning,” Einhorn said.

Yaros said he has been working on finding the right ways to shift his lectures in that direction for three years. As he implements his MEEC this semester, he is continuing to research both what material students best respond to and at what point to introduce that element during a class period.

It’s why he saves his quizzes or a video for the middle of the lecture, rather than starting the class “with a bang, then sliding in to PowerPoint” or letting students zone out until the end.

“It’s thinking every 10 minutes about what you are doing,” Yaros said. “What could you be doing to maximize how people psychologically engage with information? In my opinion, if you don’t do that, these devices, they are a distraction.”

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Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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