Keeping students engaged in class has always been a struggle for instructors. But with laptops for note-taking in every classroom and smartphones burning a hole in every student’s pocket, keeping the digital generation interested in the lesson at hand requires new approaches, no matter the field of study. So how do you draw someone’s attention away from their Instagram account and onto the lesson at hand? Here are some of our favourite ideas.

Engagement starts before class does

Every positive interaction with students will affect the likelihood of them actively engaging with your courses, and you don’t need to wait until classes officially begin. You can begin building a good rapport with your class before the semester begins by doing something simple like sending a welcome email, class expectations, or links to relevant articles they might find interesting.

Use online tools available to you to cultivate these connections, too. Set up a simple website apart from your formal learning management system, and use it to showcase the upcoming course and provide your background and expertise in the subject. A .study or .courses top-level domain signals that your site focuses on learning.

Inject some personality by blogging about your academic area of interest. Use current events to spark content ideas, and invite students to comment and share their own thoughts, beyond what’s in the official lesson plans.

Recognise that digital natives need digital solutions

Building rapport matters, but keeping students interested once they’re in the classroom is critical, too.

Research shows 86 percent of college students own a smartphone, nearly half own a tablet, and they consider the devices an integral part of their daily life. And a report published in the Journal of Media Education revealed that students spend an average of 20 percent of class time using a mobile device for non-class purposes.

The most common reason students admitted they check their phone during class was to stay connected and fight boredom — ouch. But despite their potential to distract, students overwhelmingly believe devices should not be banned.

So if you can’t beat ‘em, it’s time to join ‘em by making lessons more interactive. Encourage real-time device usage as a way to cement core ideas, allow students to apply their learnings, and promote collaboration.

Introduce the concept of a flipped classroom, where students are expected to read or watch course material in their own time, so that class time is spent in discussion, problem-solving, and giving feedback, all using their device. Try some of these ideas for inspiration:

Gamify knowledge-gathering: Have students implement their online research skills and their devices in a race to find specific data, a relevant case study, news story, or a resource that supports or refutes your argument.

Get instant feedback: Deliver quizzes and polls during class and get immediate feedback from students by using free apps like Socrative. Open your lecture with a surprising statement and allow students to whip out their phones to instantly vote on whether it’s true or false.

Use social media to your advantage: Explore tweets on a trending topic that relates to your subject area as a means to examine real-world issues, or create a class-specific hashtag that students can use to tweet in response to a question you’ve asked in class. Summarising an idea with a limited number of characters can be an effective form of note-taking, and you can share certain tweets with everyone as a jumping-off point for further discussion.

Introduce cutting-edge technologies where possible: Invest in cost-effective virtual reality (VR) viewers, like Google Cardboard, so students can use their own smartphones to participate in virtual field trips. A number of educational VR programs are also available to download free online, as well as paid services for educational VR content, like a virtual trip around Stonehenge or into the human anatomy.

Competing with smartphones for your students’ attention is so 2017. This year, embrace it instead, and use online tools to make class time a fun, interactive learning environment.