As Kristyn entered the classroom, the Wi-Fi network instantly detected her smartphone and welcomed her with a message through her contact lenses, “Don’t be distracted, you’re being watched.” The professor used a term she wasn’t familiar with, but as she opened a browser to Google it, the message appeared, “Be careful.” Five minutes later, Kristyn’s phone vibrated. Reflexively, she lifted it to see an incoming WhatsApp message and instantly regretted it. The electrical shock she received restored her attention to the lecture.
The stakes keep rising on both sides of the war on student distraction. Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook, Periscope, Pokémon Go, Twitter, and YikYak provide ever-increasing lures to snatch attention any time and any place, especially during school work. And then there’s the science of click-bait (you just won’t believe these mind-blowing clickbait headlines that will change your life. You’ll wish you never saw them.) Even the kids of South Park delved into the scourge of distraction, clickbait, and advertising posing as educational content.
Meanwhile, the anti-distraction forces have been far from complacent. Software and tools designed to protect the distractible fall into two camps: prevention and punishment. The prevention side draws from the classical example of Ulysses, who ordered his men to tie him securely to the mast of his ship to prevent him from succumbing to the song of the Sirens. SelfControl is an example of software that implements this sort of Ulysses pact by letting “you block your own access to distracting websites, your mail servers, or anything else on the Internet.” It is similar to draconian anti-gambling software that makes it completely impossible to access anything related to gambling from a PC. Less draconian is a browser extension that eliminates click bait headlines.
On the tracking and punishment side, FLIPD is a service that shuts down distractions and provides a report to the professor that lists “which students have chosen to unplug during your lecture, or when you may have lost others.” For this privilege, students are charged only $2.99 per year.
Extreme Networks customers who use ExtremeAnalytics software have the ability to see exactly what applications are being used on the network and what web sites are accessed. What network managers do with this information is up to their school’s policies. Lately, ExtremeAnalytics has been used to track and control Pokémon Go usage.
These are all extremely useful apps and tools, but to require students to implement them seems to be missing the point of education, especially higher education. Students will be completely on their own one day and need to learn to manage their time and attention in the real world of ever-increasing distractions. If they want or need these sorts of tools, that’s fine, but requiring their use isn’t likely to help the students after graduation. As a compromise, it might be interesting to use the tools with incoming freshman during their first semester to raise awareness of potential challenges, but then say, it’s up to you to decide how you want to handle your distractions.
Here’s more on the topic of student distraction: