mccoy research

Generation Z struggled less than millennials did with distractions from digital devices in class until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor said.

Barney McCoy, a professor of journalism in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, started his research in 2013 with a question: ‘How are students distracted by digital devices in the classroom?’ He wanted to learn about the effects of devices that weren’t in the classroom when he was a student.

McCoy said he was surprised to see a decline in how students were distracted by digital devices in 2015 when the millennial generation ended and Gen Z started. 

“In 2019, Gen Z students reported spending 19% of their class time using a digital device for a non-class purpose,” McCoy wrote in an email. “That’s a decline from 2015, when millennial students reported spending nearly 21% of class time looking at their smartphones, tablets and laptops.”

Adam Wagler, an associate professor of advertising and public relations and associate dean for academic programs at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, understood McCoys interest in this topic. Wagler said he saw how students could get distracted with a device that is alerting them constantly or maybe they had something going on outside the classroom and so students would want to think about the possibility of a notification. 

“Students come into class and what they bring with them [is] not just personal and emotional things and background, but actual devices and how that kind of contributes to their learning and how you kind of process information right? So if you're missing half of it[class] or keep getting drawn away, then it just interrupts,” Wagler said.

The research was conducted by analyzing surveys sent to students across the nation in undergraduate classrooms, McCoy said. He said he reached out to universities and asked professors if they could share the survey with students so he could apply the results and statistics to students across the country. 

“Until March of 2020, most American colleges were educational communities where students learned in on-site classrooms,” McCoy’s research says. “Students sat feet apart while listening, discussing and learning about a broad range of topics with guidance from college instructors who taught in the classrooms big and small.” 

There was another big shift when COVID-19 started, and he had to shift his research to be able to study students working remotely, McCoy said. 

“Most of my students were at home, or in their apartment, but they were in an environment where there were lots of distractions taking place around them,” McCoy said.

McCoy explained students started to report they felt very distracted in an online classroom. He said he found Gen Z students preferred being in-person and wanted to use their devices less. McCoy was also able to make a list of advantages and disadvantages found in being remote, he said. 

Wagler said he could see how a return to the classroom could be difficult after reading McCoy’s Research.

“Just because it's online doesn't necessarily mean it's convenient for everybody; depending on their home life or job workload, all that kind of stuff, like, sometimes an in-person experience can take you out of that focus even more,” Wagler said.

Students, faculty and staff with busy schedules were able to accomplish more during the pandemic, McCoy said. They saw that these distracting devices could become helpful, allowing them to hop in and out of class. 

But when it came time to finally get back with people, they wanted to put their phones or laptops away for good. McCoy said those at a university actually wanted to interact with one another after spending time in pandemic life. 

“I think at the end of it all, what I found in my research is that if students had only one choice to make, they would prefer to be in a classroom setting,” McCoy said. “However, students also said, by a slight majority, that what we would like to be able to do is have the flexibility if we need it, to be able to take an online class.” 

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