Computers multitask. TVs multitask. Phones multitask.
And of course, people do too, but not effectively.
According to research conducted in 2016 by Anastasia Kononova, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Michigan State University, most students, 79 percent of study participants, multitasked by switching attention with Facebook while studying. Even more, 81 percent of test subjects texted or messaged others while studying.
It turns out, multitasking is best saved for the computers, TVs and phones. Very rarely can people actually split their attention between multiple tasks, the findings show.
“More and more researchers in the area, when they talk about multitasking, they usually correct themselves,” Kononova said. “Because by multitasking, I might actually mean switching among different tasks.”
In the study, Kononova and her colleagues had some students open Facebook while reading an article. Another group of students read the article without Facebook. The second group, unsurprisingly, outperformed its multitasking counterparts.
In classrooms, this poses a problem for teachers and professors. While technology offers great educational potential, it can also distract from learning. Educators grapple with how to capitalize on the benefits and circumvent the cons, but the state has no protocol for doing so.
Technology multitasking in K-12
David Crim, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, said the state leaves technology decisions up to individual school districts. Even then, school districts often delegate the matter to individual schools, who in turn hand teachers the reins.
“Those teachers are the experts on the front line and know best,” Crim said, commenting that the MEA was content with teachers being left in control.
In middle schools and high schools, teachers often have direct oversight of students’ online actions. Firewalls can be installed to prevent access to certain websites, and teachers often deal with smaller class sizes–a priority of parents even at the expense of technological access, according to Crim.
Crim said phones were once a big issue, but through compromise, effective classroom policies have alleviated the problem.
“It’s interesting, because we are so tech-based, yet we have very, very strict policies when it comes to technology,” said Adam Hussain, a Lansing Waverly Middle School teacher. “And I think you kind of have to. It’s one of those things that the more you tolerate, the more you have to tolerate.”
Differences at colleges
At the university level, the same holds true. While some teachers prohibit or restrict laptop usage, others allow it freely. And when students are on their laptops, there’s a good chance that they’re not cramming marginalia into an e-book.
Kononova found that multitasking is endemic to university students. Alternating tabs and switching attention comes naturally, and some are more polychronic–prone to multitasking–than others.
When students used social technology more in their free time, they would multitask more when studying, the Kononova study showed.
In college settings, students are often placed in technology-rich classrooms or large lecture halls–both situations that can provide plenty opportunity for distraction. Additionally, wireless networks are largely unrestricted and students are expected to pay attention without any persuasion.
“If they’d rather just spend their time doing something completely unrelated, they’re the ones who are losing,” said Leticia Cherchiglia, a teaching assistant for a game design class at MSU. “In that case, we don’t really monitor people. We just let them do whatever they want to do. Like undergrads, they should be responsible for their time in the classroom.”
A Good Problem To Have
Cherchiglia teaches a class with a specific game design software, a course in which computers are indispensable. While it is possible for students to lose focus, the crux of their education comes on a computer, through an app.
The field of game design has grown recently at MSU, and developing technology allows students new windows to future careers.
While for some Michigan schools technology remains a problem, it is a luxury for others. Crim said before expurgating technology from classrooms, many Michigan schools would have to first acquire it.
He emphasized having technological capabilities opened new doorways for learning, especially when used in a guided manner.
“Kids this generation are very much used to looking at a computer screens for both entertainment and education,” Crim said. “It’s very familiar to them. When a kid is comfortable and familiar, they’re able to learn more. So the use of technology along with a qualified teacher can create a tremendous educational environment.”
Waverly Middle School has access to private laptops in nearly every classroom. While students can’t take a laptop home, the volume of technology is a point of pride for the school and its students.
Hussain and the school recognize the risks involved, but they seek to wed class learning with technology, leaning on apps such as Google Scholar and Google Slides to provide pupils with both computer literacy and expanded access to information. The computers can prevent random web surfing, as well.
“We know that too much of any one thing is a bad thing,” Hussain, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, said. “Number one, we know that kids learn in different ways. But number two, we don’t want to lose the interpersonal piece.”
Hopefulness and solutions
Despite her research, Kononova permits computer usage in her classroom. She, better than anybody, knows that newfangled pieces of technology can lead to a drift of focus, but yet, she lets laptops–and even phones–stay open in her classrooms.
“The first reason is that the younger students become, the more we can call them ‘digital natives,’” Kononova said. “More and more I find that students take notes on the computer. Sometimes they even take notes on the phone… Second of all, we are at the university level, and I always talk about my research in multitasking and I introduce them to that idea.”
And students listen.
“Now that I think about it, actually some students choose not to use computers, and it’s really interesting to me,” Kononova said. “I think this number might be increasing in the future.”
Kononova has even noticed students chiming in with relevant bits of information that they learn online while in class. If she cites a fact or a point of interest, students can go and check for more–curiosity that builds on the day’s lesson.
At Waverly Middle School, Hussain has his own approach to preventing distraction. He and Kononova follow stride-in-stride in thinking that teachers can play their part in captivating an a captive audience.
“We don’t teach from our desks. We don’t teach from in front of the room,” Hussain said, describing an approach that Kononova also practices.
Moreover, students with access to computers are still navigating the waters themselves. With the boundless power of the Internet comes some responsibility, too.
“If it’s a class that I know that I need to take a lot of notes, I prefer to do it by hand,” said Cherchiglia, also a PhD student in the Media and Information department. “For me, I usually remember things more when I do it by hand. However, if it’s just a class and it’s kind of like quick notes–or things are going to need links for example–then I’d rather type it out fast.”