I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to work with a wide range of institutions amid the shift to online learning, most recently by supporting academics who have had some experience of online teaching as a result of the pandemic.
Across a few of these conversations, the same question has arisen: “How can we stop students from being distracted and multi-tasking while in live sessions (Zoom calls)?”
I’m paraphrasing but by multi-tasking, I mean looking at their phones.
It’s a good question. At its heart it is about engaging with students and ensuring that they are gaining the most from their online education experience, and I suppose it is also a little bit about academics concern that students are not listening to them.
When I was asked, I provided some suggestions, which I’ve added to since, and you can find them later in this blog. Just before that, I’d like to share some reflections on the challenge of this task.
The scale of the task
Reflecting on this question a while afterward, I was struck by just how difficult the task of reducing distractions and multi-tasking is. Those who asked usually confessed to being serial Zoom call multi-taskers and I think that’s ok. I am too.
In the world of work, paying attention to a Zoom meeting while quickly responding to Microsoft Teams, Slack, email or filling out your timecard sounds like great productivity. However, when Zoom calls are used to replicate the on-campus teaching experience, the expectation is that students will be just as attentive as when in class.
It got me thinking about the times in my day where my attention was completely undivided, and I wasn’t multi-tasking and it made for some sad reflection. Playing with my son, cooking and sleeping were the things that sprung to mind although there may well be more.
But for quite a lot of the activities I complete in a day, I found that I could be multi-tasking, distracted (mostly by my phone) or be very near the point of distraction.
Reassuringly, I think this is common, even encouraged, by the tools that help us do multiple things at once; the addictive nature of phones, the difficulty of separating work/home life now and an ‘always on’ culture.
Some people are even incapable of driving without being distracted by their phones and others are designing and building driverless cars to help free us so we can focus entirely on our phones. OK, well that’s not really why they’re doing it.
Little wonder then, that in their own space, surrounded by distractions and little oversight, students studying online find it hard not to be distracted. After all, even when doing the things I was choosing to do for enjoyment, I still found myself being distracted by other things.
What chance do academics have?!
Well, some chance, possibly. Distraction in educational settings is not new after all. I dare say that students have sneaked a peek at their phones when in front of academics in the lecture theatre. There may well be times when students appear to be staring, intently listening, but actually thinking about what they are having for dinner or what phone they are going to upgrade to.
So how can academics encourage students to shun the phone and other distractions and take part in classes with their full attention. Read on.
Suggestions for reducing distraction
If you’re an academic facing the problem of distracted students, here’s a few ideas for minimising them in your online sessions.
- Make sessions as active as possible. If students are engaged in a task, especially when in groups, they are less likely to be looking elsewhere and more likely to be trying to support the group effort.
- Turn webcams on. Your webcam should always be on to model good behaviour and help build connection and presence. Encouraging students to have their webcams on will at least make them think they’re being seen, even if they can still look at their phone out of shot.
- Break up the session with simple interactivity such as voting, answering questions, polling or even just simple nodding and shaking of the head on camera if you are not very tech savvy.
- Politely ask students to move their phones and other devices away from them and close unnecessary tabs. Have a brief distraction amnesty encouraging everyone to do the same at the same time. Encourage them to make a show of turning them off or putting them in a draw.
- Start the session with a mindfulness exercise to focus students on the present and the purpose of the session. Guiding the students to clear their minds of their thought distractions is just as important as physical ones.
You could also be mean and spot test students, picking names at random to answer questions, to make them pay attention always. However, unless your sessions are mandatory, this is a quick and easy way of reducing attendance.
Without the social facilitation of others, the visceral experience of the campus or the support that the right environment gives for academic focus, academics will have to work a little harder to fight for their student’s attention.
What do you think?
This is just my view and you may agree, disagree or have some great ideas about how else this problem could be solved.
What ever your thoughts, we’d love to hear them. You can get involved in the discussion by joining us in our HE Innovate community: an online community where like-minded people discuss the issues and challenges facing the HE sector.
Written by John Roberts, Online Learning Consultant, Pearson UK.