Friday, June 12, 2015

Time For a Digital Detox or Better Filtering?

Being easily distracted has been a thorn in my side since Oldbury Park Primary School. I remember the day when mum and dad sat me down and read out my year 6 school report. Things were going so well, and then - boom - a comment from Mrs Horn that rained on my previously unsullied education record. ‘’Sarah can organize herself and her work quite competently if she wishes, but of late has been too easily distracted by those around her.” She had a point, but try telling that to a distraught eleven year who valued the opinion of her teachers. I made a vow after that. I would never let my report card be sullied again. Working on my concentration in secondary school and college helped me to pass my GCSEs and A-levels.

Then, when I entered the world of work I found an environment not too dissimilar to school. There were managers to impress, friends to win, and office politics instead of playground politics. Comme ci comm. But I was more informed this time, and found ways to stay focused: wearing headphones (a great way to show your otherwise engaged), meditation (limited to the park, never in the office), and writing to-do lists. But these are workplace tactics, if I were a student now, my report would probably be worse. I'd be lost with access to so many devices and so much time-wasting material.
So there, I’ve laid bare more than I should have, but I think my personal character assassination has been worth it, because it’s proved a point. Kids have always been distracted; tech has just made the problem worse. In addition to the usual classroom distractions, teachers now have to manage digital distractions, and it’s all affecting students’ progress.

For the head of the Old Hall School in Telford, Martin Stott, observing this trend was worrying. He said, “It seems to me that children’s ability to take on board the instructions for multi-step tasks has deteriorated. For a lot of children, all their conversation revolves around these games. It upsets me to see families in restaurants and as soon as they sit down the children get out their iPads.” Stott isn’t the first to raise the issue of digital dependency, (there are digital detox centers for adults who want to have a break from tech). He might, however, be the first to bring the issue to the education arena and get significant media coverage, by introducing a week’s digital embargo at his school. Students have to put away the Xboxes, iPads, and turn off the TV in an attempt to discover other activities like reading, board games and cards.

I’m split on the whole digital detox idea. The cynic asks how can a one week break to make any real change to the amount of time kids spend on devices. And restricting them completely is a sure fire way to spark rebellion. But my optimistic side says it’s a step in the right direction. It raises awareness by asking kids to realize that there’s life outside Minecraft and social media. Now that’s not so bad.

Nonetheless I do think that the problems with device dependency at Old Hall School could be solved with better filtering instead of a digital detox. As existing users will tell you, there’s a trusty little tool in our web filter known as ‘limit to quota’. Admins can configure the amount of time users can spend on different types of material, including material classified as time-wasting. According to predefined rules, users can use their allocation in bite-sized chunks, and be prompted every five or ten minutes, with an alert stating how much they’ve used. That way they’ll be no nasty shocks; when the timer eventually runs out after 60 minutes, they’ll be able to continue using the safe parts of the web that support their educational needs, without the distractions. Now that’s got to be more appealing than dropping the devices cold turkey, isn’t it?

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