Keep students focused: How technology can help students avoid distractions

Keeping students focused in the classroom has always been a challenge. Students would find ways to occupy their mind when they did not wish to pay attention in class. In the past these distractions were unexciting (i.e. doodling or daydreaming) and did not last long. However, the prevalence of classroom computers and other devices which offer Internet access has made it even harder for educators to attract and keep their students' attentions.

Trips to computer labs to conduct research, type papers or for other educational purposes often dissolve into game time or involve non-school related web-surfing. The popularity of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook only add to student's temptations, making it harder for them to remain focused on their lesson or assignment when they have free access to these sites. It is partially the responsibility of educators to monitor student Internet usage during school hours and on school computers.

Implementing guidelines for Internet usage can be affective in curbing access to distracting or inappropriate sites while at school, but these policies are difficult to enforce because students are technology are able to hide their actions well. Often times administrators are unaware what sites are being accessed until after the fact, then it is too late to determine who accessed the site and when the damage is already done. So now that the challenge of keeping students focused during school hours has become even more difficult, what can educators do to ensure their students aren't updating their Facebook page during class time or chatting with friends via an instant messaging service during a lecture?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer to helping students avoid the distractions technology create is … technology. Many educational institutions have some sort of firewall or security gateway to protect their network from malicious content. However, few realize that these products can also help enforce Internet usage guidelines and eliminate the potential for students to be distracted. One such functionality that can help reduce distractions is content filtering technologies.

These tools allow educational institutions to block access to websites that are distracting to the educational processes. This means when a teacher brings students to a computer lab for a lesson they can be confident the students aren't spending the time on Facebook, checking their personal email or chatting with friends online. Higher end security products don't require educators or school network administrators to block each distracting site individually. Instead they can block types of sites such as “social networking sites” “instant messaging programs” or even “game sites” keeping students focused on the lesson or assignment.

Content filtering tools have the added bonus of protecting students and the school's network from inappropriate or malicious content – even when the visiting of these sites is accidental. Almost anyone who has done an Internet search has experienced clicking on inappropriate materials inadvertently and then being shocked when the content was displayed. In this case, even a student who is aware and respectful of the school's Internet usage policy wouldn't be protected from this unsuitable content as they did not intentionally access the website. The potential for accidentally accessing inappropriate sites is magnified the younger a student conducting a search is – as is the potential for parental complaints or even lawsuits. Blocking sites that students should not have access to or that have known malicious content prevents students from even accidently viewing content they should not see.

It is often the case that students are more Internet savvy than most of their teachers. They have grown up with technology and they can figure out most programs almost intuitively. Because of this, some students are aware of programs that circumvent content filtering tools. Again, the more sophisticated tools are aware of these programs and block them as well. But what if students, with their deep understanding of technology, are able to somehow access a distracting website when they should be paying attention to their teachers? Content filtering technologies that are implemented as part of an information security solution also provide reporting tools so that administrators are made aware of attempts to access these sites. This allows administrators to immediately enforce their Internet usage policy and reiterate the policy to students who attempt to distract themselves from their lessons. Sometimes, the types of sites that can create distractions for students can provide educators with valuable teaching tools.

A great example of this is YouTube. YouTube is home to videos about dogs on skateboards and music videos, content that can be very distracting to students. However, it is also home to some educational content. In a history class, for example, a teacher can access clips from documentaries or videos created during a particular time period. These materials can be very engaging for students, elevating their classroom experience. However, students should not have access to YouTube as it is not only distracting when not used appropriately, but it also has content which should not be accessed in schools or by young students in general. To help work around this issue, some content filtering technologies offer educational institutions the ability to set up user groups and filter content according to each groups' needs. So, for example, computers in a computer lab will not have access to YouTube, while teachers' personal classroom computers will. This makes it possible to take advantage of the educational opportunities the Internet presents while continuing to protect students from inappropriate content and keeping them focused on their lessons. The Internet can be a valuable educational tool, but it can also be a great distraction for students.

While content filtering technologies cannot guarantee students will not daydream in class or become distracted in other ways, they can help educators ensure their students aren't focused on web surfing when they should be focused on a lesson, lecture or specific assignment. They also protect students from accidentally accessing websites that are inappropriate for student viewing. Security solutions can do more than just protect your network from viruses; they can keep your students focused.

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About the Author: Shannon Lewis

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