Engaging students in an age of distraction

Encourage your students to use their phones to lock into—rather than tune out—class
By: | February 7, 2020
(Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash)(Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash)
Brent Warner is a professor of English as a second language at Irvine Valley College in California. He is a UB Tech® featured speaker.

Brent Warner is a professor of English as a second language at Irvine Valley College in California. He is a UB Tech® featured speaker.

Educators across the globe have been dealing with digitally distracted students for years, vying for attention in competition with videos of sports highlights, cat memes, texts from new love interests, and more. Teachers and professors long for the days when they could reasonably expect students to stay still for one or two hours and listen to a lecture on the sociological effects of the industrial revolution, or how the stomach communicates with the brain.

But here’s the thing: Those days were never actually there. The students who are texting their friends, playing games and checking Instagram are just the modern versions of those who passed notes, doodled in their textbooks or simply spaced out.

Instead of lamenting the loss of students who never were, perhaps it’s time for educators to recognize that the impetus is on them to be more engaging, dynamic and effective in delivering content. This is not to imply that they need to be razzle-dazzle showpeople; they need to readjust their understanding of how to reach students.

One surefire approach is to stop treating the phone as the enemy, and to start treating it as the ally it was always meant to be in education. Following are a number of ways you can encourage your students to use the phone to lock into—rather than tune out—the class.

Lets play together

If we know anything about the human condition, it’s that we all love games, and most of us are spurred on by a little low-stakes, friendly competition. These days it’s easy to create a quick timed quiz, pitting students against one another using services like Kahoot and Quizizz. These quick and easy games capture students’ attention and give educators formative information on what students are and are not understanding, which will then help to shape upcoming lessons.

One surefire approach is to stop treating the phone as the enemy, and to start treating it as the ally it was always meant to be in education.

If you prefer a little more collaboration in your competition, try looking into Quizlet. Quizlet allows for game dynamics similar to those of Kahoot or Quizizz, but spreads the answers out across multiple phones, prompting students to discuss answers with one another before committing to any individual’s choice.

Collaboration nation

Moving away from the frantic pace of games and into the real future of education, all students will benefit from collaborating on creating, building and documenting their work together. The hands-down best way to get students working together is through Google Docs and Google Slides. These highly interactive tools allow students to watch what their classmates are doing in real time, and explain their thought process while they’re doing it. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching chemistry, algebra, composition or art; all students will benefit from a meta-analysis of their combined work as they build it. 


Read: How to design classrooms for virtual and augmented reality


On the educator’s side, we can pop into any student’s paper as they write, or take a look at the version history to see if the amount of work was relatively balanced among teammates. One great way to have students work with Google Docs and Slides is to start their projects in class, let them talk together through the early processes, and then transition into homework to complete their work. The collaboration and teamwork continues even as the students separate and go to their own homes, cafés and local libraries.

Ham it up

While one of the fastest-growing dream jobs may be to become a YouTuber, this may not be in reach for everyone. Still, today’s generation is more and more comfortable talking in front of a camera and sharing their thoughts with the world. Why not use that to your advantage? With apps like Flipgrid, students can display their social media savvy in a learning context. Each student can become an investigative reporter, a talking head or a coach with the studio they carry in their pocket. 

If you don’t know where to start when using Flipgrid, the online community of enthusiastic teachers is absolutely massive, and even the least creative teacher should have no problem finding ways to apply activities to their class. Jump on Twitter and search for #FlipgridFever for an endless supply of ideas.


Read: How to create learning spaces that will further engage students


What can be

Rather than focusing on our false visions of what used to be, we can do our students a world of good by appealing to the world they understand, and focusing on what can be. With an endless barrage of great new tools—almost all of which were designed by students who had a ho-hum school experience—we can capture students’ attention like never before. A little exploration and willingness to try new things can shift students out of distraction, and into interaction. 

For more information on tools like these, how to use them, and how they fit into the higher ed classroom, listen to Tim VanNorman and Brent Warner at thehigheredtechpodcast.com


Brent Warner is a professor of English as a second language at Irvine Valley College in California. He regularly presents on incorporating technology into the classroom. He is a UB Tech® featured speaker, co-presenting the keynote address on “Engaging Students in an Age of Distraction”  with Timothy VanNorman, instructional technologist at Irvine.


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