Curse of the endless scroll

One moment I may be dutifully writing notes, the next I have looked up from my phone to see a completely different board. (Intel Free Press/Flickr Creative Commons)

Earlier this year, I taught a group of sixth and seventh graders in a club at my local school. My aim was to expose the children to some elementary programming, the first time for most of them. Being not too far from them in age - at least, not as far as any teacher - meant that the main impediment was not a lack of understanding but rather a need for discipline.

While there were a fair amount of fidget spinners and cubes being passed around from the more trendy students, the screens in front of them proved to be much worse. Even with just eight children, it was extremely difficult to engage the interested, help the struggling, and steer the distracted at the same time. In this way, I feel I got a taste of what being a teacher or professor is like in the modern world.

On the other end, I am no stranger to the snake’s temptation, the Apple. A quick check during class shouldn’t hurt too much, but it is far too easy to get caught in the endless scroll. One moment I may be dutifully writing notes, the next I have looked up from my phone to see a completely different board. Even putting it on the table “just to check the time” is a dangerous proposition. For university students, the siren song of the snapchat notification is strong.

Most common routes to combat this epidemic come with their own pitfalls. Banning or even confiscating technology outright forces attention, but it also creates resentment and indignation. Allowing students to distract themselves reinforces responsibility, but this solution feels cruel for the ignorant students and unfulfilling for the ignored instructor. Integrating technology relates the phone to education rather than distraction, but options for phone use are limited and narrow. However, Larry Rosen, a California psychology professor, claims to have a new solution - technology breaks throughout class.

Rosen suggests giving students a one minute break to check their phone every fifteen minutes. He also mentions increasing this length interval over time to instill better attentiveness. While the method has not yet been sufficiently researched, some colleagues of Rosen have implemented it effectively. Rosen has also written a book on the subject of classroom device use, so his solutions at least are not completely unsubstantiated.

As a phone-wielding student myself, I am dubious of this plan to say the least. As I mentioned previously, there tends to be two categories of interference: the single notification and the endless scroll. Right away, intermediary breaks only have the ability to cure one of these afflictions. While a student can respond to a text message and put away the phone within the minute, it will be much harder to pry them from consuming content. Even with answering notifications, a student may get involved in a conversation that will haunt them through the next 15 minutes of lecture.

On this time limit, the idea that taking breaks in the middle of classes is conducive to learning also seems suspect. Even a minute break would serve as a reset button to any paths of thought from before it. This is not bad in every case, but if a professor is working through a topic that singularly takes 20 minutes, they are simply out of luck. Breaks at any interval force lessons to be planned around them.

The core issue, though, more than either of the above, is that this ignores why students are so distracted. Rosen stresses not blaming the professors or students or technology, but a blend of all create the problem. Fine, I should absolutely pay attention to the engineering lecture, but it just does not catch my interest at all. Engagement techniques like small group discussions or leading questions may not be the best option for a lesson, but they are certainly better than a lack of attention.

Finally, we must admit that technology is as much a trap as a tool. Innovators and effective algorithms have cultivated the greatest distraction ever in the internet, able to hypnotize users (young and old alike) into losing hours, fool many into overestimating their multitasking skill, and void a lesson’s worth of instruction almost entirely. Do not bow to this power, though; just try to keep your head up and your phone in your pocket.


Peter Fenteany is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.