Digital Overload in the Classroom

imageWorking as a lecturer on a University in Amsterdam, I experience daily the big impact of digital devices on my students in the classroom. My lectures take around two hours and, when there is no break planned, the students will make a point to have a break halfway because they want to check their E-mail, WhatsApp and Facebook. When I don’t allow this the number of students who need to go to the toilet will increase significantly! In the meantime they will use every opportunity they get to check their devices. This problem is called Digital Overload or Digital Obesity and in this article I want to investigate what the impact is of this problem and if we can develop a strategy turning this problem into an opportunity!

According to me lecturing is about four phases: 1) Getting attention – from students, 2) Knowledge transfer – from teacher to student, 3) Understanding – by the student, 4) Applying – by the student.  It all starts with getting attention from students, without this my attempts to teach them something will never be very successful! The impact of digital devices on education has been growing last five years significantly because of the availability and price of digital smart devices. Next to the real world we now also have our own ‘Online’ virtual world available  which we can setup ourselves. As this a recent development we have not found a balance yet between these two worlds: this digital world is very attractive to students and it seems more fun…image

What is the impact on students?

The German Psychiater Prof. Manfred SpitzerIk wrote a book about Digital Dementia which contains some interesting scientific facts:

  • Children spend nowadays more time with their mobiles, tablets, computergames and television than being at school.
  • Using computers at early ages will lead to concentration problems and reading problems at a later age.
  • e-Learning behind a computer is not very succesful for all ages.
  • The more time you spend time with digital devices, the more difficult it is to concentrate on reading and understanding a long text on paper.
  • Even when a mobile device is not used and just laying on the table in front of you your performence to do an exercise will be lower
  • Spending much time before a screen until late in the evening causes sleep problems.
  • Digital social networks do not lead to better social contacts but more likely to social deprivation and isolation, solitude and being

This is not only a problem for children but also for adults. But, if you want to solve this problem, I think we should focus on children: during their formative and educational years digital overload has the most impact on their development.

How can we solve this?

We need an innovative strategy how to reduce digital overload based on the assumption that we can only solve the negative impact of excessive use by spending less time with digital devices during education and normalize the use. This strategy should not be based on fighting technology but by changing it in the direction we want.  The question we need to answer in my opinion is simple: how can we take care digital devices are supporting education and not decreasing attention in the classroom?

Evolve2Here my recommendations how to counter this problem:

1. Get to know how students use their devices and make use of IT.

Every time something new is invented people will start using it the most in the beginning, having a new device gives you status, by using it you want to show you are part of the new world this device belongs to. Probably we are now on top of the hype and the usage of digital devices will normalise in time just like it did when other new innovative new technology was introduced. To normalize the use you need to integrate the availability of these devices in the classroom into your teaching methodology. To do this effectively you first need to know how students use their devices, start using their Apps and use available tools on their devices for planning meetings, send reminders, communications etc. or even develop Apps for this purpose.

2. Be clear on your digital policy in the classroom.

DIscussions on this issue  with other teachers always concentrate on allowing students to use devices in the classroom or not. Some take a position in between and apply rules when and how these devices may be used in the classroom. When different teachers apply different policies it becomes confusing for students and gives a lot of discussions in the classroom. My advice would be to have clear guidelines in schools on the use of devices so everybody knows what the code of conduct is and why these rules are there. In daily life there are also conventions and students need to know what the do’s and don’ts are already at school.  So not only explain them how the SmartScreen and BlackBoard works but also how IT is used in the classroom and when your allowed to check your mail during the day and why this rule is justified.

3. Have a clear IT strategy in the schools curriculum.

As lecturer Information Management I learned that students know all about their laptop and smart phone but don’t have a clue what the IT basics are: they don’t make the connection. When I start explaining the difference between data and information they don’t understand what this has to do with their mobile device. There is a challenge here bringing the world of IT and digital devices together. Every school and University should have an integrated strategy with clear objectives how IT is incorporated in the schools curriculum. IT is not an area of study on his own but a lot of other items in the schools curriculum can only be understood when you know something about IT. It all starts with learning the basics of and later broadening the scope.

4. Invest in innovative IT tools supporting education.

MS Classroom

If you look at the  vision of IT firms on how they see the role of digital devices around us you can see what the industry thinks the role of IT will be in the future. See for example this commercial from Microsoft which gives their vision on the status of IT in 5 years: Microsofts Vision on IT in 2019 . In above picture from the video you see children communicating through a screen with a class on the other side of the world, in the classroom there are no tablets or laptops and still books being used. Schools and universities should set direction to IT innovations in the classroom and not wait until the industry comes up with a solution.

It would be interesting to get your feedback on this!

Addition: the same day this blog was published in the Dutch  Newspaper NRC: a scientific experiement has tested and proven that even when a mobile phone is on a table which is not online, people have less concentration than without one around!