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The EdTech Company That Is Putting the Brakes on Digital Distraction

By Cait Etherington
December 14, 2018
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Digital distraction isn’t just a problem facing the young. Adults in business meetings and even elected officials also have a difficult time avoiding digital distraction. In schools, however, the problem is rampant. One 2017 study carried out at Michigan State University discovered that students in an introductory psychology course spent up to a third of their time surfing nonacademic sites, even though they were well aware of the fact that researchers were tracking their computer use during class time. Now, NetRef wants to provide educators with a solution to the growing problem of digital distraction.

How NetRef Works

NetRef offers solutions to both teachers and administrators. For teachers, NetRef essentially operates as a classroom Internet monitor. Among other features, teachers can control Internet activity in real time on any school- or student-owned device. They can also use NetRef to filter sites or lock down browsers and to allow or block web browsing, apps, texting, instant messaging, social media, and games.  

Joseph Heinzen, founder and CEO of Zoozil, a company that works closely with NetRef, emphasizes just how easy it is to use NetRef. As Heinzen recently told Forbes, “For example, if I was a teacher using NetRef and I wanted my students only to have access to Khan Academy during that class period, I could make that setting for all the students in my class in one click. Now the only website my students can use is Khan Academy, and I don’t have to worry about my students going to inappropriate apps or time-wasting sites.”

NetRef also offers a host of features for school administrators. For example, it facilitates district- and school-wide Internet reporting. This feature enables IT staff to monitor and reduce spending on apps and programs that aren’t being used effectively. Administrators can also request detailed reports to monitor how apps and online resources are being used by their staff and share these insights with key stakeholders, including parents. 

Is Heightened Control and Censorship the Only Solution?

Since laptops and cell phones started to arrive in classrooms about twenty years ago, educators and administrations have been debating whether or not these devices should simply be banned.  While there is certainly widespread support for device bans, not everyone agrees. 

In a recent interview with NPR, Jesse Stommel, Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington, explained, “Ultimately, I see strict laptop policies (and especially blanket bans) as a form of control.” Stommel further noted, “I don’t think the attention of students is actually something teachers can or should control.” In lieu of this authoritarian approach, Stommel suggests conversion: “We can talk to students about attention and have them talk to us about how attention works for them.”

While Stommel’s approach may be ideal, especially at the postsecondary level, could it work in a classroom with 34 tween-age students? Unless one’s middle schoolers are exceptionally well behaved, this seems unlikely. Unfortunately, the consequences of not intervening are also significant.

The authors of a 2017 survey on media multitasking (MMT), which examined the results of multiple research studies on MMT, found “A growing body of research investigating MMT has generally, but not always, revealed reduced performance on cognitive tasks and well-being surveys.” The authors of the study note that such research raises concerns regarding the impact of MMT behavior during certain types of activities, especially doing homework and learning in technology-rich classrooms. Based on these facts, the authors offer the following advice to educators: “Until we are able to understand the direction of causality, suggest to people of all ages and abilities that they give careful consideration to how they engage with media.”

Given that mere suggestions don’t always work when it comes to controlling the use of digital devices in the classroom, it seems likely that NetRef will attract the attention of many educators and school administrators.

Photograph: Watchdog by Tobias Jussen (available on Unsplash).