Distance Learning: Distractions, Lack of Focus, and Shallow Thinking

online learning

Brad Huddleston

At the time of this writing, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am getting requests from education organizations to conduct webinars on a wide range of topics, including managing the dramatically increased use of technology. Parents have been forced into digital homeschooling. The initial assessment of this global experiment is that while online learning is working well for some, it is not going well for the majority. The overall results have been dismal.

The New York Times ran the following headline, “As School Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out. Teachers at some schools across the country report fewer than half of their students are participating in online learning.”[i] The article cites some of the reasons why the digital classroom is suffering: spotty Internet connections, low-income students with uneven levels of technology, and lack of parental supervision. In Philadelphia, it was reported that only 61% of students attended on an average day, and in Boston, only 50% of students were logging in or submitting assignments.[ii]

Reports from other countries are just as disturbing. Researchers at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, have warned that students’ learning and performance have gone down during the pandemic, resulting in adverse effects when they get to University. The study focused on disadvantaged students.[iii]  Israeli mom Shiri Kenigsberg Levi’s video rant on Instagram went viral. Here are just a few of her honest comments: “I have four kids,…Just imagine how many WhatsApps, how many teachers for each child, how many subjects per child. I’ve got only two computers in the house. All morning they’re fighting over the computers. I go from one child to the other. Here’s science, here’s math. Forget it! How am I supposed to know everything?. If we don’t die of corona, we’ll die distance learning.” [iv] Her video is resonating with people around the world. It has been translated into more than 20 languages.[v]

Just because so many students are not logging on to distance learning platforms doesn’t mean that they are not online. Because so many households have been on lock-down, time spent on the Internet has soared.[vi] For example, to help ease the broadband load, the European Union requested that Netflix reduce the picture quality of its streaming content.[vii] Youtube did the same.[viii]

I don’t believe that it’s just disadvantaged students who are not doing well academically in the digital learning space. It’s my experience that people of all socio-economic spheres are spending their time online engaging with entertainment media instead of academic pursuits. Male students are likely playing video games, and females are engaging in social media when they should be engaging with their schoolwork. 

Even if students are participating in online learning, they are likely also checking social media status, email, text messages, etc. which is known as rapid toggling. Some people believe this is a form of “multitasking” and therefore increases productivity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Research shows that studying or working in an office in this fashion decreases productivity by as much as 40 percent.[ix] One study found that multitaskers scored 11 percent lower than those who were not multitasking on a standard comprehension test. Even more troubling, researchers found that just sitting near someone who is multitasking reduces comprehension by 17 percent.[x]

In his excellent book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher writes, “At the neurological level, the Internet’s constant distractions alter the physiological structure of our brain. The brain refashions itself to conform to the nonstop randomness of the Internet experience, which conditions us to crave the repetitive jolts that come with novelty…The result of this is a gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply.”[xi]

Despite many years of promises that online learning would enhance education as never before as well as growing concerns of spreading the COVID-19 virus, there is still a global push to get students back into the physical classroom as soon as possible.

Ultimately, it is the parent’s responsibility to oversee the education of their children, beginning with Scripture.

Deuteronomy 6:6-7a (NIV) These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them

[i] Goldstein, D., Popescu, A., & Hannah-jones, N. (2020, April 06). As School Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/coronavirus-schools-attendance-absent.html. Accessed July 30, 2020.

[ii] Board, T. (2020, June 21). Opinion | Failure in the Virtual Classroom. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/failure-in-the-virtual-classroom-11592776152. Accessed July 30, 2020.

[iii] COVID-19 – Online leads to student performance decline. (n.d.). Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200504161024165

[iv] Strauss, V. (2020, March 22). Perspective | ‘If we don’t die of corona, we’ll die of distance learning’ – Israeli mom with four kids at home loses it. Here’s her rant. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/22/if-we-dont-die-corona-well-die-distance-learning-israeli-mom-with-four-kids-home-loses-it-heres-her-rant/

[v] Minsberg, T. (2020, March 26). An Israeli Mom Ranted About Online Learning, and the Internet Replied: ‘Same’. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/parenting/israeli-mom-coronavirus-remote-learning.html

[vi] Media Consumption in the Age of COVID-19. (n.d.). Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.jpmorgan.com/global/research/media-consumption.

[vii] Alexander, J. (2020, May 15). Netflix is starting to restore normal streaming quality in parts of Europe. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/15/21259954/netflix-streaming-quality-europe-bitrate-pandemic.

[viii] Shaw, L. (2020, March 24). YouTube to Limit Video Quality Around the World for a Month. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-24/youtube-to-limit-video-quality-around-the-world-for-a-month.

[ix] Multitasking: Switching costs. (2006, March 20). Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask American Psychological Association

[x] James, G. (2018, August 24). Sitting Near a Multitasker Decreases Your Intelligence by 17 Percent. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/multitasking-reduces-your-intelligence-by-17.html

[xi] Dreher, R. (2018). The Benedict option: A strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation. NY, NY: Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Page 225

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About the Author

Brad Huddleston
Brad Huddleston is an internationally respected speaker, consultant, teacher and author on important issues such as technology and culture. He has worked with universities, schools, churches and law enforcement, and spoken to hundreds of thousands around the world on both the advantages of well-used technology tools and the dangers of the growing trend toward technology addiction. Brad has an on-going collaboration with the Bureau of Market Research (BMR) and its Neuroscience Division at the University of South Africa. Brad has a degree in Computer Science and a Diploma of Biblical Studies and is a credentialed minister in the Acts 2 Alliance (A2A) movement in Australia. He's also a frequent guest on radio and television and author of Digital Cocaine: A Journey Toward iBalance and The Dark Side of Technology: Restoring Balance in the Digital Age. Brad and his wife, Beth, live in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the United States.