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Learning in the age of distraction: Assessing the efficacy of technology integration on adolescent learning.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Research Proposal

The ubiquity of technology demands that educators are constantly at the forefront of effective ICT integration and pedagogical practices to cater for the world of the digital native. Teachers are therefore mandated to perpetually adapt to the rapid pace with which such tools advance. It is imperative for schools to not only provide students with access to technologically rich resources, but to educate them in how to use them appropriately. In a critical review on the evidence of digital natives, Bennett, Maton, and Kervin (2008) observed that “ has a vitally important role in fostering information literacies that will support learning.” With millennial students considered adept at online multitasking and increasingly wired to seek a steady stream of electronic engagement, I aim to research the influence that such activity has on meaningful learning and how pedagogy will evolve to adapt to the needs of students.

Professor of Psychology, Dr Carrie Fried, undertook a study in the US to support anecdotal evidence from educators who claimed that laptops were detracting from the learning process. Although she states that laptop use in the classroom can “increase rates of in-class participation and student motivation” it revealed that laptop use negatively related to several measures of student learning (Fried, 2008). These advancements can often be met with resistance by those concerned with the challenges that ICTs present to effective learning, comprehension and retention of information. However, evidence is needed to provide informed rationale behind its implementation in the classroom, as it can be met by resistance for those quick to decry the advent of technology and its implications for children. As Giedd (2012, p. 7) observes, technologies enable adolescents to “...broaden their exposure to ideas, customs, and ways of life.” However, what needs to be investigated further is the balance between integration and saturation, and what approaches a modern teacher will need to take to ensure that their pedagogy has adapted to students that have a very different style of learning, retaining and recalling information.

Teachers are mandated to integrate technology in to their curriculum in order to address the needs of a generation of millennials that are considered by Howe and Strauss (2007) to be “optimistic, team-orientated achievers who are talented with technology.” Yet, the challenge for both educator and student is that, unlike a traditional textbook or analogue resource, the digital device is also a tool for recreation, socialisation and entertainment, sometimes even labeled as ‘weapons of mass distraction’.

In spite of students today spending increasingly more time online, their digital recreation does not necessarily provide them with the critical thinking and investigation skills necessary for ICT as a learning tool, where signal must be discerned from noise. Digital tools are integral to the fabric of the modern classroom and are just as familiar to the student as ‘pen and pencil’ (Gregory & Lloyd, 2010). Data from the Kaiser Foundation survey indicates that when teens are doing their homework at the computer, two-thirds of the time they are also doing something else (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).


Multitasking is commonplace in daily life and the digital space is certainly no different. Students can be working on an assignment, whilst competing with the chorus of interruptions that social media, gaming and entertainment can bring. Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project, suggests that the problem could be “the lack of digital literacy training students receive, not the technology itself” (Anderson & Rainie, 2012). The Pew Internet initiative also suggests that young people, accustomed to instantaneous information, will be less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information. As multitaskers, individuals have limited cognitive resources available to “attend to, process, encode and store information for later retrieval” (Posner, 1982). Therefore, the use of a device that inherently divides attention has the potential to detract from completing certain tasks effectively and efficiently (Pashler, 1994). Sana, Weston, and Cepeda (2013) suggest that teachers are tasked with being more interesting than the school sanctioned devices that they compete with if they are to maintain the attention of students that may not be intrinsically motivated by the subject material.


I have previously conducted a survey of secondary school students to understand how they use ICTs to approach learning objectives, both guided and independently. As a result of my school’s one-to-one laptop policy, I have also assessed a variety of implications from both staff and student perspectives relating to the integration of technology in the classroom. There has been a considerable disparity between the motivation and satisfaction of the students with the technology, and that of the teachers trying to implement its academic use. I hope to investigate how secondary school students comprehend learning materials and retain information when faced with digital distractions. Sohlberg and Mateer (1986) developed a hierarchical model for Attention Process Training (APT) that enables us to categorise attention as ‘sustained’ prolonged focus, ‘selective’ where distractions are avoided or ‘alternating’ where attention is shifted between different cognitive skills. Measuring adolescent attention spans with methods such as EEGs or a Posner test could prove challenging and there have been over 1,200 papers in the past decade that have looked at how attention can be best measured (Carrasco, 2011). As Jackson (2008, p. 242) questions, how can we “measure this essentially invisible process?” However, assessing student performance and achievement through a range of comprehension and transfer tasks would be an appropriate measure to provide an insight in to how students learn in the digital space. One of the most recent controlled studies to assess the impact of multitasking on learning was conducted by Sana et al. (2013). Participants who multitasked scored 11% lower on post-lecture comprehension than peers that had undivided focus on the lecture content. Students were evaluated on application of knowledge using a multiple choice comprehension test, whilst randomly assigned to varying levels of digital

interruption. The study concluded that there was more research required to answer the question “Under what conditions do the benefits of laptop use outweigh the detriments?”

With myriad intrusions available as a result of hyperconectivity, there is a need to acknowledge that meaningful ICT integration must adapt to the changing learning behaviours and needs of the students. This proposed research aims to observe how adolescents approach learning tasks and how the efficacy of their outcomes are influenced by the digital distractions they are subjected to.




Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2012). Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives. Washington DC, Pew Research Center.


Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British journal of       educational technology, 39(5), 775-786.


Carrasco, M. (2011). Visual attention: The past 25 years. Vision research, 51(13), 1484-1525.

Fried, C. B. (2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education, 50(3), 906-914. Giedd, J. N. (2012). The digital revolution and adolescent brain evolution. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(2), 101-


Gregory, S., & Lloyd, I. (2010). Accepting Choices: To ICT or Not to ICT: Engagement! Digital Diversity Conference. Howe, N., &


Strauss, W. (2007). Millennials go to college: LifeCourse Associates Great Falls, VA.

Jackson, M. (2008). Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age: Prometheus books.

Pashler, H. (1994). Dual-task interference in simple tasks: data and theory. Psychological bulletin, 116(2), 220. Posner, M. I. (1982). Cumulative development of attentional theory. American Psychologist, 37(2), 168.

Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M [superscript 2]: Media in the Lives of 8-to 18-Year-


Olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and

nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31.

Sohlberg, M., & Mateer, C. (1986). Attention process training (APT). Puyallup, WA: Association for Neuropsychological

Research and Development.

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