THE BLOG
11/30/2015 06:29 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

Take Homework Offline

A foreign language assignment in high school: Write about a day in the life of a celebrity.

But first, research celebrities online. In English.

Unless you believe that lack of celebrity knowledge is hurting American competitiveness, you might ask, is that first step necessary?

It seems like every day that a new article comes out, warning of the uncertain consequences of prolonged and distracted screen time.

A study of middle and high school students found they spent 35 percent of their online homework time on distractions, a ratio most parents can only dream of in their own families. These were students who knew a scientist was looking over their shoulder, and still could not resist distractions. And that was in the first 15 minutes.

There seems to be nothing we can do, and most of us are plugged in all the time. It is tempting to give up and rationalize this as a good thing.

But that means hoping for the best in a giant experiment on teenagers. Their generation is the first with a nearly unlimited ability to live online. They were seven when the iPhone was invented, and 10 when the iPad arrived. The Internet may be 20 years old, but for most of that time, household access was limited to one tethered computer.

There is an alternative. The typical teenager already has her or his head in the clouds; don't make it worse by putting homework there.

Most schools increasingly rely on the web to post assignments, provide resources and replace textbooks. Many educational applications run in the cloud. A great deal of homework requires online access, or online research that often could be avoided.

Think about this for a minute.

Schools are sending kids to the most distracting medium ever invented. Parents have no way to know if their children are working or playing in one of a dozen windows. An assignment that should take one hour may stretch to two or three. High school students can use homework as justification for sitting at a screen almost continuously from 3 p.m. until late at night.

Technology works best in class: good teachers make the most of it by moderating its use. It is not realistic to expect parents to moderate their kids' hours of online homework time, on top of their regular jobs.

Any subject can be taught offline -- and that includes the tools of digital literacy. Every student should learn how to code. As with any subject, coding is learned best without distractions. You can write code on an offline computer, or you can do it online, where checking Facebook every five minutes will only make you Facebook literate.

How much easier it would be for parents and students if homework time were offline time. Even at the college level, a surprising number of my students say they find it easier to work offline or from hard copy.

Teachers, sending kids online for homework is like telling them to do it at Disneyland. Research can be done in class, and students taught to archive the results for offline access. Grading of projects can be split into two parts: one grade for efficient research, another grade for analysis and writing. More essays can be based on a single primary source. In math and science, paper problem sets privilege homework as something different and more present.

Schools and parents could work together to create some low-distraction safe harbors. Not every device in the house needs web access. Children's phones do not need a network data plan.

The same industry that created the problem can fix it. Educational applications or entire shell environments for schoolwork could be designed to disable wi-fi access when launched. Electronic textbooks could license and include for download the reference materials needed for research projects.

Among the many technological skills students need to learn, one is knowing how to unplug.

Carl Marziali is teaching a writing class this fall at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This commentary appeared previously in the Pasadena Star-News.