By Phil Dunn The (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post
Social media and electronics have created a world of digital distractions for students, making homework time a nightmare for watchful parents.
Kids are on their computers using online textbooks and doing Internet research, allowing for easy access to Facebook and Twitter. Throw in personal cellphone calls and text messaging from friends and that can translate into late nights for students.
"I find it sad that I get more work done at 11 or 12:30 at night because that is when everyone else is asleep," said Chris Blandy, 18, a senior at Cherry Hill High School West.
Some students cope with the distraction by budgeting social media time into their homework schedule or going to bed early to get a jump-start in the morning.
"Sometimes it just happens and you don't even realize it and it's gotten to the point where you do somewhat budget it into your time," said senior Sean Bivins, 18. "When I know I'm getting distracted a lot, I make myself go to bed earlier and I'll wake up and do some work in the morning because those distractions aren't as significant."
Melissa Malik, 17, said cellphone distractions sometimes cause her to take twice as long to complete a homework assignment.
"Something that used to take me half an hour now takes an hour because text messages and other things can distract you," said Malik, who is a senior at Cherry Hill West. "What I try to do is turn my phone on silent and keep it facedown."
Integrating Social Media
Shawna Bu Shell, an educational technology professor at Rowan University, said the answer is actually integrating social media more in the classroom.
Bu Shell has been educating a new fleet of teachers to be accepting of technology. She said it is not so much a Facebook or Twitter problem as it is teachers not fully integrating social media into the curriculum.
"My research shows students are not distracted if homework is designed well," said Bu Shell. "If a teacher is good at designing homework and is willing to integrate social media, then students won't be sneaking, trying to use it."
Bu Shell said students become distracted when homework is not engaging, which is not always the fault of the teacher, but a school district's reluctance to stray from the curriculum.
"Kids don't want to sit on (Microsoft) Word and write a paper about dinosaurs. They get bored with it," she said. "Instead tell a student to design a Facebook page for a pterodactyl."
"Who would that dinosaur be friends with? What sounds would it make?" Bu Shell said. "A student can learn so much by thinking from a dinosaur's point of view."
Bu Shell said teachers also need to give meaningful homework that moves the lesson forward and can be integrated into the next day's class.
"So if a student is not prepared, they are missing out," she said.
Though some school districts are beginning to integrate new technologies into the classroom, educational researcher and author Marc Prensky says many teachers are so-called "digital immigrants," making it hard for them to relate to students, who are "digital natives."
"I think as more and more digital native teachers come into the classroom, it will be a benefit to students because it will help them to understand what potential social media has," said Malik.
Bivins said he feels teachers are slowly coming around to using technology, but relying on things like blogs still seems very dated to students.
"I don't think I have any teachers that are digital natives," Bivins said. "I have teachers who use blogs, but it would be so much more relatable for us as students if they could send out a tweet or a Facebook message."
Williams said teachers should also use technology to engage parents, something Bu Shell said schools do already with management software.
"Most schools have integrated a learning management system or Web-based interfaces parents can log into and know what homework needs to be done or how their son or daughter is performing in certain classes."
But Bu Shell added teachers can do more to build a relationship with parents, engaging them in their student's homework.
"Google Voice, for example, gives teachers a free number to text parents their student's homework assignment for the night," she said. "We can let parents know that creating a dinosaur Facebook page should take about 45 minutes."
That could help create even more meaningful conversations between parents and teachers.
"If a student is flying through their homework, well, maybe they are not being challenged enough," Bu Shell explained.
"And on the other side, if a student is struggling, maybe they need tutoring."