Can't stop fiddling with your phone in class? There's an app for that

There's a new tool in the quest for classroom engagement —an app, created by Canadian students.

Toronto startup Flipd helps students unplug while alerting profs that they are paying attention

University students are distracted by their phones in class on average 11 times a day, a recent University of Nebraska survey suggests. Toronto-based startup Flipd has created an app that gently reminds them to get off their phones. (Getty Images)

At first it seems like a head-scratcher.

Toronto-based startup Flipd has created an app that gently reminds students to get off their phone and pay attention in class.

But why don't students just turn off their personal devices?

The simple answer is that many can't — or won't. But now their devices can gently prod them.

This generation of students is more plugged in than any of their predecessors. If they're not on their phone, they're waiting for a notification to let them know they need to check in on something.

A recent University of Nebraska survey suggests the average university student used a digital device for non-class purposes about 11 times during a typical school day. Reasons for doing this include texting, social networking and emailing.
Keeping tabs on student engagement can be difficult in large classes. But Flipd 'helps the professors better understand at what point are students getting bored,' says company co-founder Alanna Harvey. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

More than 80 per cent of respondents said this behaviour caused them to pay less attention in the classroom and miss important points.

That's where the Flipd app comes in handy. Alanna Harvey, who co-founded the company, says it encourages students to be less distracted.

"They opt in and unplug from their phones during class using our app, and it measures on a dashboard in the background that the professors can see later on as to who was actually engaged, who used Flipd for the duration of the lecture."

It helps the professors better understand at what point are students getting bored.— Alanna Harvey, co-founder of Flipd

This dashboard feature gives teachers a tool to measure interest in their lectures.

"It helps the professors better understand at what point are students getting bored, checking Instagram or deciding to check out of the lecture for whatever they want to do," Harvey told CBC News On The Money.

"They can't see what the student goes and does, but ultimately it helps them understand engagement in their lecture," she says.

An instructor speaks to pharmacy students, some of them behind his back, at the University of Waterloo. Flipd encourages students to stay engaged in class. (University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy/Twitter)

The first version of Flipd helped parents control how much their kids were using their smartphones. It launched a couple of years ago on the Android platform.

But Harvey and her co-founders noticed something unusual. Parents weren't flocking to their app as much as students were.

"Students were using it to lock themselves out of their phones. They were using it to study. So we decided to refocus our entire product towards students," she says.

In 2016, the refocused app rolled out in schools across the United States. The school year in America starts earlier than in Canada so Harvey and her team decided to start in the U.S. and work their way north.

Canadian launch this month

The official Canadian launch takes place this month, starting with the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and the University of Waterloo. According to Harvey, Flipd has 130,000 users on its platform at big American schools like Pennsylvania State University and California State University.

For now, the focus is on students, who pay $4 for every semester they use the app. Eventually, Harvey says she'd like to see Flipd migrate outside the classroom.

"Students are a really incredible force that are going to be moving into the workforce eventually."

Digital distractions in class

6 years ago
Duration 6:09
Alanna Harvey, co-founder, Flipd, on their app that's meant to help students pay attention in class


Anne Gaviola

Producer, On The Money on CBC News Network

Anne Gaviola is a hunter, gatherer and teller of stories. Follow her on Twitter @AnneGaviola, on Instagram at annegeewhiz