Digital technologies, especially smartphones, have become such an integral part of our lives that it is difficult to picture life without them. Today, people spend over three hours on their phones every day.
“While ever-smarter digital devices have made many aspects of our lives easier and more efficient, a growing body of evidence suggests that, by continuously distracting us, they are harming our ability to concentrate,” say researchers Dr Daniel le Roux and Mr Douglas Parry from the Cognition and Technology Research Group in the Department of Information Science at Stellenbosch University.
Le Roux heads the research group, while Parry is a doctoral candidate. Their work focuses on the impact of digital media, particularly phones, on students’ ability to concentrate in the classroom.
According to them, today’s students are digital natives — individuals born after 1980 — who have grown up surrounded by digital media and quickly adapted to this environment to such an extent that “they are constantly media-multitasking, that is, concurrently engaging with, and rapidly switching between, multiple media to stay connected, always updated and always stimulated.”
The researchers say it shouldn’t be surprising that university lecturers are encouraged to develop blended learning initiatives and bring tech — videos, podcasts, Facebook pages, etc. — into the classroom more and more to offer students the enhanced experiences enabled by digital media.
They warn, however, that an important effect of these initiatives has been to establish media use during university lectures as the norm.
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“Studies by ourselves and researchers across the world show that students constantly use their phones when they are in class.
“But here’s the kicker: if you think they are following the lecture slides or engaging in debates about the topic you are mistaken. In fact, this is hardly ever the case. When students use their phones during lectures they do it to communicate with friends, engage in social networks, watch YouTube videos or just browse around the web to follow their interests.”
The researchers say there are two primary reasons why this form of behavior is problematic from a cognitive control and learning perspective.
“The first is that when we engage in multitasking our performance on the primary task suffers. Making sense of lecture content is very difficult when you switch attention to your phone every five minutes. A strong body of evidence supports this, showing that media use during lectures is associated with lower academic performance.
“The second reason is that it harms students’ ability to concentrate on any particular thing for an extended period of time. They become accustomed to switching to alternative streams of stimuli at increasingly short intervals. The moment the lecture fails to engage or becomes difficult to follow, the phones come out.”
The researchers say awareness of this trend has prompted some lecturers, even at leading tech-oriented universities like MIT in the United States, to declare their lectures device-free in an attempt to cultivate engagement, attentiveness and, ultimately, critical thinking skills among their students.
“No one can deny that mobile computing devices make our lives easier and more fun in a myriad of ways. But, in the face of all the connectedness and entertainment they offer, we should be mindful of the costs.”
The researchers encourage educational policy makers and lecturers, in particular, to consider the implications of their decisions with a much deeper awareness of the dynamics between technology use and the cognitive functions which enable us to learn.