By Teresa Ober
Multi-tasking is the attempt to complete two or more tasks or activities at the same time. Multitasking can appear to result in either one or two outcomes: either the appearance of great productivity, or the consequences that would typically result from being absentminded. In general, when a behavior is learned to the point where it has become habitualized or automated, multi-tasking may be possible. However, when the behavior is not well learned, frequent mental set shifting such as that required when multi-tasking can make completing the task very difficult, especially tasks that are complex. If a task is complex, it is more likely to require a great deal of attention and mental resource, and therefore performing in a multitasking environment is going to be difficult. Even so, despite research findings suggesting that multi-tasking is difficult or inefficient, and potentially even dangerous in some contexts, we create for ourselves “multi-tasking environments” every time we open a cell phone, laptop, or another digital device while trying to complete another task. For example, when attending a class session or lecture.
According to a recent article published Psychological Science, non-academic use of computers during lecture is common among students who bring their laptops to class. The researchers inventively used a proxy server to log all students’ HTTP requests in an college-level introductory psychology course. Perhaps expectedly, the researchers also found non-academic use of computers during class was inversely related to academic performance (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2016). Research on media multitasking indicates that it creates cognitive challenges for adults, young adults as they cannot gauge the extent to which they switch between multiple forms of media that is present. A laboratory experiment recorded both younger and older individuals as they used a computer and television at the same time. Results showed that individuals were more likely to attend to the computer during media multitasking. The participants in this study also switched between media at very high rate, averaging more than 4 switches per min and 120 switches over the nearly 30-minute study. Interestingly, participants had little insight into their switching activity and recalled their switching behavior at an average of only 12 percent its actual rate. Younger adults in the study also switched more often than older individuals (Brasel & Gips, 2011).
Yet, research suggests that digital distractions are prevalent in the classroom (Froese, Carpenter, Inman, et al., 2012; Campbell, 2006; Wei, Wang, & Klausner, 2012), with even the mere presence of a cell phone (that is not even turned on) having been shown to reduce performance on tasks that require attention (Thornton, Faires, Robbins, & Rollins, 201). Is this a potential problem for our students? How can we strive to ensure that students are learning from and with their devices and not simply being distracted by them? Even though we might immediately recognize the danger in a driver picking up a mobile device while on the road, we are not so keen to see a problem with a student responding to a device during class.
Regardless of whether one recognizes the danger of a supposed “multi-tasking digital learning environment,” it is difficult or near impossible to deny the prevalence of personal mobile technologies within the classroom. In a 2013 survey conducted with 777 college students in the US, respondents answered a short 15-item online survey that asked questions about their classroom use of digital devices for non-instructional purposes (McCoy, 2013). Some of the responses from the students indicated that their instructors had been active in establishing policies to reduce the potential for distraction. Of those who responded, 70% expressed that their instructors had a policy in place regarding the use of digital devices in the classroom. And of those who responded, just over half expressed that there should be a classroom policy against digital distractions. When asked if digital devices should be banned in the classrooms, about 91%, however said “no.” McCoy (2016) later conducted a follow-up 2015 survey of American college students which included another 675 respondents in 26 states. The results of this follow-up study indicated that respondents spent an average of 20.9% of class time using a digital device for non-class purposes. In addition, for this second survey, the average respondent reportedly used a digital device slightly more often than those who reported it in 2013. These findings from a few years ago suggest that students acknowledge that their instructors may view their use of digital devices as a barrier to learning, and that they largely acknowledge their use in the classroom, and further, that as it trend, the usage may be continuing to increase in coming years. We may want to consider whether this also true of our own classrooms. In addition, the use of technology for non-instructional purposes may be viewed as a form of incivility. Not only is the use of computers a potential distraction to students, in turn affecting their learning, but it can also appear rude to instructors, thus affecting their teaching and attitudes towards students.
Brasel, S. A., & Gips, J. (2011). Media multitasking behavior: Concurrent television and computer usage. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14(9), 527-534.
Campbell, S. (2006). Perceptions of mobile phone in college classrooms: Ringing, cheating, and classroom policies. Communication Education, 55(3), 280-294.
Froese, A. D., Carpenter, C. N., Inman, D. A., Schooley, J. R., Barnes, R. B., Brecht, P. W., & Chacon, J. D. (2012). Effects of classroom cell phone use on expected and actual learning. College Student Journal, 46(2), 323-332.
McCoy, B. (2013). Digital distractions in the classroom: Student classroom use of digital devices for non-class related purposes. Faculty Publications, College of Journalism & Mass Communications, Paper 71. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/journalismfacpub/71 .
McCoy, B. (2016). Digital distractions in the classroom phase II: Student classroom use of digital devices for non-class related purposes. Journal of Media Education, 7(1), 5-32.
Ravizza, S. M., Uitvlugt, M. G., & Fenn, K. M. (2017). Logged In and Zoned Out: How Laptop Internet Use Relates to Classroom Learning. Psychological Science, 28(2), 1-10.
Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479-488.
Wei, F. F. & Wang, Y. K., & Klausner, M. (2012). Rethinking college students' self-regulation and sustained attention: Does text messaging during class influence cognitive learning?, Communication Education, 61(3), 185-204.