New technologies – Tools of learning or distraction?

Digital technology provides both an innovative and interactive means for higher education. But placed in students' hands, laptops, cell phones and tablets can also be tools of distraction that potentially hinder learning, a new study has uncovered.

Research conducted jointly by Hippolyte Muyingi of the Polytechnic of Namibia, Ravi Nath and LC Chen of Nebraska's Creighton University, and Dr Jude Lubega of Uganda's Makerere University, showed that introducing a blanket ban on digital technology in the classroom was neither advisable nor practical.

However, there was an urgent need to develop and implement policies for using digital devices in the classroom, the study found.

Lecturers had to identify factors influencing classroom behaviour relating to digital technology and develop strategies to curb those that were counter-productive, it was argued.

Teaching methods could constantly keep students engaged during lectures, but professional classroom management required an adhered-to code of conduct. Courses and curricula could be modified to integrate digital technologies and thus enhance the learning experience.

The study

Muyingi presented the study, which considered in-class digital distractions among university students in Namibia and Uganda, during the recent 7th Annual Teaching and Learning Higher Education Conference, held in Durban.

Survey data were collected from 213 Namibian and 200 Ugandan university students, and present a comparative analysis of digital use and user behaviour in these higher education settings.

Muyingi said digital technology offered a host of advantages, including the ability to engage with students, facilitate faculty-student interactions and create active learning opportunities.

However, critics argued that there were no objective measures for learning and that digital technology promoted cognitive overload and attention distraction. This created problems for lecturers, who found it increasingly difficult to compete with the colourful and entertaining content available via digital technologies and the internet.

The question arose whether universities should block digital technology access or push to embrace information technology in teaching and learning.

Muyingi said the ongoing research wanted to determine the extent to which digital technology distraction was prevalent among students; identify the factors and variables significantly associated with behaviour; and provide recommendations for educators and managers to reduce and-or mitigate distraction.

Individual factors that were considered include the subject matter being taught; peer behaviour; lecturer attitude and style; gender; age; and year of study.

The research asked respondents questions along the lines of whether they preferred the excitement of the internet to intimacy with friends and family. Did they find themselves anticipating when next they would go online? And when online, did they find themselves saying "just a few more minutes"?

The results

The research findings included that 27.5% of Namibian students under the age of 20 were distracted by digital technology during class. This rose to 29.9% among students aged between 20 and 22 years, and dropped to 16.7% in the 22- to 25-year age bracket.

The problem was more prevalent among male students, who also struggled with time management issues. Students engaged in activities during lectures ranging from texting, web browsing, emailing, online gaming and online shopping, among many other activities.

In decreasing order, students surfed the web, checked social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, checked or wrote emails, and played computer or cell phone games.

Namibian students stated that their primary reason for being distracted in class was that computers and mobile phones were allowed in lectures. Ugandan students stated that their distraction was due to the lecture not being engaging.

Other reasons that were cited included that the class size was sufficiently large to get away with the activity; the subject matter was not challenging; other students were doing it; and the class delivery method was predominantly in lecture format.