Are Mobile Devices Distracting? Of Course!

CC by 2.0 - AFS-USA Intercultural Programs
CC by 2.0 – AFS-USA Intercultural Programs

As is common for someone as interested in social media and education as I am, I regularly come across articles and studies such as the one referenced in this article on CNN. And the first thing that comes to mind is:

Well, DUH!

Because these results are not surprising at all! I do not disagree, nor would I suggest that the study is inaccurate. I’m sure that the results they experienced are very valid in respect to what they were testing for. However, in my mind, there is a huge point being missed here. And to me, it’s painfully obvious.

Yes, phones and mobile devices can be a distraction. It is not surprising that if we ban them, traditional testing results will improve. But that’s also the problem. We keep measuring the disruption of mobile devices against a well-established, yet dated paradigm. We are taking a new technology, and superimposing its influence on a system that is otherwise long in the tooth.

Murphy and Beland said their study doesn’t mean phones and other technology can’t be used to boost learning.

In my view, comparing a new technology to ‘the way we have always done things’ is terribly myopic. I can imagine that when moving pictures were invented, they were seen as a foolish distraction from the enjoyment of live theatre. The invention of the printing press was heralded as a foolhardy waste of time, folly that would take away from the skill and craft of hand-lettered books. In this light, perhaps we should be more visionary in our thinking around connectivity and testing. Here’s a common question I hear from many of my forward thinking contemporaries in the field of education:

“If a test answer can be found on the internet, is it worth having on an exam in the first place?”

We live in a connected era. Not soon, but RIGHT NOW. In many countries, students are coming to class with a whole world of information that can be accessed through a device in their pockets. Their social network is on there. Their entertainment is on there, in the form of games and videos. And it’s very possible to have their educational tools on there. It is an always-on, instant connection to a literal world of information. So why are we still doing studies that are measured by traditional test results? Is this study suggesting that the THE WORLD IS A DISTRACTION? Do we really want to force our children to focus on boring and outdated models of memorization and regurgitation?

Now before you go thinking I’ve got pedagogical blinders on, I will admit that I do believe that there is still a place for dedicated, concentrated study. Particularly as they mature, students need to be taught how to deal with the issue of digital distraction. They need to be taught effective models of digital citizenship, so that they are able to discern for themselves how to integrate connectivity into their lives, and most importantly, when. Let’s move forward with technology, not bury it. Let’s instil a new work ethic in ourselves, one where we not only have a connected device in our pockets, but that we know how pedagogically valuable it can really be! We don’t have to send students down to the library anymore to access a massive tome called an encyclopedia.

Why are we banning one of the most exciting advances in the history of education? I don’t know. But the sooner we all realize this, the sooner we can collectively create some really exciting models for learning!

Original CNN article here:

Original Study found here:

Autonomy Vital for using Social Media in Education

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is third in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


5 – Autonomy

The fifth topic that came to light when assessing the educational opportunities of social media is that of autonomy. The ability (and in the case of adult learners, the desire) of the modern student to feel empowered and take control of their own education. And for the teacher/facilitator trying to create a constructive educational environment, this is certainly key. I have listed it last because it is not only important while working with learners, but that it also is an important goal for leaving the student with tools for seeking out further education long after they have left the classroom.

When using or adapting social media to an educational purpose, keep in mind that social media is all about giving the learner control. They are granted the autonomy to decide how to get themselves invested in a task (engagement), how to choose the social media tools to use (interactivity), proceed to build a response to the challenge (creativity), and how to judge for themselves whether they have learned what they need in order to feel successful (self-mediation). All of these previous topics I have presented now come together, and are drawn into a cohesive whole by the learner, when we give them their own autonomy. As a teacher myself, I have seen that when I do not give enough autonomy in the classroom, the students will take it anyways, resulting in a class that seems at odds, or even ‘out of control’.

While there is a definite benefit to granting the learner autonomy, the challenges can be difficult. It is often assumed, particularly in the case of millennial learners, that the student is well versed in the use of social media, and have innate skills in its use. This is not always true. While there is often talk of the ‘digital native’, it should be seen as a social distinction, not one of skill. Students of all ages will still need direction and guidance as to how to use social media effectively. Privacy is also a very real concern that students voice when asked to engage educationally with social media. Students value their privacy, and while they welcome educators connecting and working with social media, they can also be deterred from using social media if they feel that they are unable to keep a separation between their existing, personal lives, and that of their academic pursuits (Dahlstrom, Walker, & Dziuban, 2013). This creates a very real and challenging dichotomy, particularly in older grades, and in higher education, where students want more academic online interaction, but at the same time, are guarding their digital privacy. As an educator, it is important to get a sense of which types of social media are more personal and private. A few that come to mind as being more individual and private are Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine. However, it should be noted, that the ‘usage’ of social media tools changes over time. For example, as we see more commercial entities posting to Instagram, or students migrating to new sites such as Yik-Yak, Tumblr, or even Tinder.

software design should instead focus on the invariant aspects of practices that emerge independent of the specifics of the interaction

Dwyer & Suthers (2006)

Finally, the end goal of this challenge is to instil enough autonomy that learners will keep on going, even after they leave your class. Just because the course ends, doesn’t mean the learning has to stop. A student’s academic life should include their cultivation of a personal learning network (PLN), an online community that engages, supports, and continues to challenge the individual in their academic pursuit. How exciting it would be if the student is able to continue to connect with their newfound PLN, a network that was encouraged and built with assistance of their instructor in a class that they already ‘graduated’ from. So go out there and use social media to send your students off after your class with the autonomy to further their learning.

That’s the last post of this series on using social media in education! Go back to the first post if you missed any of it.


Dahlstrom, E., Walker, J. D., & Dziuban, C. (2013). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology 2013. Louisville, CO: Educause Center for Analysis and Research. Retrieved from

Dwyer, N., & Suthers, D. D. (2006). Consistent practices in artifact-mediated collaboration. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 1(4), 481–511.

Learner Success Through Self-Mediation

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is third in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


4 – Self-Mediation

In an active, constructive learning environment, the student is engaged and creating their own learning experience. A student that is able to take control of their learning is likely to be more successful. It is therefore important to discuss the next topic, self-mediation. If our goal (as outlined above) is to align teaching methods with constructivism, then it comes with the understanding that some control must be relinquished to the learners. In fact, if we impose what is traditionally thought of as classroom control, we would simply hamper the process, and work against what we are trying to achieve. In a study by Borstnar (2012) a formally structured facilitation was shown to have the effect of dampening self-management in the group. Conversely, Borstnar’s results also showed that a non-structured learning environment that is encouraged through the use of social media tools promotes self-management and more successful group knowledge acquisition.

Teaching students to become effective self-regulated learners may help them acquire basic and complex personal knowledge management skills

(Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012)

Self-mediation with social media also brings with it an inherent challenge. More than just letting the students do their own thing, social media requires specific direction to encourage the student to use it beneficially. Many studies have shown that when left alone with social media, learners will multitask, they will become distracted, they will borrow time from other activities, and they will use it to arrange their social and non-academic lives (Hew, 2011; Junco & Cotten, 2012; Junco, 2012; Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010; Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013; Levine, Waite, & Bowman, 2007). When left unguided with social media in the classroom, it can certainly be a big distraction. As a teacher, I find that self-mediation is one of the hardest components to incorporate into a lesson plan. On the one hand, a ‘letting go’ is required. On the other, very specific guidance and direction is required so that the learners are able to succeed. This is a balancing act, to be certain. But as outlined below, one of the ways that a facilitator can engage students in their own self-mediation is to assign it!

Since self-mediation in the classroom does not succeed as a wide open smorgasbord of opportunity for students, a guided, select approach is warranted. Create assignments that allow the student to choose which social media platform they prefer, while still being very specific about the outcomes you expect from the finished product. Create expectations that the students can understand, yet that they can still have some control over. Give the learner the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ and let them come up with a plan for the ‘how’. Closely tied to this is self assessment. Students creating and sharing their knowledge through blogs, wikis and e-portfolios is a fantastic opportunity for self-reflection, as well as an opportunity for the learner to actually see what they have accomplished. This way the learner is able to transition from outward social learning towards deeper, internal reflection. At this point, it also should be mentioned that these strategies also align well with teaching and encouraging students in building and creating their own personal learning network, something that links to the final theme of autonomy, discussed in the next section.

Click here to read the final post, part 5: Autonomy


Borstnar, M. (2012). Towards understanding collaborative learning in the social media environment. Organizacija, 45(3), 100.

Hew, K. F. (2011). Students’ and teachers’ use of Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(2), 662–676.

Junco, R. (2012). The relationship between frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and student engagement. Computers & Education, 58(1), 162–171.

Junco, R., & Cotten, S. R. (2012). No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education, 59(2), 505–514.

Kirschner, P. A., & Karpinski, A. C. (2010). Facebook and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1237–1245.

Kuznekoff, J. H., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62(3), 233–252.

Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Bowman, L. L. (2007). Electronic media use, reading, and academic distractibility in college youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(4), 560–566.