Helping students stay focused while remote learning

A market analyst explains how technology used by college students learning remotely can be used to minimize distractions.
By: | November 4, 2020
Getty Images, Alistair Berg

Acclimating to the atypical routine in the wake of COVID-19, educational institutions have turned to remote learning practice to keep their academic schedules intact. Governments across the world are also working closely with schools and universities to ensure that education remains undisrupted.

Dhaval Kate, Future Market Insights

Dhaval Kate, Future Market Insights

Likewise, the availability of platforms such as Zoom and Edmodo, among others, has been bolstering students and teachers in adhering to their courses. With over 19.6 million students currently enrolled in universities in the U.S. alone, several universities are announcing their plans to shift towards online learning for the current and following academic years. As a result, the reliance on remote-learning has never been higher.

Challenge: Lack of focus

Students face certain practical hurdles that continue to highlight the gap between traditional classroom learning and novel remote-learning methodology. Although external issues such as limitations of technology can be resolved technically, subjective issues such as difficulty to focus on learning, are posing a bigger challenge.

Moreover, according to the Education Data Organization, four-year institutions witnessed a 6%-8% decline in enrollment for fall 2020 programs. The decline has been associated with factors such as insufficient collaborative learning, little to no access to professors and teaching assistants, and lack of effectiveness of online programs.

On the other hand, students who are currently enrolled in remote learning programs are not clear of challenges either. To assess the issues, Barnes & Noble Education conducted a survey in March 2020, with responses from 432 college students across the U.S.

The study found that nearly 64% of students were grappling with maintaining focus and discipline, with the lack of motivation being the major challenge while studying remotely. Although 60% of students were reported to be technically prepared for the paradigm shift towards online education, the remaining students had yet to adapt to the new normal.

On the whole, over 45% of students felt that their overall academic performance would be adversely impacted by the lack of attention. It is evident from the figures that issues pertaining to attention-span are overpowering external issues, necessitating education providers to come up with solutions to improve the focus of students.

Using tech to minimize distractions 

Considering how integral social media has become in the lives of millennials, the majority of students find relentless push notifications from social media accounts as the primary distraction. To curb these distractions, there are several helpful applications that educators must advise students to install. Two of the most prominent services are available in the form of Google Chrome extensions, named Stay Focusd and Strict Workflow.

Both these extensions limit unnecessary usage of web browsers by blocking websites that they deem unproductive, such as Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, among others. Since the aforementioned services are constrained to the Google Chrome browser, SelfControl serves the same purpose for Mac users, who rely on the Safari browser. SelfControl offers customization facilities to block websites for a period of time the student chooses to. Similarly, an app named Concentrate automatically blocks all the social media sites, closes email inboxes, and changes messenger status from ‘active’ to ‘away.’

By the same token, apps such as FocusWriter and Forest bolster students to focus on a single task by employing different approaches. FocusWriter hides every app present on the screen, including the taskbar and menu, allowing the students to focus on their tasks. The solution is particularly helpful when students have to work on writing activities, as the application leaves only a blank document on the screen to work on. Similarly, Forest uses an innovative approach to reduce mobile usage by simulating a virtual forest.

With the TimeOut app, students can set the screen to fade out after every one hour for 5 minutes, thus proffering the much-needed relaxation and comfort to their eyes.

While using the app, the student schedules a time period, in which he/she virtually plants a tree, which will grow during that time. If the student leaves the app or switches to another during this period, the tree dies, indicating that the student’s failure to stick to the task. Upon successful completion after a week, all the tasks, i.e. trees, flourish into a forest, symbolizing the list of tasks completed by the student.

Along similar lines, educators should equally emphasize the need for taking breaks at regular intervals to avoid stress—both mental and physical. On this premise, TimeOut enables students to set intervals for screen usage and automatically fades the screen to black during those intervals for a set time. For instance, students can set the screen to fade out after every one hour for 5 minutes, thus proffering the much-needed relaxation and comfort to their eyes.

Social interaction: Need of the hour 

In the Barnes & Noble Education survey, 55% of students stated that lack of social interaction akin to classroom learning is a cause of concern since it affects their academics as well. In 2019, Moravian College, a private liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, surveyed online students and concluded that more than 60% of students are interested in connecting with fellow students for educational and professional purposes. With many social media platforms and intra-college forums in place, interaction is easier than it ever was.

Likewise, several studies over the years have proven that peer learning is more effective and helpful in processing concepts and sharing knowledge as compared to the instructor-student hierarchy model. On these lines, numerous universities are resorting to a platform named Moodle to create student cafes that facilitate both informal and formal interactions. The intention behind setting up these platforms is to foster relationships among students and take the conversation beyond academics.

By the same token, services such as Edmodo, Classcraft and Popplet, among others enabled seamless interaction between students and teachers, replicating the classroom experience on an online forum. Edmodo is a communication portal that facilitates both group and one-on-one conversations. Similarly, Popplet enables students to easily compile projects—ranging from writing assignments to complex codes—and share them with their peers. Taking it a notch higher, IBM has ventured into the e-learning space by integrating the company’s artificial intelligence-based IBM Watson service. IBM’s e-learning technology and learning management system are equipped with the latest technological specifications, thus enriching learning and interactions.

The availability of useful tools and solutions that enable proper coordination among administrators, teachers, and students, is expected to mutually benefit students and education providers to achieve their goals amid times of unprecedented uncertainty.

Dhaval Kate heads the Technology domain at ESOMAR-certified market research and consulting firm Future Market Insights (FMI). The firm is headquartered in Dubai, with offices in the U.S., U.K., and India. The insights presented in this article are based on a report by FMI on Remote Learning Technology Spending Market.