Photo Credits: Nidhi Arun

Digital Distractions

The alarming picture of how our phones and computers affect us at university fits into a wider, national and international picture: the UK’s telecom regulator, Ofcom, revealed that we checked our phones on average every 12 minutes during waking hours, with 71% saying they never turn it off, and 40% checking their phones within 5 minutes of waking. The impact of technology has grown faster in our lifetimes than for previous generations, with constant new and better digital tools stepping in to fulfill desires over needs, inevitably affecting how we spend our study hours.

Photo Credits: Nidhi Arun & Diego Torres

Bath Time surveyed 100 students here at the University of Bath, and what we found confirmed complaints you have probably heard and voiced yourself: 92% said they had used social media in a lecture in the past two working days, while 67% either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel addicted to technology (phone, social media, Netflix…)”.

We also asked those with iPhones to give us their average daily screen time over the past week, and the outcome was serious: Bath Uni respondents spent an average of 3 hours and 50 minutes per day on their phone, the equivalent of over a day (27 hours) every week.

When quantified, our screen time might appear scary, but it is somewhat unsurprising considering how intertwined we are with student, academic and popular culture networks: we are connected in chats to our coursemates, flatmates, group project teams, committees, friends, teammates; we subscribe to Facebook pages and groups, like Memeversity and Secret Admirers, which entertain us and create a shared culture; we require our screens to take the bus, check our ever-changing timetables, pay our tuition fees, top-up the laundrette card. Going phoneless is practically impossible in this context as one of our editors discovered. As we investigate these issues, and the effects of technology on our learning, it is important to remember it serves a vital service to students with additional requirements and disability access plans, aiding their engagement with the curriculum.

Technology: the positive and negative effects on our minds.

So what do these distractions actually do to our heads? The psychological and health implications of constantly being distracted by readily available technology are probably under-studied in comparison to the widespread nature of the phenomenon, but some data is available: in 2005, before the smartphone, research from the London’s Institute of Psychiatry showed that subjects constantly distracted by emails and calls had an increased inability to focus and developed a drug-like grip to email checking.

More worryingly, 80 complementary studies showed a 10-point IQ drop between subjects hooked to email checking and others, which was double the effect of regular marijuana consumption.

Ex-Microsoft and Apple consultant Linda Stone framed this mental phenomenon as “continuous partial distraction”, a state in which we pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything. It is a permanently-on state that involves an “artificial sense of constant crisis”.

In this view, multi-tasking, something many claim to be skilled at in higher education, unfolds as a myth: the brain is not wired to do several things at once, rather jumping frantically from one point of focus to the other, with a consequently low concentration level.

While technologies such as the smartphone and social media are almost always discussed with much weariness when it comes to wellbeing, there is also evidence that smartphones have positive effects on mental health: “passive” use (scrolling mindlessly through an Instagram feed) has been shown to have a negative effect, but “active” use (communicating with friends and family) has demonstrated positive results. It is furthermore unquestionable that beyond digital distractions alone, smartphones provide new and invaluable tools. What then must we make of our attention-seeking technology?

The Smartphone: Friend or Foe of Academia

We spoke to Professor Richard Joiner from the Department of Psychology to explore his views on technology and learning. After we raised the question of whether to allow the use of handheld devices in lectures, he voiced strong enthusiasm for not ousting technology from teaching, but rather incorporating it. Indeed, he remarked that “we have a more powerful tool with more functionality than ever, and we’re telling students not to use it!” He highlighted the benefits of embracing our machines, pointing out that they provide a “less intimidating way to contribute to discussions” and a way for lecturers to “respond to questions as soon as they come up.”

Joiner went on to note what may be a truth hiding in plain sight: “lectures are a rubbish way to learn! They’re old fashioned and we cannot expect students to sit and absorb everything they’re being told at an extremely fast pace”. His argument was that mobiles can make lectures “far more interactive and effective”.

However, with numerous social platforms at our fingertips, even using phones for lecture participation could hinder engagement, notably if notifications are constantly flashing up on our screens.

Professor Joiner said the problem was that “phones allow you to switch contexts really easily” and he highlighted an academic article which proposed that ‘people often engage in multitasking because they are unable to block our distractions and focus on a singular task’, relating to Linda Stone’s “continuous partial distraction” concept.

Meet the Lecturer Who Replaced Machines With Mindfulness

Interview by Magdalena Rojas

See the source image
cc: University of Bath

We sat down with Dr Susan Johnson, who has introduced a “bring your minds not your machines” policy along with mindfulness exercises in some of her units. She is a strong proponent of meditation, a practice which she says has greatly benefited her at a time when digital distractions increase. Could this policy serve as an answer to digital distractions at university?

What made you decide to implement the “bring your minds not your machines” policy and offer mindfulness exercises in some of your lectures?

Dr Susan Johnson: I first introduced it in a second year Social Science of Climate Change unit three years ago. It covers an emotional topic  which affects people and I particularly felt the need to create some boundaries around the classroom, an environment where we could all engage with each other in a supportive way. It went well, students seemed to appreciate it!

This year I moved a little bit further and decided to add mindfulness. It was partly due to a concern for the increasing mental health problems that we are hearing about in universities, and also a desire to give students the opportunity to have a couple hours when they do not feel the need to check their screens.

How do students generally respond to the no-machine policy?

Dr Susan Johnson: In the Social Science of Climate Change unit, I would say everybody was okay with it. Some really appreciated it and there was probably just one person in the feedback saying they didn’t like it because it meant they had to write out their notes again. I took it as strong evidence that there was a need for this approach.

It was in this unit I spoke to some students which made me realise how impulsive the behaviour around technology is. I remember a student telling me that if her neighbour reached for their phone, she would almost automatically do the same. And it wasn’t because she was expecting a message, it was simply a peer induced effect. The evidence for the fact students distract other students is there: it seems to me that it is a challenge to us as staff to create an environment where students  – in particular those with learning difficulties, high stress or anxiety – can have an opportunity to concentrate.

According to our survey 56% of students said they had used their phone in a seminar or tutorial for learning purposes. Do you acknowledge that phones can have learning benefits?

Dr Susan Johnson: I know students may be taking notes, looking at slides, using Moodle: all these are possible, but I wonder if what they often mean by learning benefits is that there is a lot of googling of questions. I would like those questions to be brought into the room, rather than into Google. This has the advantages of giving me feedback and creating a learning community.

We have to share what we know, and what we don’t know and a question from one student is probably shared by another. Readily available technology can disrupt the circular flow of information, by preventing us from having a dialogue. As much as you may think that we stand there to preach we actually don’t, we want feedback, to know where the students are at and how they are engaging with it.

In a sense, I think Google and the internet has also increased the sense of vulnerability of students. They think “I can look it up on Google, I should know it” rather than just asking and sharing in front of others that they don’t follow or understand some terminology or an argument.

What is the role of practises like meditation and mindfulness in the academic life of students?

Dr Susan Johnson: Mindfulness is about being aware of what is going on for you at this moment, internally and externally, bringing your attention to the present moment continuously. Our minds naturally drift away, and we have to keep bringing them back to what we want them to focus on.  Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, in an age where these have gone through the roof.

My understanding is that the digital world is part of this growing problem. People are always concerned about what is going on somewhere else rather than being in the present moment where they actually are. The only place you can live your life is where you are now.

The first purpose of mindfulness is cultivating calm, and the second is insight. First, you create calm to decompress the nervous system, and then by noticing what your mind is doing you can gain insight into how it operates. So in lectures I explain that eliminating machines helps eliminate distractors, then a couple of minutes of mindfulness is intended to create calm and bring everyone’s focus into the room.

The full version of this interview is available on our website.

What Tutors & Seminar Leaders Thought.

If you hide behind rows of fellow students in a large lecture theatre, then constant delving into social media can easily go unnoticed. But what about the more intimate environments such as seminars and tutorials? We decided to speak with a range of tutors to get their views on tutees phasing out of lessons.

When it came to their emotional reactions, some tutors expressed frustration at students turning all their attention to devices. One tutor told us that, “on several occasions, a student has been on their phone, handed in their work and made a mistake that I directly warned them against” and another emphasised how “tutors put a lot of time into their tutorials so it’s frustrating when [they’re] ignored.” More generally they commented that “it’s just common courtesy to not use your phone while someone is talking to you”. Building on manners, Professor Richard Joiner also said that “you wouldn’t sit in a lecture reading the newspaper, that would just be plain rude”.

Perhaps students feel less guilt for ignoring lecturers if it isn’t explicitly obvious they’re doing this. Either way, Joiner told us that “some lecturers have reversed the cameras in theatres to know exactly what’s happening on people’s screens.”

Some tutors further took mobile distractions to be an indicator of the teaching quality, saying that students picking up phones was a “sign that they need to make the tutorials more interactive” or “a reason to reflect and make teaching more engaging”. It’s hard to judge whether this is an effective measure of quality, or whether it is unreasonable for tutors to be in constant battle for students’ attention.

The tutors unanimously agreed that mobiles should not be banned from tutorials since they could be useful for accessing Moodle or checking definitions without “disrupting the flow of the lesson.” Interestingly, one highlighted how students “may have important issues to deal with so they have to pay attention to their phone, despite wanting to come to the tutorial. In a case like that, banning phones would mean they’d have to choose between the two when in fact they could have both.”

Digital devices are almost unavoidable therefore, but the same cannot be said for the distraction they cause. Whether it’s to improve concentration, understanding of lecture content or simply to abide by basic rules of politeness, it would seem beneficial for everyone to put away their phones more frequently. The example of Dr Susan Johnson introducing mindfulness in lectures also shows that practises have been shown to help manage the digitalising world. There is no obvious answer for how to best moderate their usage, and indeed the evolution of learning tends towards embracing technology; however, the key takeaway could be to simply think about why we pick up our screen, and which of its uses truly serve a purpose to our wellbeing and productivity.

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