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 Do we really want to force our children to focus on boring and outdated models of memorization and regurgitation?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.

Get Students Creating with Social Media Tools

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.


3 – Creativity

The traditional format of taking notes, studying, and then parroting information during an exam is well embedded into traditional learning systems, both in schools, and online. While this system continues to work, educators are excited to find new ways of encouraging learning. The addition of creativity to this list of strategies in using social media is derived from studies in constructive learning, and also in activity theory. Activity theory is used as a framework in this sense, described commonly through the saying, “you are what you do” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). It is through committing to understanding and processing new information through activity, that learners can assimilate and build new knowledge. Such activity is not carried out by rote or as a disembodied action, but as “doing in order to transform something” (Barab, Evans, & Baek, 2004, p. 200). This aligns quite well with the use of social media tools, because as Leont’ev proposed,

the human individual’s activity is a system of social relations. It does not exist without those social relations

(Leont’ev, 1981, pp. 46-47).

Surely we have all seen instances where students become engaged in a school project, and they become more invested in not only the outcome, but in their own interest in the subject matter as well. I think of a nephew who, as I sit down to dinner with him, recounts all kinds of interesting and detailed information about dinosaurs. This knowledge comes to him through his engagement and ‘creating’ with the topic. Not only that, but in his social recounting of the information to a third party (me, as his uncle), he is required to know the material well enough to be confident to portray it cogently. In this example, for learners at a younger age, I equate ‘play’ as being aligned to activity theory in processing new information. In this way, constructive learning benefits from and is well aligned with activity, and throughout both, there is this overall benefit to the learner in interacting socially. This leads very well into tasks requiring creativity.

Constructivist learning entails a required participation from the learner into constructing their own knowledge. For example, in a study by Heafner & Friedman (2008), grade 11 students that created wikis for a school project demonstrated greater understanding and retention than peers who learned through teacher instruction. The recent emphasis on integrating maker culture and systems into classrooms is another example of building learning successes through creativity. I find it interesting that while arts & crafts are more accepted in younger grades, we ‘wean’ students away from this type of creative learning as they get older. Even as an adult, I still feel that I learn more when I try to build or create something myself. This is not to imply that everyone learns the same way; it would be folly to think that creative endeavours could completely replace focused study. But with modern access to today’s social media tools, it’s a great opportunity to make decisions about when to use it and how it can best serve particular learning situations.

One thing I keep reminding myself is that the goal is to encourage learners to become creators, not memorizers. The goal to get learners creating artifacts of learning, stimulating ideas through construction while resolving cognitive conflict. Imagine students building knowledge and taking control of the subject matter, not simply absorbing it like a sponge, but interacting with it, turning it over in their minds, creating with it. Connections. In this respect, social media tools can be used to great effect. Get your students making wikis, audio editing, video creation, building infographics (, or using online software to help create poster boards ( There’s even a site where students can create a (fake) Facebook page for historical or fictional characters ( Teachers have also had students use Twitter to create fictional re-enactments of world events, as seen through historical figures, as recounted in this study (Jensen, Caswell, Ball, Duffin, & Barton, 2010): and with examples at

Regardless of the tools you choose, get the learners using social media to create, not just parrot information. Allow them to play with the subject matter, and leverage the power of curiosity to boost their success!

Come back Monday for part 4: Self-Mediation


Barab, S. A., Evans, M. A., & Baek, E.-O. (2004). Activity theory as a lens for characterizing the participatory unit. Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 2, 199–213.

Heafner, T. L., & Friedman, A. M. (2008). Wikis and constructivism in secondary social studies: Fostering a deeper understanding. Computers in the Schools, 25(3-4), 288–302.

Jensen, M., Caswell, T., Ball, J., Duffin, J., & Barton, R. (2010). TwHistory: Sharing History Using Twitter. In Open ED 2010 Proceedings. Barcelona: UOC, OU, BYU. Retrieved from

Leont’ev, A. N. (1981). The problem of activity in psychology. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The Concept of activity in Soviet psychology. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Nardi, B. A. (1996). Activity theory and human-computer interaction. In B. A. Nardi (Ed.), Context and consciousness: Activity theory and human–computer interaction (Vol. 436, pp. 7–16).

Using Social Media Interactivity to Encourage Learning

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 second in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


2 – Interactivity

In researching how to frame the use of social media within constructivist learning, the next key driver that became apparent was that of interactivity. It’s a word we hear often, particularly in terms of computer systems, software, and online portals. In the early days of the internet, information was presented on web ‘pages’, as it was expected that people would want to ‘read’ the information, just as we had been doing from books, magazines, and newspapers. Of course, it didn’t take long before online activity became more than that. Taking advantage of the two-way nature of the Internet, websites became more interactive, allowing the user to take part in the dialog, not just read static pages. I would point out that I’m not referring to trivial actions such as clicking buttons or advancing slides as interactivity. These are very low level interactive tasks, and simply getting a person to ‘click a button’ does not make an experience interactive, at least not in the learning sense.

Mental functioning of the individual is not simply derived from social interaction; rather, the specific structures and processes revealed by individuals can be traced to their interactions with others.

(Palincsar, 1998, p. 351)

In a similar fashion to the analogy above, education can benefit from interactivity. In this digital age, we can take advantage of the kind of interactivity provided by online social media and web 2.0 tools. And as above, I’m not talking about just pressing buttons. Related back to the ‘social’ part of social constructivism and social media, a good term for interactive learning would be dialogic interactivity. That is, interactive processes that encourage the learner to engage with the information (as described in my previous post) by having to examine it, process it, and then act on it. Much as we do when we are talking to each other, we take in the information, process it, and then respond.

Strategies for effective use of social media can take cues from these findings. As Beauchamp & Kennewell (2010) point out, this involves a shift from using Internet connected tools as an object IN the interaction, to using it as a tool for CONDUCTING the interaction. Here are some examples of social media tools that an educator might use to align with this strategy:

There are hundreds of possibilities available online, many that offer free or low-cost options for teachers. As more teachers find and use these tools successfully, it is important for us to share our successes (and challenges). The goal being that once learners are able (and eager) to engage with new material and learning opportunities, then they will benefit from doing so in an interactive, two-way, dialogic process.

Click here to continue to part 3: Creativity


Beauchamp, G., & Kennewell, S. (2010). Interactivity in the classroom and its impact on learning. Computers & Education, 54(3), 759–766.

Palincsar, A. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.

Remember Sammy Jankis

Today’s class on Cognitive Theory, in particular, the discussion about cognitive information processing, had me thinking about the movie Memento

If you haven’t seen the movie, and think you would still like to, I will try not to spoil it too much. But I will have to discuss the salient points from just the early part of the film so if you would like to shy away, then feel free to do so.

Still here? Good. let’s talk about Leonard Shelby. Leonard, the protagonist in the film, has suffered a terrible trauma and is thus afflicted with Anterograde amnesia: “a selective memory deficit, resulting from brain injury, in which the individual is severely impaired in learning new information.” (Myers, 2006, para.1) We discussed how the brain takes very little time to decide what information to move into long term memory and what to discard. In the movie, Leonard is unable to process short term memories into long term memory. He can remember events from before the traumatic event, but cannot make new memories since. A real shame, as he has thoroughly embraced the idea of tracking down his wife’s killer.

ImageBecause he can only remember facts anywhere from about 30 seconds to a couple of minutes at a stretch, he must resort to taking polaroid photographs, writing notes to himself, and tattooing the key clues to his wife’s murder on his body. He befriends a police detective who is also trying to help, albeit with tongue in cheek. Leonard is certainly not a professional investigator, and with his disability seems to be getting nowhere. But Leonard forges on, firmly of the belief that one day revenge will be his, and yes, it will be sweet.

This brings to mind not just our discussion of cognitive theory, but of that little ‘devil in the details’, gathering data in research. Leonard Shelby’s quest is driven purely by facts. The clues he gathers must be immediately written down and catalogued, as they are his only way to coherently put together a history. His ‘research’ is tattooed all over his chest and arms. His references are jotted on cocktail napkins, bar coasters, matchbooks and polaroid photographs. But slowly he is working on solving his question. And once he has it figured out, his intention is to murder his wife’s killer.

How would Leonard’s research methodology hold up in the real world? Would this method bear fruit? Not likely. In Leonard’s case, any new knowledge he gathers disappears after a couple of minutes. His only way of maintaining custody of the information is to commit it to writing. Can this be any way to proceed with something of such grave consequence? Someone should share some research methodologies with him. Not that he would remember them, anyway.



Myers, Catherine A. (2006). Anterograde Amnesia. Memory Loss and the Brain. Retrieved from

Images copyright Newmarket Films

The beatings will continue until morale improves…

Motivational Theory. As learners, where and how do we get the drive to move forwards? At this moment, one week into my Master’s residency, I feel highly motivated. I want to be here, I’m enjoying being here, and I want to be successful, for a number of reasons. Of course, over time, this feeling may change, as it does for all of us.Motivation

I have been thinking about motivation and comparing it to theories we discussed in class. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs makes a lot of sense, as do a number of other theories that Lisa presented. (By the way, who did Maslow have to pay to get so popular? Maslow this, Maslow that… enough already!)  Out of all of them, I am particularly interested in MacClelland’s 3 need theory. The concept of putting needs across a spectrum and having the ‘middle’ of the chart represent the ideal is appealing to me—and seems to align to my own philosophical beliefs.

The other thought that comes to mind in studying motivation, is the idea of people being ‘motivated’ to participate in research, and by this I mean at the subject level. As we have been discussing using both surveys and interviews towards answering research questions, I am struck that we need study participants to be motivated to give their opinion. How is that possible when everyone already claims to be busy or overloaded, and nobody wants to get involved? When telephone pollsters call me, my standard line is, “I’m sorry, I don’t do surveys.” (This works, by the way, and I prefer it to just ‘hanging up’, which to me, always feels rude.) 

But now, I am placed in the position of planning to do research to finish my degree. How am I going to motivate people to participate? And even more importantly, what methods of motivation won’t inadvertently skew the results? 

The Tao of research?

When we are doing research, are we asking questions to study and document how the world actually exists, or in doing research, are we calling into existence our perception of world, as viewed through our questions?

This question may sound more appropriate in a study of philosophy, but as we discussed today, is equally relevant in the world of research. The ability to adhere to critical thinking and objective researching is of ultimate importance. In the realm of both qualitative and quantitative study, facts and numbers can be represented in a myriad of ways, often resulting in the opportunity for confusion, or even a misunderstanding of what was measured.

Take quantitative study, for instance. It can be thought of as being ‘more scientific’, immutable, and authoritative, but one needs to remember that a ‘measurement’ is simply an arbitrary number applied to an observable constant.

The Zen/Taoist philosopher Alan Watts (1995) describes an imaginary scene of an ancient fisherman floating on the ocean in his fishing boat. As he looks back at the shoreline and the mountains, the man holds up a fishing net and looks at the hills through it, counting their height; “One, two, three, four, five. The mountain is five squares high!” he declares. His desire to quantify his environment is appealing. But in this simplistic example, does he really have the mountain’s number (p.86)? Of course, most of us recognize that his system of measurement is seriously flawed. What size is the net? How far was the mesh from his eyes? How far was the ship from shore? How many other variables did he fail to account for, that even we, as modern people, have the ability to overlook?

Although this seems a silly example, I am intrigued by the challenge of attaining ‘real’ data when our entire ability to describe the world with language and numbers is simply a construct we have developed for describing the very world we desire to measure! Ask the mountain how many feet high it is, and it will laugh at you. People developed the measure, not the world. Naturally, if enough of us follow an established set of rules for ‘measuring mountains’, then our numbers will equate, and our folly will pay off.

In my past experience, I have witnessed many occasions where people were in conflict or at odds with each other over a topic or concept that either side had thought resolute, explicit, and crystal clear, only to later realize they were talking at cross-purposes, and had completely misunderstood the issue.

Therefore, when committing to a research project, it would behoove us to make sure to remember the vagaries of language and measurement, and to make sure we are being critical in our thoughts and assumptions of what is being studied. In this way, others may benefit from the results of the study. Without it, we are just arbitrarily counting squares in a fishing net.


Watts, A. (1995). The Tao of philosophy the edited transcripts. Boston: C.E. Tuttle.