One eye on homework - the other on e-mail, TV, games ...

High-tech turns study time into multitasking extravaganza

On a typical school night, Kyle Judge might be perched over his laptop writing a paper or tackling some math - when an electronic message snaps his concentration.

It's a note from a friend: an invitation to "chat" using instant messenger (I.M.), a program that lets friends e-mail simultaneously. Or maybe it's a request for homework help.

Either way, the high school sophomore from Winnetka, Ill., concedes that working on a computer offers its share of distractions. Add to that technology's 24/7 presence, pressure to socialize, a heavy homework load, and more extracurricular activities, and what's emerging is a generation that - for better or worse - multitasks just as easily as it sleeps in on weekends.

Few would question the positive impact technology has had on education. E-mail, the Internet, and software programs have bolstered the pace of work, connected students to experts worldwide, and brought libraries right to the doorstep. A 1999 survey by Grunwald Associates in California showed that more than 25 million children ages 2 to 17 are online, a number that has tripled since 1997. Of those, more than 70 percent of teens use the Web regularly.

But with the surge of information comes a greater burden on teens to manage time - and to filter out distractions. Unlike their parents, who typically had to take more initiative to create interruptions from homework, many teens are finding technology floods them with ways to lose concentration. And they're readily taking advantage.

"I think the nature of study habits themselves [is] changing," says Chris Dede, professor of learning technology at Harvard University. He says technology has had an "amplifying" effect on students' habits, giving the ambitious new ways to explore, and further distracting the unmotivated. "Technology ... makes motivation more crucial. If students don't care what they're learning, they're much more likely to multitask."

Indeed, when parents look into bedrooms or family rooms, they say they'll often find children surfing the Web, listening to music, and talking on the phone - all while trying to finish schoolwork.

"I watch my freshman daughter at the computer, sitting on the phone with three people on a conference call, and 'I.M.-ing' four people," says Jim Lonergan, who lives in Illinois. He tries to monitor her time. "You're impressed they can have seven strands of conversation going at once. She does well ... but if she studied [more instead], her grades would be better."

Parents and educators alike worry about the impact electronic media are having on traditional study hours. They see time formerly spent perusing books or engaging in a hobby eclipsed by devices like Palm Pilots, video games, or e-mail that belts out "You've got mail!" when teens go online for research.

"When I'm doing research on the Web and people send me instant messages ... I want to talk back," says Bradstreet Peaseley of Richmond, Va., a sixth-grader who usually finishes homework on his computer before e-mailing friends. He adds, "My mom makes me get off after a half hour. Sometimes I organize myself better when I need to get stuff done fast."

For Kyle, who has very good grades and tackles four hours of homework nightly, an English paper might take an extra half hour to finish if grouped with music and instant messaging. He'll sometimes juggle 12 online conversations at once, but overall his priority is "to manage my time well." He also doesn't think e-mail or listening to music has had a major impact on schoolwork.

But some educators point to a need for greater focus in a world filled with thousands of electronic gizmos and fast-paced demands. "There doesn't seem to be that Puritan work ethic," says Mr. Lonergan, who is also a teacher at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. He adds that today's lightning pace makes it hard for kids to want to really buckle down.

Parents can help teens focus by making education relevant to their lives and by understanding how they learn best, teachers suggest. For example, soft music in the background might be helpful to some students. Total quiet could be better for others. Educators say it's also vital to supervise teens while teaching them how to manage time. Adults should show them how to tap into technology's ability to improve learning.

"[Teens] get together electronically for homework. They use the computer for all of their writing assignments," says Sandra Calvert of Georgetown University in Washington. "If they use a Palm Pilot to play Pac Man in class, then that's bad. But with a Palm Pilot you can also download lots of educational software."

Parents, however, don't police the computer as frequently or easily as they do TV. "[I.M.] is a backdoor way to have conversations during homework time," says Nancy Judge, Kyle's mom. She prohibits TV on week nights and monitors her kids. "I think it's an added distraction. It has great potential for increasing productivity. But it's a distraction you have to manage like everything else."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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