To complete her homework assignment, Meran Hill needed total concentration. The University of Washington senior shut the blinds in her studio apartment. She turned off the music. She took a few deep breaths.
Then she plunged into the task: Spend 15 minutes doing e-mail. Only e-mail, and nothing else.
Soon enough, though, a familiar craving bubbled up. For some people, the rabbit hole of Internet distraction begins with cat videos. For Ms. Hill, who calls herself "a massive weather geek," it starts with a compulsion to check conditions in outer space.
As Ms. Hill plowed through e-mails, the voice beckoned: If I could only just leave and go to Spaceweather.com ...
But the assignment had her trapped. After a while, she says, staying on e-mail felt more natural.
The e-mail drill was one of numerous mind-training exercises in a unique class designed to raise students' awareness about how they use their digital tools. Colleges have experimented with short-term social-media blackouts in the past. But Ms. Hill's course, "Information and Contemplation," goes way further. Participants scrutinize their use of technology: how much time they spend with it, how it affects their emotions, how it fragments their attention. They watch videos of themselves multitasking and write guidelines for improving their habits. They also practice meditation—during class—to sharpen their attention.
Their professor, David M. Levy, sees these techniques as the template for a grass-roots movement that could spur similar investigations on other campuses and beyond. Mr. Levy hopes to open a fresh window on the polarized cultural debate about Internet distraction and information abundance.
At its extreme, that debate plays out in the writing of authors whom the critic Adam Gopnik has dubbed the Never-Betters and the Better-Nevers. Those camps duke it out over whether the Internet will unleash vast reservoirs of human potential (Clay Shirky) or destroy our capacity for concentration and contemplation (Nicholas Carr).
On college campuses, meanwhile, educators struggle to manage what the Stanford University multitasking researcher Clifford Nass describes as a radical shift in the nature of attention. Mr. Nass, who lives in a freshman dormitory as a "dorm parent," sees that shift on students' screens. They write papers while toggling among YouTube and Facebook and Spotify. They text and talk on smartphones. They hang out in lounges where the TV is on.