One of parents’ and teachers’ biggest concerns about kids’ use of technology is the issue of distraction. As much as being wired can help kids with school work, it can also lead to temptations for goofing off. Pew Research Center study, “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World” recently reported that 87% of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers surveyed said that “these technologies are creating an ‘easily distracted generation with short attention spans.’’’ More than half also said that digital technologies do more to distract than to help students academically.
While opportunities for social interaction online can help kids collaborate and work together on school projects, they can also be distracting. That was Pierce Higgins’ experience with his three teenage children, who spent a lot of time on Facebook. Higgins started to ask himself, “How can one harness the energy that teenagers have about their Facebook?”
Higgins teamed up with his brother, Ronan Higgins, and a group at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland to develop Aftermath, software that directs kids to a math skills game where players can earn time on social networking sites. Parents buy and install the software, then choose which sites they want to limit, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Minecraft.
Of course, these same sites are used by savvy educators to encourage kids to participate in online school work. For teachers who use Facebook for school, there are sites that allow students to stay within Facebook for school work exclusively, restricting access to students’ wall and news feeds.
Educators have also long been using Twitter in different ways. One school in San Francisco, for example, is having students tweet for daily Do Now assignments. Another tool, TwHistory, allows students to enact historical events through tweeting. And that’s just a few ideas.
As for Minecraft, the commercial online game had so many learning opportunities, a few teachers created an educational version of it.
But it’s not that these social networking sites and games are inherently “bad” for students; the idea behind Aftermath is to provide productive incentives for kids to use those sites for downtime, unaffiliated with schoolwork. It’s a departure from Internet blocking, time-limiting programs already out there, like CyberPatrol, that have been around since the nineties.
Ronan Higgins said teachers see potential in the just-released software. They noticed that students showed more enthusiasm to learn topics that would help them in the game, and told Higgins the program might be a useful tool if parents or teachers could focus the game’s questions on specific concepts being taught in school. It would motivate students while giving them practice with a new skill.
Aftermath, which has math problems aimed at 12-16 year-olds that pop up randomly, has a few thousand users so far and is mostly being sold in Ireland. But the founders say it covers about 70% of the Common Core standards and they hope it will catch on in the U.S.
Already, Pierce Higgins is noticing a difference: kids are starting to set limits for themselves. Faced with the prospect of earning time, they are becoming more aware of how much time they spend on the computer and are making conscious choices to log off.