Time-Saving Tech and the Distraction Subtraction

As ole Ben said, “An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.” And as our students apparently Google: “Where did Benjamin Franklin work?”

Looks like we need all the help we can get.

Barney McCoy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln estimates students use their smartphones for non-classroom activities 11 times per class period—that 20% of students’ in-class time is device-enabled non-class work. Imagine how much of their attention we have outside of class.

In addition, most adolescents should list “social media user” as their longest-held part-time job, since they spend 9 hours a day clocked in. Even on weekends.

While worthy, unplug advocacy may do long-term good but isn’t likely to snap students’ attention to the whiteboard—and we can’t exactly shoo them from the internet while assigning activities on Moodle.

So, then: to subversion. Pirate Professors, how can we use technology to help students avoid the distractions and diffusion of technology?


  • This Google Chrome plug-in allows students to limit access to particular websites (Facebook, etc.) on a customized schedule. It can also be used to cultivate more mindful use of technology by allowing access to a site but only for, say, an hour, or only after presenting the student with a series of gateway challenges to curtail a compulsive click to the Huffington Post.


  • K12 teachers have been on to this one for years. Remind requires some set up from the instructor, but then enables students to get text message reminders for course assignments, staff meetings, or special events. The instructor can set these reminders ahead of time (say, at the beginning of each term) to eliminate the “remember to remind” tasks from your to-do list. Maybe best of all, the app will distribute texts but can be set to block replies—so you can access students in real time but they can’t text you back at 2 am.

Google Calendar Appointment Slots

  • This is the tech version of the Office Door Sign-Up Sheet. We already schedule meetings with each other through Google calendar (or you can start now—see especially “Find a Meeting Time”), but this function allows students to schedule themselves for paper conferences, office visits, or advising appointments in slots pre-timed and pre-approved by the professor. A link to the slots can be posted on Moodle or sent by email, and everyone is saved the trouble of transferring items between calendars or using class time for passing the sign-up sheet— inevitably missed by the one student who reeeeally needs this conference.


  • If you’re skittish about others accessing your Google calendar—or need a tool to help students schedule their own group projects—Doodle is your jam. It prevents the irksome and unproductive rounds of I-can-do-Thursday-but-not-Tuesday / I-can-do-Tuesday / Next-Thursday? / No-Tuesday / Huh?

Pdf Joiner

  • Streamlining course documents (for distribution and submission) can reduce another sort of tech distraction: the time and energy wasted—and loss of focus—in toggling between a Word article, scanned map, Drive spreadsheet, and .gif graph. Pdf Joiner (and its cousins) allows users to drag-and-drop multiple documents into a single .pdf without Adobe Suite or a full version of Acrobat.

Even if these tools are regulars in your arsenal, the first few weeks of the semester are prime time for preventative measures.

Ole Ben’s other advice (wine is “a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!”) may find dissent. Nonetheless, better to invest minutes of tech prep now and save hours later of wishing for whiskey.

April Vinding
April, an Associate Professor of English, collaborates with individuals and departments to explore practical steps to build students' writing skills, lighten the burden of feedback and grading, maximize resources for written scholarship, and harness and cultivate the creative process.

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