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Surprising new app helps special-ed students using mobile devices stay on task in school
Using technology to battle distraction may make lemons out of lemonade for some frustrated teachers. - photo by Eric Schulzke
A new "Score It" app being tested in special-ed classrooms beeps students at intervals throughout the day asking them "Are you on task?" and giving them two buttons to quickly answer "yes or no."

It may seem strange that the mobile devices that increasingly are distracting schoolchildren could be leveraged to keep them on task, but the program seems to work with attention-challenged students by "making them partners in a strategy for improvement," as Howard Wills, an education professor at the University of Kansas, put it to the Hechinger Report.

The Hechinger article focused on Alexandra Beckman, a grade-school special-education teacher in Ozark, Missouri.

"Beckman is among several teachers to pilot emerging 'self-monitoring' applications for students with chronic behavior and attention problems," Hechinger Report noted. "Self-monitoring students, who are often but not exclusively those with learning disabilities or attention disorders, work with teachers to set classroom comportment goals, such as coming to class prepared 75 percent of the time. Then they track their own progress."

The "Score It" app is one more example of how the paradox of technological promise diminished by distraction is proceeding in America's classrooms. But many education experts fear digital distraction outweighs any redemptive promise.

Earlier this year, the Journal of Media Education released a survey showing that "students check their phones and other digital devices in class more than 11 times a day on average." The survey, according to, consulted 675 college students in 26 states.

"That can add up," University of Nebraska professor Barney McCoy told "During the typical four years they're in college classrooms, the average student may be distracted for two-thirds of a school year."

And while strategic use of the devices may help in the margins, as Score It attempts to do with special-education students, many experts question the push for more and more technology in students' hands.

"In fact, while many poor school districts are doing everything possible to get more technology into their schools, wealthy, well-educated parents are asking the districts that educate their children to pare down the technology and provide more adult guidance," reported The Journal, a leading educational technology publication.

The Journal notes that "Lakeside School, a private high school in Seattle whose students are the scions of the Pacific Northwest elite and that boasts Bill Gates among its alumni, has no dearth of technology. But what the parents of Lakeside students are really paying for is the extra adult guidance that is so important in a student's education. Lakeside has a 9:1 student-to-teacher ratio."

Poorly considered use of technology in the classroom will fail, warned Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information.

Toyama said, "The defining factor about whether technology is used well in the classroom or not is the degree to which the teachers are committed and prepared to use the technology."
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