On Classroom Attention and Smartphones

I read this really interesting conversation with Georgetown professor Jeanine Turner on how smartphones have fundamentally changed the dynamic of what students “being present” means, even when the phone is turned off.

This section in particular gave me pause:

I absolutely believe that every teacher, every presenter in a business situation, if you want people’s attention on you, you have to know that you’re competing for the attention of that person with that phone, and that phone is going to be continually buzzing throughout your conversation, and if people don’t think that they need to be paying attention to you rather than whatever they’re doing on their phone, or you keep saying the same thing over, or you haven’t provided enough incentive as to why you should listen to me, then people are going to choose something else.

The audience has more agency, more choice than they have ever had in the history of presentations. Now, because of that device, every single moment they’re choosing whether to pay attention to you or pay attention to that device. And because of that, you never have this kind of idea of a captive audience. You’re always competing.

And of course it’s not just students. I definitely see this in myself when I am listening to a lecture or at a staff presentation or even watching a television show. The phone is always pulling my attention at some level, even if it is off.

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