Student Engagement and Digital Distraction

Today I browsed a fascinating report from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in the US, which reports on the results of a survey of more than 1,458,000 students at nearly 1,200 different four-year
colleges and universities on the issue of student engagement which aims to improve undergraduate education, inform state accountability and accreditation efforts, and facilitate national and sector benchmarking efforts, among others. Titled Experiences That Matter: Enhancing Student Learning and Success, the survey focuses on engagement of learners in the post-secondary (tertiary) sector in the US.

The report focuses on three themes; Enriching High-Impact Experiences, Factors That Support Student Success and Another Look at Gender. I found it interesting to read about what the report calls “Deep Approaches to Learning”, described below:

In contrast to surface-level learning, deep-level processing emphasizes both acquiring information and understanding the underlying meaning of the information. Deep approaches to learning are important because students who use these approaches tend to earn higher grades, and retain, integrate and transfer information at higher rates.

One of the strategies for achieving this that is discussed in the introduction by NSSE director George D. Kuh is the idea of “High Impact activities“, which he describes as…

High impact activities put students in circumstances that essentially demand they interact with faculty and peers about substantive matters.

Basically, what I took from my scan of the report is if you want engaged learners then provide them with meaningful learning activities that require them to be a participant in the learning activity, and in relating to and with other learners (as opposed to simply being a passive recipient of transmitted information). Nothing new here for those who have been following the developments in pedagogical practice over the past couple of decades – although seems there’s still a large gap between espoused theory and theory in practice in this regard from what the report suggests.

This is not to make light of the issue of engagement however. The findings of NZ’s own Council of Educational Research recently published the results of their longitudinal research project started in 1993 of a group of 500 students which provides some very useful insights into the sorts of factors that may act as indicators of student engagement through their learning life. Titled Growing Independence – A Summary of Key Findings from the Competent Learners at 14 Project, the report highlights in the section about student engagement in school and learning that engagement is as much to do with factors in school as it does with factors outside of school as revealed in the following findings:

  • Students at 14 who are engaged in school and learning are likely to be in positive learning environments where there is good feedback from teachers, relevant teaching, challenging work and a focus on learning at the students’ pace.
  • There are connections over time between what is happening at school and what is happening at home. For example, those who show signs of disengagement with school are also likely to experience family pressure, engage in risky behaviour, and not have interests that engage them outside of school.

Still on the topic of engagement, I was amused to read an article titled “Digital Distraction” by Terence Day which begins with the question Are laptop bans the answer to the misuse of computers in the classroom? Day discusses the issue reported in many US universites and colleges of tutors and professors banning laptops from classes because they distract students and prevent them from paying attention to what the teacher is saying. Thankfully he doesn’t end there – but goes on to look at the alternative, arguing that students need to be actively engaged in their learning. He quotes Teresa Dawson, director of the Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Victoria, who suggests faculty employ such active-learning approaches as shared exercises, problem-based learning and the new clicker technologies that allow simultaneous class response to questions.

Where have these people been? Come on now – we’re in the 21st century, it isn’t the technology’s fault that students are becoming disengaged (well, not entirely). Long before computers, engagement has always been about participation, collaboration, rich tasks, inquiry, authentic experiences etc – ask John Dewey! However, it isn’t simply a case of assuming that the use of technology will automatically lead to higher levels of engagement as Samuel Freedman’s article in the New York Times titled New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology (November 7, 2007) points out. Freedman reports on the concerns of a growing number of US college educators who see technology as a distraction in class, with students engaging in all sorts of off-task behaviours (sending personal messages etc) during class time. He does, in my view, pose a perspective worth pondering in terms of how this might be countered. It’s all too easy, as Freedman points out, to simply argue that this is a consequence of lessons being too boring. He writes…

“I’m so tired of that excuse,” said Professor Bugeja [director of the journalism school at Iowa State University], may he live a long and fruitful life. “The idea that subject matter is boring is truly relative. Boring as opposed to what? Buying shoes on eBay? The fact is, we’re not here to entertain. We’re here to stimulate the life of the mind.”

“Education requires contemplation,” he continued. “It requires critical thinking. What we may be doing now is training a generation of air-traffic controllers rather than scholars.”

Now there’s a perspective worth reflecting on!

2 thoughts on “Student Engagement and Digital Distraction

  1. I get quite annoyed with people assuming you are not engaged if you have your laptop open. I suppose it is another sign of the digital divide between those who get it and those who don’t (to put it bluntly). Most of the time during conference presentations I am exploring sideways during presentations. I am extending my conference experience. Otherwise, I may have already heard and understand the topic of discussion and am using my time in a more productive manner. Sitting passively is not conducive to learning. I argue that those who are engaged with the presenter and are exploring the points made are making connections to the learning and embedding the learning through their either sideways exploration or mindmapping of key points or live blogging or back channeling.

    But these are only the musings of someone who is sick of being told to shut the computer lid during meetings etc.

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