Student Engagement: Can Education Find Its Focus In A World Of Distractions?

student engagement

With digital distractions aplenty, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep students engaged with learning, but technology can be used to serve education too.


If the studies about attention spans are right, there’s a good chance you won’t make it far beyond the end of this sentence (is this goodbye?).

So if you’ve made it this far, well done – either the studies are wrong, or your attention span is longer than the 8 seconds they suppose it to be.

While it’s quite possible that “research” on shortening attention spans is pure bunkum, the underlying message can’t be denied: people have never had so many distractions available to them as they do in the digital age.

Whether you’re a pre-teen or a pensioner, there’s a never-ending procession of platforms, publishers, and services all vying for your attention as soon as you even look at a screen (which we apparently do an average of 46 times a day).

So why are big businesses giving your attention so much of their attention?

The answer is pretty obvious: it’s a valuable commodity.

“The attention industry needs people who are in a distracted state, or who are perpetually distractible, and thus open to advertising,” says Columbia Law School professor and author Tim Wu. “[T]he kind of media that you’re exposed to starts to influence your own brain and your own personality.”

In essence, then, your attention is basically a form of as-yet undeveloped capital. The more you engage with a service, app, or platform, the more data you generate about your preferences and behaviors. Having stockpiled this data, the companies behind those services can develop a better understanding of who you are, how to optimize their product, influence your decision-making, or monetize your personal information.

Paying With Attention

In order to continuously capture this information, some of the biggest companies in the world have invested heavily in the human attention economy.

Push notifications, rewards, alerts, autoplay, trigger colors, pull-to-refresh, and continuous scrolling are just some of the techniques of persuasive design – part of a concentrated effort to keep users engaged with a service for as long as possible, as often as possible.

And this is what their design successes look like: endless news feed scrolling; video binge sessions; an obsession with social affirmations such as “likes”, comments, or “shares”; and the compulsive need to achieve high scores or collect bonus material in online games.

The urge for engagement that such design creates in users is incredibly powerful. Some have even suggested that the dopamine-driven feedback loops they employ can affect the same neural pathways in users as gambling or drug taking – thereby giving them many of the same qualities as real addictions (in fact, online gaming addiction is now considered a “public health issue” by the World Health Organization).

It’s hard to know what else to call it when you read reports that mobile users interact with their phones – whether it be via taps, swipes, type or clicks – around 2,617 times per day.

Indeed the rise of smartphones has provided the perfect medium through which apps and online services can exploit psychological vulnerabilities and increase user engagement and dependence. As Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president puts it: “The thought process that went into building these applications was about ‘how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”

Mobile users interact with their phones – whether it be via taps, swipes, type or clicks – around 2,617 times per day. Click To Tweet

Long-time tech industry consultant Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, is even more forthright in his assessment:

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions … It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.”

Disruptive by Name, Disruptive by Nature

It’s almost strange to think that just 15 years ago this competitive environment of digital distractions didn’t exist, yet things have changed so much in the meantime.

Technology tends to advance quickly, of course. Start-ups in the tech sector are often described as “disruptive” because of their commitment to rapid trial and error in pursuit of quickly developing new markets. This can destabilize the old order (think Netflix outmaneuvering Blockbuster or, more generally, digital media’s impact on print) and “disrupt” the status quo.

Yet some sectors are more open to change than others. The entertainment industry has been quick to adopt changes to harness new technologies. There is a multitude of music streaming services to choose from; former print publications now utilize sophisticated algorithms to offer users more personalized content; and TV has gone digital, meaning that viewers can pause or record in real time, access additional content, or create playlists they can later watch on their mobile devices.

It sounds almost utopian: a multitude of companies out-innovating one another in an effort to deliver the content you want, whenever you want it, no matter where you are. But is that really what’s happening?

Too Much of a Good Thing

Distraction is not compatible with depth. As mentioned at the top, in the all-out war for attention concentration becomes the first casualty.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking a break,” says Wu, “but we’ve engineered our environment for distraction. We bob from one thing to another, perpetually. And I don’t know if it’s so great for our culture or even ourselves.”

Whether we care to admit it or not, it is the companies in this environment that education needs to compete with to regain student attention.

The tech sector changes rapidly, and early adopters tend to gain a head start on their competitors. By comparison, education is cumbersome when it comes to change. It’s the turtle to Silicon Valley’s hare. Click To Tweet

It’s a massive challenge. The tech sector changes rapidly, and early adopters tend to gain a head start on their competitors. By comparison, education is cumbersome when it comes to change. It’s the turtle to Silicon Valley’s hare. Most schools in the US are still in the process of bringing digital technologies into classrooms at a time when other sectors are developing cutting-edge solutions to shape entirely new user trends.

To give this some context consider the following: in twenty-four years, Amazon went from being an online bookseller to developing into the world’s largest provider of cloud-based services. As a result, it is now one of the most valuable companies in the world.

By the same token, school assessment hasn’t truly changed in the last hundred years. This makes it almost impossible to adequately measure the knowledge, ability, and needs of today’s learners. In what other industry or sector would such tardiness be considered acceptable?

Relinquish Control or Regain It: Engaging Students on their Terms

Granted the goals are different. While businesses live and breath profit and growth, education lives and dies by how well it helps students fulfill their potential. But if the former is actively affecting the latter, then education may need to rethink its methods or risk losing yet more ground to the distraction merchants.

School assessment hasn’t truly changed in a hundred years, making it almost impossible to measure the abilities and needs of today’s learners. In what other industry or sector would such tardiness be considered acceptable? Click To Tweet

Of course, some might claim, with some justification, that it’s easier to use technology to entertain or distract than it is to teach. But this needn’t be the case.

For the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, anyone can reach an optimal state of consciousness in a given area if they are both interested in a task and sufficiently challenged by it. In this “state of flow”, rewards are commensurate with effort.

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”

Engagement leads to learning. If other sectors are using technology as a tool to better engage people, why can’t education do the same, albeit with a clearer focus on responsibility instead of revenue and exploration ahead of exploitation?

One possible reason is that because education is slow to change, not enough innovative tech companies have the incentive to operate in the space. But there are plenty of signs for encouragement.

The Future of Student Engagement

One case in point is Knewton, which utilizes the data from student interactions to create an adaptive learning pathway that caters for the specific needs of each learner by making tailored content suggestions based on an analysis of their study patterns.

Others such as iCEV – which offers cloud-based, interactive courses in career and technical education – take a leaf from the entertainment industry’s playbook book by implementing a Netflix-style approach to course subscriptions.

In such cases the goal is to make education more engaging for the modern learner by acknowledging (and anticipating) changing conditions outside of the classroom. Barring some kind of global natural, digital is here to stay, and its influence over how people learn, think, and live will continue to grow.

Technology is a tool of intention. Advertisers may use it to get those precious 8 seconds of your time, but education can employ technology to create healthier habits of mind and encourage curiosity, concentration, and contemplation. Click To Tweet

In a worst-case scenario, more tech could mean greater distraction, which is bad news for educators and students alike. But it’s important to keep in mind that technology is a tool of intention. Advertisers may use it to get those precious 8 seconds of your time, but education can employ technology to create healthier habits of mind and encourage curiosity, concentration, and contemplation.

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” wrote philosopher and psychologist William James. “Without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.” As companies ramp up their efforts to gain some measure of users’ attention, one truth remains: a truly engaged mind is not easily distracted. Education may not offer a shiny new “product” with a limited shelf life; it offers something of greater, more lasting value and now is not the time for it to get lost in the past.

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