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ES 2018 – keynote: Helping Students Learn In An Age Of Digital Distraction May 10, 2018

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is an annual series of workshops on teaching and learning at the University of Michigan. This year’s keynote address was “Helping Students Learn In An Age Of Digital Distraction” by Katie Linder. You can watch the presentation on the Enriching Scholarship website. Here is my summary of what I thought the important points were, and a little of my own commentary.

Dr Linder started the session with a website: http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/. Try it.


There were two reasons for her use of this site. The first was to illustrate that two minutes can really feel like a long time. If you tried it, you were probably watching the count down, or tempted to check your phone, or you just gave up on it. It’s very difficult to just stop, even for two minutes. The other reason she used it was because you never know what the other people are brining into a room. Students might be worried about another class, a friend, a romantic partner, a parent, or what they’re going to wear to the bar tonight. Instructors also bring outside worries into the classroom. In fact, your list of worries might look a lot like the list of worries of your students. You don’t have to take 2 minutes of meditation at the start of every class, but an acknowledgment of the outside world and a moment to “be here now” can help everyone center and focus.

So, now that I’ve got your attention…

First and foremost, we have to get rid of the notion that “digital distraction” is a problem with “this generation.” As evidence, she offered this image of Vatican Square:


It’s Vatican square.

Those people are NOT teenagers.

We need to let go of the idea that our students are the ones with a problem with digital distraction. Most of us have, at some point, experienced an event through a screen even though we were present at the event. We check email or news before getting out of bed in the morning. We text our family at lunch time. We pull out our phone during dinner to find out more about the thing we were just discussing. We feel like we’ve left an appendage behind when we forget our phone. The only real difference is that we’ve had more time to develop coping strategies and awareness.

We often focus on managing the distractions available to the students. For example, laptop bans, network restrictions, and browser lockdowns. These strategies are useful for some things, like giving online tests, but they aren’t a good model of the real world. There will be no laptop ban for meetings at the company they go work for after graduation. If we want our students to be professionals from the day they graduate, we need to prepare them to be professionals.

We can start by trying to consider what they are brining with them into the classroom. Acknowledge they have lives outside this class and try to consider that when creating assignments. Give them that moment at the beginning to re-align their minds to your class. Explain why you’re asking them to do things, especially if you implement restrictions like a laptop ban. Consider the skills they have, and the ones they need to build. And don’t assume you know what those skills are – ask them.

If you really want them to engage with your class, you have to let them find their passion. Dr. Linder asked us to think for a moment about the last time we became so engrossed in something we were learning that we lost track of the time, then share it with our neighbors. The room became very animated with discussion, and several people were anxious to share their experience. Many people did their research digitally, using resources like Google and YouTube. However, interest in the subject enabled them to ignore distractions like email, even though many people always have email open. Additionally, when discussing it, audience members became deeply engaged with each other, even if they didn’t have the same personal interest in the subject. Try to find projects that your students can become passionate about, and share your passion for your subject, and your students will be less tempted by distractions.

Of course, not everything can be that engaging, and we need to train our students for those times too. Help students reflect on learning with short assessments like minute papers and mini reflections. Design assignments incorporating grit (perseverance, especially after failure.) Praise effort over intelligence, especially in formative assessment. Talk about learning and share cognitive literature with them. Model professional behavior for them, including the use of technology like smart phones as professional tools: research shows they tend to use their phones for entertainment and communication only. If they think of their phone as entertainment, it’s harder to resist the distractions, so share strategies for distraction management. Include them in the discussion: tell them what works for you and ask what works for them.

As a first step toward this, she suggested thinking about an area of focus for your students like meta-cognition, multitasking, cognitive load, or information literacy. Pick one area to start with, and write an appendix for your syllabus that explains its importance, cites the literature, and includes class and professional etiquette. If possible, tie a brief assignment to it. See for example, this excerpt from Sharmila Murthy’s syllabus.

Additional Resources

Celestia: Home August 1, 2013

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Celestia: Home.

Like Stellarium, Celestia is another open source planetarium app for your computer. However, this one seeks to make the program a little more modular, so if you have an older less powerful computer, you can run just the basic software, with low resolution imagery. But if your system can handle it, you can load all sorts of models, from a rover’s eye view of Mars (including the rover) to multi-wavelength layer-able images of deep sky objects. If there’s a creative commons image available, someone has probably added it to a Celestia model.

The software from Evans and Southerland for their Digistar 5 can also load these model, for use in a show.

Stellarium July 9, 2013

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Free, open source planetarium software. Now with fisheye or spherical mirror projection for use with a dome.

WorldWide Telescope dome projects July 9, 2013

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WorldWide Telescope.

Free (but Windows only – it’s by Microsoft) software that can be configured to display on a dome.

I’ve heard great thing about this software over the years. Be sure to look at the tours section. You can run it in a web browser if you don’t have a Windows machine, but I’m not sure you’d be able to project it onto a dome.