Digital Devices In The Classroom: Asset Or Distraction?

If you can’t beat them join them

by Michael Wade


The average student spends 20.9% of class time using a digital device for non-class purposes (McCoy, 2016). Digital devices (tablets, smartphones, laptops) tempt students to play computer games, text, e-mail, check social networking sites or surf the Internet during class. Students admitted this was a distraction that hurt their class performance but never the less checked their devices on average 11.43 times during class. The most common reason was their desire to be connected and not wanting to miss a message. A study of 91 schools in England showed test scores were 6.41% higher in schools that had banned cellphone use. The researchers concluded that mobile phones negatively impacted on productivity through distraction (Beland, 2015). Many teachers would like to confiscate students’ phones but a lot of schools have policies forbidding them from doing so.


Devices (tablets, smartphones, laptops) in the classroom can increase student engagement, make student-teacher communication easier, improve student collaboration and create active learning opportunities. If teachers use devices within the class this allows for just in time information so the teacher knows if a certain topic is causing problems. It also allows the teacher to have an easy way to track information throughout the year on students. The students can use different modalities of learning to cater to their particular learning style. It has huge advantages for assisting students with special needs and allows students to progress at their own pace as they can self-customize the learning experience.

Students’ perspective

The reasons students give for being distracted are: the instructor’s lecture is not engaging, the class size is large enough for me to remain anonymous, the instructor does not seem to care, the instructor is not likely to see what I am doing, the subject of the class is not challenging, the delivery method of the class is primarily lecture,  the subject of the class is boring, I see other students doing it, I do not like the subject of the class or I do not like the instructor. Students like to say that they are expert multitaskers and can use their devices for personal stuff and still learn the material in the lecture. However, evidence suggests otherwise. The literature finds that multitasking is detrimental to learning and task execution in experimental contexts. Many recent experimental papers present evidence that mobile phone use while executing another task decreases learning and task completion (Kraushaar, 2010).

Turn the distraction into an asset

Seventy-four percent of students feel they could get better grades if their professors used more tech in the classrooms. Make them use their devices to engage in the lecture. There are numerous tools or apps to do this. I use Kahoot, it is easy and the graphics are simple but large so the students in the back of the class can easily see it. Another option is to set up a Facebook group for the class. If they are using their digital devices for the class than they can’t be surfing or texting or less so depending on their multi-tasking ability. You do not have to replace traditional classrooms with technology, merely supplement them.

Helpful Resources

7 Ways to Deal With Digital Distractions in Class

The Pros and Cons of Technology in the Classroom

21 Distracting People You’ll Find in Every College Class

4 Benefits of Having Mobile Technology in the Classroom



Beland, L., & Murphy, R. (2015,). Ill communication: Technology, distraction & student performance. Labour Economics, doi:10.1016/j.labeco.2016.04.004

Kraushaar, J. M., & Novak, D. C. (2010). Examining the affects of student multitasking with  laptops during the lecture. Journal of Information Systems Education, 21(2), 241

McCoy, B. (2016). Digital distractions in the classroom phase 2: student classroom use of digital devices for non-class related purposes. Journal of Media Education 7(1), 5-32. doi: 10.1177/1461444814531692

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