As digital technology expands, devices such as laptop computers, cell phones, and tablets are becoming more and more a part of daily life.   And as the technology is found everywhere, the debate over its impact on student behavior and attention spans continues.

While many agree that these tools can help students learn and have improved their ability to do research, many are concerned about the technology’s effect on students’ attention spans, retention of information and ability to manage their time as well as their ability to have a decent conversation with another human!

Two recent surveys of teachers, released in November 2012, and conducted by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, and Common Sense Media, studied technology and its effects on learning.  The two surveys painted a picture of just how complex these effects can be.

The Pew Research Center’s study released together with The College Board and the National Writing Project (NWP), How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, surveyed opinions of 2,000 Advanced Placement (AP) and NWP teachers.  According to Pew’s report, “Overall, teachers who participated in this study characterize the impact of today’s digital environment on their students’ research habits and skills as mostly positive, yet multi-faceted and not without drawbacks.”

Highlights of the survey:

  • Nearly all of the teachers agreed (99%) that the Internet “enables students to access a wider range of resources than would otherwise be available.”
  • Three-quarters of AP and NWP  teachers say that the Internet and digital search tools have had a”mostly positive” impact on their students’ research habits.
  • 65% think this has made “today’s students more self-sufficient researchers.”
  • Most teachers and/or their students use cell phones (72%), digital cameras (66%), and digital video recorders (55%) either in the classroom or to complete assignments.
  • 87% agreed “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”
  • 86% believe students “need more time away from their digital technologies.”
  • Nearly two-thirds of the group believed “today’s digital technologies do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

The Common Sense Media study, Entertainment Media Diets of Children and Adolescents May Impact Learning, surveyed 685 teachers across the United States.

Some of the findings from this survey include:

  • 71% of teachers believe  students’ entertainment media use — the TV shows, video games, texting, and social networking they do for fun at home — has hurt students’ attention spans “a lot” or “somewhat”
  • 59% believe such media use has hurt students’ abilities to communicate face to face
  • 58% say students’ writing skills have been negatively impacted by their use of entertainment media
  • Nearly half of teachers (48%) believe students’ media use has hurt the quality of their homework
  • 63% of teachers surveyed agreed that “entertainment media has helped students hone their ability to  find information quickly and efficiently,” but only 34% believe “it has helped students’ ability to multi-task effectively”

A handful of teachers in both studies mentioned concerns that they’ve had to frequently entertain students to hold their attention, changing lesson plans to keep students engaged and interested.

A New York Times article, by Matt Richtel, “Technology Is Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say,” examines whether or not technology is changing students’ attention spans.  As yet there are no long-term studies that definitively demonstrate a change in students’ attentions spans due to exposure to this technology.

While additional research is needed, Richtel notes that “there is mounting indirect evidence that constant use of technology can affect behavior, particularly in developing brains, because of heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention.” The debate continues…. so stay tuned.