Laura Gibbs

Attention-Policing and Online Proctoring: Thoughts on a Study

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Feb 17, 2019

Excerpts from my post got quoted in Inside Higher Ed! You can read that article here: Online Students Multitask More. Also, I have to note that the discussion here at the Community is more encouraging because people here actually read the blog post. As often, the commentators at IHE seem to be reacting to the headline without actually reading the article. :-)

On Friday someone asked me for my thoughts on a new education study about online education. It's the kind of study I would be unlikely to read myself, just based on the headline, but hey, I thought that would be a fun weekend experiment, reading something I would normally not read just to see if I was pleasantly surprised. I was not pleasantly surprised, ha ha; in fact, I was not surprised at all: my first impressions from the headline turned out to be true. This is another salvo in the laptop wars, but even worse: instead of just wanting to police the classroom, this professor thinks we need to police people in online courses too. But it's good to get outside the bubble, right? So what I've done below is to paste in the article and then offer some commentary. The study itself is available online for free, so braver souls than me can find out more if you are curious. 


Kent State study finds multitasking increases in online courses compared to face-to-face | EurekAlert! Science News 


(I'm skipping the opening anecdote wherein Professor Lepp meets a student entering data on her laptop while listening to her online course via headphones, while a Netflix movie was streaming on another screen.)


This phenomenon of multitasking across three or four internet-connected devices simultaneously is increasingly common.

I wonder why they are looking at multiple devices versus a more basic idea of "multiple focuses of attention," and why Internet-connected, as opposed to any mix of digital, analog or real. I would say it's multitasking when I have multiple browser tabs or windows open; it's also multitasking when I am folding laundry and watching a video; it's also multitasking when I'm walking and listening to an audiobook. And, brace yourselves, taking notes during a lecture is also multitasking. A pen and notebook might not seem like the dangerous distractors... but that's just because we're used to them. (Did nobody else used to smuggle magazines into class, reading them while pretending to prop a spiral notebook on your desk...?) Anyway, it seems to me that this approach ends up unduly focused on technology (and ultimately demonizing technology), when we should be asking more basic questions about learning behavior that should inform our course design online or in the classroom. And hey, full disclosure, I have music playing while I write this. (Prem Joshua! loud!) (Yes, there was a link there. Click. I dare you to multitask with me! Read and listen to music: it's okay; your brain won't explode.)


Dr. Lepp and his colleagues Jacob Barkley, Ph.D., and Aryn Karpinski, Ph.D., of Kent State's College of Education, Health and Human Services were curious to know how often this happens during online education, a method of delivering college and even high school courses entirely via an internet-connected computer as opposed to a traditional face-to-face course with a teacher physically present. Nationwide, millions of students take online courses each year, and the trend is increasing rapidly. Dr. Lepp and his colleagues wondered if students multitask more frequently in online courses compared to face-to-face courses.

So we have to define what online education is? Ouch. But seriously, I am not a fan of "online" and "face to face" as research categories. Online and face-to-face are delivery modes; they are not course designs. To say that online courses are alike because they are online is like saying that Rocky Road ice cream and Tater Tots are the same because you find them in the freezer section. Yes, being frozen is an important part of Rocky Road ice cream and of Tater Tots... but that does not mean they are the same thing. (I like them both, by the way.) What we need to do is to study different kinds of learning activities and how those learning activities fit into the overall course design. Studying online courses versus face-to-face courses is meaningless unless you know more about the courses in question, and about the students, than just the delivery mode.


"This question is important to ask because an abundance of research demonstrates that multitasking during educational activities significantly reduces learning," Dr. Lepp said.

This kind of sweeping generalization helps no one. I don't worry about my students multitasking (I multitask a lot; who doesn't?). But I do worry about my students being bored. Boredom during educational activities significantly reduces learning too. I think it's a lot more likely that I can try to design my classes in a way that the students will find the assignments really meaningful and/or stimulating. I think I can be more successful at that goal than in trying to control their multitasking (especially if it means policing their device use). And my guess is that, indirectly, I will end up reducing (bad) multitasking if I focus on the peril of boredom. So, that's what I do. I encourage others to give it a try. And if your students are multitasking, boredom may be a factor. I wonder if the researchers thought about studying boring courses versus non-boring courses...?


Dr. Lepp, Dr. Barkley and Dr. Karpinski, along with the help of Kent State graduate student Shweta Singh, surveyed 296 college students. Each student surveyed had recently completed an online, for-credit college course and a traditional face-to-face college course. The survey asked students how often they participated in common multitasking behaviors during their previously taken online courses as well as their previous face-to-face courses. These behaviors included texting, using social networking apps, emailing, off-task internet surfing, talking, doodling and other distracting behaviors. The survey also measured students' preference for multitasking and their belief in their ability to self-regulate their behavior.

Alas, the researchers probably did not ask why the students were multitasking. So, I repeat: was it because they were bored? Was it because they had an important test they were cramming for in another class? Was it because the professor said something they didn't understand (in the classroom or in a video) and they wanted to look it up? I look things up constantly. I hope my students do the same. All occasions of multitasking are not the same.


Results of the study revealed that students' multitasking behavior is significantly greater in online courses compared to face-to-face courses.

No surprise: students have the freedom in the online courses to do what they want/need to do, as opposed to being policed in the classroom. I can't listen to Prem Joshua in a classroom; I can at home. Louder when my husband is not home. :-)


Additionally, in online courses, the students who prefer to multitask do indeed multitask more than students with less of a preference for multitasking; however, in face-to-face courses, the students who prefer to multitask do not multitask more frequently than students with less of a preference for multitasking. "This is likely because in face-to-face courses, a physically present teacher and the presence of conscientious students help to enforce classroom policies and behavioral norms against multitasking," Dr. Lepp said.

Aha, there we go. It is about policing: students are not doing what they want/need/prefer in the classroom. I'm not sure we needed a research study to demonstrate that difference. But here's the real question: is policing, in-person or remotely, the best way to help students develop better self-awareness and self-regulation? I don't think so. One of the things I like about teaching online is that it means I can give the students so much more freedom, and also so much more responsibility, so that they can, perhaps, learn new things about the best strategies for their own learning.


Finally, students who were confident in their ability to self-regulate their behavior multitasked less in face-to-face courses when compared to students who were not so confident in their ability to self-regulate behavior. However, in online courses, even those students who believe they are good at self-regulation could not resist multitasking. Indeed, they multitasked at a similar frequency to other students.

They could not resist multitasking? How about saying this: they chose to multitask. And then ask them why. Some reasons are good; some reasons are not. We need to ask students about their reasons, and students need to learn to interrogate their own reasons. That's how you develop self-regulation. Sweeping generalizations, especially technophobic generalizations, are not going to help. 


"This suggests that how we teach students to self-regulate for learning applies well to traditional face-to-face courses, but perhaps it does not apply well to online learning," Dr. Barkley said.

I repeat: policing students in a classroom is not teaching them to self-regulate. That is being other-regulated, which is the opposite of being self-regulated.


"Because multitasking during educational activities has a negative impact on learning, it is important to develop methods for reducing this academically disadvantageous behavior, particularly in the increasingly common online learning environment."

I repeat: not all multitasking is academically disadvantageous, and the online environment is exactly where we can give students an opportunity to learn what multitasking helps their learning and what does not. Learning itself IS multitasking: you are taking in new information, comparing it with information you find in other sources, highlighting what you might use later, asking questions and finding answers to clarify your understanding, thinking about what you are going to do next, etc. Or, in less abstract terms: taking notes during a lecture is multitasking. Are we going to tell students they should not take notes anymore? Isn't a notebook and a pen (unregulated, unmonitored devices! oh no!) going to just lead them astray...? After all, doodling was on the list of dangerous activities. Here's what I say: let's buy everybody a copy of Sylvia Duckworth's books on sketchnoting! That is an educational intervention I would endorse enthusiastically. Doodle on, people! 


sketchnote bookcover

duckworth cover


The researchers say that students can learn to be more singularly focused and to minimize multitasking. "For example, during online learning and any other educational activity, put all distractions away, including smartphones and tablets," Dr. Lepp said. "This should become habit. This can even be practiced during leisure. For example, when watching a favorite TV show or sporting event, focus on the show and don't get distracted by texting friends and posting to social media."

Whoa, this is sounding seriously Puritanical. This is not just about policing the face-to-face classroom AND virtual learning spaces; it's policing people's leisure time too. Ouch.


For students struggling with multitasking in required online courses, Dr. Karpinski suggested that students try taking the course on a computer in a quiet part of the library where there are already norms in place which discourage many distracting behaviors.

Again, that is asking students to abandon self-regulation and let the school environment dictate to them what they do or don't do. I far prefer to help students work on self-awareness: setting goals and seeing how effective their work is (and they need feedback for that, of course) so that they can then assess what work strategies will be most useful. Also, I repeat: have they asked the multitasking students yet if they are bored...? Or just overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time to do it in? Or yet other reasons? You will not know unless/until you ask.


"Additionally, as universities increase their online course offerings, even for students already living on or near campus, these same universities might consider computer labs dedicated to online learning that are proctored in an effort to keep students on task," Dr. Karpinski said.


The revolution will NOT be proctored.


But seriously, on the perils of proctoring, please read: Online Courses Shouldn’t Use Remote Proctoring Tools. Here’s Why, by Jill Leafstedt.


screenshot of Leafstedt article



Okay, that was enough for today. I have done my duty as an online soldier in the laptop wars. Now I am going to go watch Season 4 of Outlander, looking stuff up in Wikipedia the whole time, because Outlander always makes me want to look stuff in Wikipedia. 


Happy Weekend, people!


Postscriptum. Before turning on the TV to watch Outlander, I checked the blog stream for my classes, and at the top of the stream was this post from a student with spontaneous observations from him on watching the video Sita Sings the Blues for class last week. This is what I meant about asking students to share their experiences and listening to what they say; this is just an excerpt from the post. What you can see here is that it's not just a simple question of multitasking or not. In this case, it's about time, and what choices students make when they run out of time. I would guess that a lot of the multitasking reported in the study above was from students with too much to do and not enough time to do it all. Or to do it all well. I always get new insights from reading their blog posts. :-)


blog snippet