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Distracting technologies

"Once you are at cruise, there's nothing to do. ... You're not allowed to read; you're not allowed to, as we've learned, use laptops. You're not allowed to listen to music. ... you're supposed to sit in the seat, stay awake, and pay attention." Northwest Airlines pilot Jack Neis quoted in Nov 1, 2009 Minneapolis Star Tribune article (Could also be said by most students taking a F2F classes.)

Whenever the topic of students using technology in school comes up, observations of how distracting technology can be almost always follow.

In response to a recent post, a number of readers suggested that the problem with access to YouTube by students is not inappropriate content, but that the resource is a distraction - like Facebook, game sites, and a host of other sites kids find a good deal more interesting than, say, the Crimean War or square roots or past participles.

The ability to distract has also put the use of laptops, netbooks, cell phones, PDAs, and iPod/mp3 players on the banned list in many schools. "Those dang kids are just listening to the filthy lyrics of rap music on their iPods instead of my lecture," pretty much summarizes the argument.

And you know what? I agree that technology can be a distraction - from my own experiences both as an instructor and as a student, as a meeting chair and as a meeting attendee.

I find it discouraging, to say the least, when a participant in one of my "enthralling" workshops starts texting or banging out something on the keyboard instead of hanging on each brilliant nugget of wisdom emanating from the front of the room. But then, I've found reading my RSS feeds more interesting than more than one keynote or meeting myself. (And I've felt like a dope when asked a question and it's obvious that I'd not been listening to the conversation.)

What, if anything, can be done about the distracting quality of technology?

The quick answer usually put forward by those not actually in the classroom or leading meetings is to simply offer a more engaging F2F experience. More discussion. More hands-on activities. Better slide shows. More relevant content. And I agree with this approach. Most of us can, indeed, create a more interactive learning experience. But this is something that is far easier espoused, than done.

Education, as we know it, still involves delivering content to some degree. Curricula still include topics that need to be mastered that rank pretty low on the relevance scale (and is all content relevant to all learners?) And quite frankly, lots of teachers have never experienced a high engagement classroom or workshop nor been taught how to conduct one.

Another easy answer is to simply "let the chips fall where they may." If kids (or meeting attendees) tune out to focus in on their Facebook page, well, let the natural consequences of such actions happen. And what might this tell us when students who listen with only one ear do better than those who give us our full attention. (Ever have kids who are absent from class a lot do better on tests than those who attended every class? I have.)

I don't have a good answer here. But I do know that trying to keep technologies out of the classroom and library is an unwinnable strategy. These devices are getting smaller, cheaper, more powerful and more an extension of our students' brains everyday. There is a steady movement to unblock the YouTubes and Facebooks and game sites in our libraries and labs. And it would be cruel and unusual punishment to sent many adults to meetings without their iPhones or Blackberries.

How do we deal with the distractive qualities of technology in schools?

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Reader Comments (20)


Most of the issue of "distracting technologies" deals with secondary students (not elementary). Probably not many K-5 students have the opportunity to be distracted by an iPod, cell phone, or laptop during class time. However, there is another way that elementary students are distracted by technology.

Part of my job also includes teaching some computer skills. I have learned, in my short little library career so far, to give most of my directions outside of the computer lab because they cannot hear most of what I say while sitting in front of the computer. Even when it's sleeping, or only on the desktop, it's so challenging for a 9-year-old to keep his hands off of the keyboard or mouse.

Your post also reminds me of the importance of technology as a tool for enhancing student learning. What I mean is that too often teachers use a piece of technology in their classroom for the sake of using technology instead of using it as a teaching tool. My philosophy is that technology should be used when there isn't a "F2F" that works as well. It's hard to replace a vibrant and engaging lesson presented by a teacher but still student-driven. Sorry - I rambled.

November 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Follmuth


While I personally prefer the "let chips fall where they may" philosophy, I do see problems with that and know that it can appear to be a survival of the fittest approach.

The closest thing I've seen to beginning to address the issue, is Howard Rheinghold's exploration of attention literacy. I think it's something we should be looking at sooner rather than later.

November 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

This seems to be a real issue threading it's way through our blogs lately. I saw Cathy Jo Nelson's post on filtering a week or so ago, and I just finished one recently as well about Facebook.

I love your point that "But I do know that trying to keep technologies out of the classroom and library is an unwinnable strategy. These devices are getting smaller, cheaper, more powerful and more an extension of our students' brains everyday."

Frankly, the approach that Chris Lehmann took at SLA when students were having issues with overusing "chat" functionalities and how the students were a part of the resolution of the process seems to be on the right track.

I think involving students in the process may be a key piece that we leave out, as we paternalistically make these decisions(yet all the while asking our students to be more collaborative in their own work.) And in fact, we rarely even involve our professionals( teachers) in making these decisions about filtering.

It seems all of this is bumping up against a paradigm shift of how schools 'could' be run. The only two schools I've seen that even come close to shifting this are SLA and High Tech High--though both very different schools.

Thanks for asking the important questions.

November 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Foote

Yes, technology can be (is?) a persistent classroom distraction, but how about when the teacher is the distraction and the students are immediately engaged in the technology we've just 'teased' them with? I've repeatedly had this interesting experience when I introduce the use of our district's wiki/blog server to creative writing classes.

Step by step the students follow my instructions on setting up their blogs using our district server. In 10 minutes they set up and create their blogs, and after that brief window of time it's clear they want me to quit my yapping so they can concentrate on . . . writing. There are always a few more details that I really think the students should know, but darn it, the students want peace and quiet so they can write ("damn kids, why can't they pay attention longer than 10 minutes . . . . ?).

I wasn't a sage on the stage . . . I wasn't a guide on the side . . . . I was an annoying teacher who was immediately disposable once they'd been introduced to the crumb of information they needed, to proceed to do what they were assigned to do. Contrast this experience with the old pen and paper journaling ("please teacher, keep talking so I don't have to write, cause I don't have a clue what to write about . . . .").

November 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Johnson

Hi there

First post from me, although I've been enjoying the blog since John Connell referenced it in his own technophile site.

I'm someone that thinks that better use of technology, as opposed to better technology, is the key to learning. I could go on all day about that. However, the reason why I'm writing now is to do with (1) airports and (2) distraction.

Some time ago I wrote an article while flying long-haul. I began it like this:

"Think about it. I arrived at a time decided by others rather than me. I had a list of prohibited articles that I could not take through the security cordon (the school gates). I ate at the same time as everyone else. I took my place at a pre-assigned seat where, unable to escape, I concentrated mostly on the sense of discomfort that the seat was giving me. Airplane seats seem to be designed solely around squeezing people in and keeping prices low. I find myself thinking that this is also true of the furniture we choose for schools."

Now, on the question of distraction. The article continues by asserting that it is medically certain that no child can sit on the plastic seats generally used in schools for more than 20 minutes without experiencing significant discomfort, You may be surpised to learn that, in most countries, teachers are banned by law from using these seats - they provide no lumbar support and would be deemed a health and safety risk. Children, however, are deemed to be 'visitors' to the school and are therefore allowed to spend 12-15,000 hours a year sitting on something designed only for short term and occasional use.

The distractive power of such furniture (ie ability to lead to disengagement from learning) is, in my view, far more powerful than the distractive power of technology or (let's face it) the distractive power of a bad teacher. More important, I think that it is so distracting that it can overwhelm the positive impact of good technology or a brilliant teacher. In fact, we did some tests on that while I was at the Design Council and found that poor furniture will lead to disengagement from any sat-down lesson within 15 minutes.

You can download the whole artlcle at

November 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSean McDougall

Mr. McDougall,

I like your "better use of technology" idea and the airplane metaphor.

I do, however, think students would only be sitting in plastic seats for 12-15,000 hours if they were in the same seat all of the six hour school day (no transitions, no lunch, no bathroom breaks, no specials, no switching classes, and no recess) and they went to school for about 2000 days in a row. Since students only go for about 180 days a year and don't spend more than half that actually sitting in the same seat, I doubt it's a serious problem.


November 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJim Randolph

In teaching technology skills with upper school students I say as little as possible, model, answer questions, and let them go. However I do not let them even open their laptops until I am ready to relinquish my part. If they are practicing something that I have to see a certain level of competence I am walking around and looking at their screens and asking them questions, if useful to them or to my assessing their understanding, making sure they are on task. I am a teacher, I don't belong sitting at my desk while my students are working on material that might be confusing, or might need to be re-directed and re-focused. There are times of every lesson that one can just insist on laptops being closed, items off desks, hands on desks.

When in a meeting it is just rude to be doing something "else" than attending or at least appearing to attend. The trick is when the resource is needed to take notes or check on calendar dates. Do we assume that when someone is on a keyboard they are doing something other than what is at hand? How sad. It seems clear to me that when you see someone reading from a handheld or screen, or if they are texting, they are clearly absent from what is at hand and ill mannered. If we do it to each other in meetings we are perpetuating that this level of social discourse is acceptable, or that, somehow, it doesn't apply to you--you have more important things to do. I am sorry but it is not so difficult to draw a line. If it is, then you have a problem bigger than the fact that you are bored by what you are being forced to listen to, or you are so in demand that you must be reached any second of the day. I do not believe that one of my staff members who refuse to come to a meeting because he or she couldn't have a Blackberry or iPhone at hand. That's just the rule.

Should the day come when we ourselves permanently wired, there will be other issues to ponder and wonder--privacy, and quiet?

November 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Fester

With regard to Jim Randolf's comment - you're quite right, children would have to spend 2000 days sitting on those cheap plastic seats. In fact, I misquoted myself: the article says "Between the age of five and sixteen, children will spend around 16,000 hours sat on a chair intended for short term occasional use." If we assume they are at school for 180 days a year, they will indeed use a plastic chair as their main seat on 2160 days between age 5 and 16. I apologise for the error and hope you will accept this as a correction of a mistake and not a challenge. I'm grateful for your response.

Furniture is increasingly being used for longer periods, not shorter. Even if we assume that a child spends no more than half their time in a classroom that still adds up to 8,000 hours on seats designed to help people meet once a week for up to an hour. I cannot emphasise enought that these seats were designed to be cheap and stackable. They offer no ergonomic benefit and are deemed too dangerous to be used as a teacher's main seat.

I'm going to post some figures on our own (seldom used) blog (search for Disadvantage and Design) but anyone wanting published information on the impact of school furniture on health should read 'Back Pain in children and young people' by Alan Gardner FRCS and Liz Kelly.

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSean McDougall

I understand the concern with technology becoming a distraction, but I feel that it is our responsibility to use technology as a distraction to our own benefit. Admittedly, I teach sixth graders and they are quick to get excited about the use of technology in the classroom, but I think that we can use online resources such as youtube and facebook-style sites to help renew student enthusiasm for our content.

I think that what Keith stated above illustrates the the tech-readiness of so many of our students. They speak the language of computing and are more likely to express themselves in the medium that they use day to day. I have students that say they need to "delete" something when they need to erase. It is our responsibility to find ways to incorporate their medium into our instruction.

Thanks for the post!

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Kahrimanis

I believe that technology can be distracting within a classroom setting if it is not used appropriately, and that this distraction will occur unless we actually teach students the appropriate behaviors, responses, and communication skills that we expect of them. Most students will rise to the occasion and will at least try to meet your expectations. Yet is it fair that we blame technology as the distraction when many of our students have not ever been taught to communicate with others? In this growing age of technology, I think that many students lack the communication and verbal expression skills that most members from earlier generations never had to be taught or even reminded once they reached adolescence. In our changing world, however, this is not the case.

Every school year, we have a class discussion about effective communication skills and the appropriate way to express ideas, alternate viewpoints, and to acknowledge others' opinions. Similarly, we discuss the many small ways that students can truly listen with their eyes and ears and show respect to their classmates, teacher, or presenter, as well as the ways that they may disrespect others. While my students apply these skills in class discussions, it seems that they often do not realize, remember, or understand that these communication skills apply to every area of life.

For instance, our school librarian recently introduced the new library server and database to students, which was expected to be a smooth and exciting process. Instead, I was literally shocked at the number of students who were distracted by the fact that they had a computer and webpage at their fingertips. While the librarian asked students to make eye contact and to listen before exploring the sites themselves, they were tapping away at the keyboard and turning their back away from her. In fact, it seemed as though they had no practice in communication skills at all.

This scenario, in combination with student's papers and homework assignments filled with acronyms (OMG, LOL) and misspelled words (wuz, b4, nite) where students apply their text message talk reinforce the fact that we need to spend quite a bit of time teaching students how to communicate and express their ideas and also how to show respect to those whom they are learning from or working alongside.

Is technology to blame for short attention spans, rude behaviors, and text talk? Yes and no. I think we, and the parents, have a large responsibility to teach students and children how technology can be used effectively, why it is a crucial aspect of our world, and how to use it responsibly.

In the library situation, the students needed to be reminded of appropriate behaviors and perhaps the librarian should have had everyone seated around a central table before asking students to explore the sites. However, if we use technology for a purpose and teach our students how to effectively communicate their ideas, technology will be another source of information, and a community wherein they can share their ideas and learn, rather than an outlet for misbehavior, harsh comments, and distraction.

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

With technology an ever-present companion of some of our students, I don't think it's a bad thing to deprive them of it at school. There will be many occasions where they do not have access to it and are supposed to "sit in the seat, stay awake, and pay attention". If we never require them to do that, how will they acquire the skills necessary to cope? There is life away from the screen. Teaching students to enjoy that is part of my mission.

November 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMs. Yingling

This is really good post and its really very interesting to read it.According to me its all depend on students with technology.I also agree that some times it becomes distraction.Thank you very much for giving such a good information to us.

November 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterginko   

Hi Robert,
Your comments make a lot of sense. The LWW who also is an elementary media specialists uses the teach BEFORE you get to a computer technique with her students as well.

I appreciate your last comment as well. If the technology doesn't help us do it better, why bother!

All the best,

Hi Dean,
I need to look at Rheingold's work. Thanks for the head's up.

All the best,

Hi Carolyn,
Thanks for bringing up such a sensible suggestion. We've included students on our district tech advisory committee for many years - more to our benefit than theirs. I've also found that when kids come up with their own rules for themselves, they tend to be tougher than I might be!

All the best,

Hi Keith,
Great point.  I find that many people - and most kids - prefer the "give me the task and get out of way" approach to lots of tech assignments. And so do most of the people who work in my department. Hell, so do I!

Thanks for the comment,

Hi Sean,
Good to have you with us! I am currently on hour 10 of a 14 flight from Atlanta to Dubai, so your post resonates! I do find drugs and booze make the seats a bit less uncomfortable, but I don't think that strategy would go over well for the kiddies.

I've been arguing for a long time now that our libraries should be built more along the lines of a modern day bookstore, complete with comfortable chairs and coffee shops. Extend this to the classroom?

Thanks for the comment,

Hi Kathy,
I'd disagree about adults using tech in meetings being rude. In many meetings I attend, not every topic on the agenda pertains to me and I figure I should use my time productively. But then, I may not always be the best judge of what I should be listening to either!

Thanks for the comments,

Hi Melissa and Nancy,
Thoughtful comments. Thank you.


Hi Ms Yingling,
I'd guess you've voiced the opinion of many, many teachers. Discipline is always a challenging thing to teach - regarding technology or not.


Hi Ginko,
You are most welcome. Thanks for the comment.

November 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

During the first month of implementation, teachers in our 1:1 laptop pilot asked if "distracting" programs like Google Earth, and Scratch could be removed from the student computers. So far, I'm ignoring the request, as I think ultimately:
a) Their classroom management strategies with the laptops will improve
b) Those 2 programs are exceptional learning tools
c) The kids will disruptively show the teachers how they can benefit learning.
We'll see what happens!

November 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Walker

Doug, I think this post by Bud Hunt and subsequent responses might be a step in the right direction toward dealing with the distractions.

November 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Walker

Thanks, Michael. Bud does have a great post and I am re-posting on the Blue Skunk. A great philosophy! I appreciate being pointed to it.

Good luck with your work in Edina. All of us in MN look to you folks as role models!

All the best,


November 11, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I am a freshman in a high school which offers a 1:1 laptop program. While it is very useful in implementing technology, it is also VERY distracting. We are given MacBooks, and each student decides to go on Photo Booth or iTunes instead of listening to the lecture, including me. The teachers are driven crazy, and at the end of the day, they are harrassed by administration for the lousy grades.

While it does create opportunities for today's technologically gifted generation, it also creates many problems for today's discipline lacking generation.

November 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkid point of view


I don't doubt a word you say. But what is the solution to this problem? Ban laptops? Discipline students? FIre teachers?

I'd be interested in what your say from a kid's POV!

Thanks for writing,


November 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

One practical solution is to give professor / instructor the ability to turn off the internet connection for the lecture hall / classroom when deemed necessary. If students are concerned that they would not be able to take notes using web-based tool /service, advise that hybrid technology has already existed / out there, that is, a web app can run either offline or online ...

Case of University using such a solution:
Bentley College
which can become logistically challenging but well worth the effort

Case of hybrid app, that solved the distraction problem: Knowledge NoteBook

Best regards,


February 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDon Don

Hi Don,

Seems pretty drastic to me. Perhaps we should also make sure the blinds are securely shut so nobody looks out the window, take away books, papers and pens, and make sure no girls have short skirts or boys wear muscle shirts!


February 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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