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  • Writer's pictureM. Baggetta

How to bridge the digital divide in the modern classroom

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

The spread of smartphones and tablets in recent years has left no area of life web-inaccessible. Education is no exception. Learning has become guerrilla: no longer limited to the classroom, library, or lab.

Today, engaged learning can–and does–happen anytime and anywhere.

This always-on learning is cultivation “hyper attention” in students.

University classroom: Today

How to engage students in an increasingly digital world

“As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention, educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change the environment to fit the students.” – N. Katherine Hayles

The differences between attending a university class today and one prior to 1990 are significant. Think back to your own experience or ask your colleagues who attended college or university in the eighties or before. What tools were available to aid the professor in his or her role as educator? What tools did you have as a student to help you learn? What was the classroom environment like? Who spoke and who listened?

University classroom: 1940

The Evolution of Learning

Digital natives spend the majority of their time learning without the rules, etiquette, or authorities of the traditional classroom.

According to Professor Emeritus at Duke University and social critic N. Katherine Hayles, learning to learn in this way creates the assumption among students that learning is “less about a one-way transmission of information and more about providing a framework to which everyone contributes… participants share responsibility for insightfulness of the comments they post.”

The Attention Dichotomy

The alarm sounds at 7:00am. Wake up. Calendar alert: there’s class today. With closed eyes, reach for the phone. Quiet the alarm. Check the time. Check email. Reply to texts received overnight. Check Facebook notifications, tally likes, reply to comments. Post a status update. Tweet. Scroll through a few newsfeeds. Create a post on reddit. Search what time the bus is coming. What time the coffee shop opens. When that new movie is playing. Watch a trailer. Play a round of Angry Birds. Text a friend a movie invite. Check calendar. It’s now 7:07 am.

Hayles identifies “deep attention” as the dominant cognitive style of the pre-digital generation.  Students of this generation have the propensity to concentrate “on a single object for long periods, ignore outside stimuli while engaged, prefer a single information stream, and have a high tolerance for long focus times”.

At the other end of the spectrum are students who have a preference for “hyper attention” (not to be confused with the clinical diagnosis AD/HD). These students “switch focus rapidly among different tasks, prefer multiple information streams, seek a high level of stimulation, and have a low tolerance for boredom”.

University classroom: 1980

Nowhere is this new, insatiable demand for attention felt more than in classrooms. In effect, students are practicing and learning new habits that hinder their ability to focus attention consistently for a sustained duration of time. And professors are outnumbered, unable to meet hundreds of students’ unarticulated demand for 1-on-1 attention. One way to connect with hundreds of students in a way that is familiar and in real time is by using the same technology students use to connect to each other and the world.

How This Shift Changs Everything

So how is this new attention dichotomy in the classroom related to classroom technology? The way we use technology affects the way we use our minds, and vice versa.

For the generation who learned to teach (and learn) using blackboards, pens, pencils and paper, education was a reliable and linear algorithm. You would go to class and carefully record the professor’s lecture. Learning happened at a predictable rate, and in a single direction.

Not too long ago, researching meant photocopying, annotating, interpreting, and scrawling out draft after draft. The efficiency and method of this process depended on the student’s patience, attention, and ability to use his or her mind to focus for an extended period of time.

The tools for students and educators available in today’s classrooms transform the traditional linear algorithm into a quantum equation.

To save money and resources, readings are now distributed as scanned, searchable PDF files. Most books can be searched and accessed online. Finding the relevant research can take seconds at a desk instead of hours in a library.

Thanks to hyperlinks, reading in hyper attention is rhizomatic; understanding comes from multiple contexts and is strung together by where we choose to read, click, focus, and read some more. Reading and writing occurs mainly in the digital environment. Ideas are input into powerful word processors with less attention to consistency, veracity, or permanence thanks to the magic of copy/paste, spellcheck, and Google.

Without intentional focus, the myriad of new technological possibilities for engaged learning in the classroom can create a cognitive sense of creative freedom, or can lead to overwhelming ennui.

Embracing the messiness of educational technology

Embracing digital technology in the classroom opens up teaching opportunities and new ways of engaging students in the classroom, whereas rejecting it creates barriers and disconnects professors from a generation who think and learn differently.

In classrooms reluctant to adopt technology, friction created by this shift can generate significant pedagogical challenges and barriers.

However, this shift, when embraced on its own terms in the digital environment, becomes an opportunity to engage students in historically impossible ways.

Those professors using technology in the classroom are able to dismantle generational barriers and build new bridges between the teacher and student. This effort allows teachers to effectively connect with digital natives and facilitate learning in an engaging and relevant way.

The attention economy in your class

On one hand, there is an increase in students’ capacity to learn independently, anywhere, and at any time. On the other hand, information inundation creates a field of distraction that tempts attention. The possibility of discovering an infinite number of answers to questions we don’t even know we have is intoxicating to an undisciplined mind. Questions that can be indulged on a whim if attention is not intentionally focused, engaged, or stimulated.

According to Hayles, “stimulation works best… when it is associated with feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.” For a generation that excels at negotiating rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention, acknowledging presence, participation, and competence in real time can help students learn how to help themselves learn.

Wherever you find yourself, the web has penetrated the traditional attention economy, and stocks are appreciating quickly. The virtual space of the digital environment now overlays the space of the classroom environment at every moment. Embracing digital teaching tools gives traction and clout in the classroom and helps students to connect with a lecture and learn in new ways.

Given the opportunity to cultivate the ability to focus attention in class, the potential for students to learn, retain, and create new knowledge can be unleashed.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to facilitate an active and engaged learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click the button below.


Originally published on November 12, 2014 at


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