Schellenberg, T. (2009) Getting the Half Attention of Students UBC e-Strategy Newsletter, May

An article that follows on from the Macleans OnCampus article, with additional references to work by Michael Wesch (Kansas State U) and Judy Hardy (University of Edinburgh), plus comments from UBC’s own Don Krug.

At the end of the UBC article, Ted Schellenberg puts the following question:

‘….even though it can be rather distracting — instructors need to embrace the changes surrounding us, in order to bring out the best in our students. Do you agree?’

Here is my response:

There are several issues here. First, does the instructor want the students to use their computers during class? If there is absolutely no need for them to use their laptops in class, then ask them to keep them closed. It’s just a tool, after all, and if it’s not needed, put it away.

However, a much more important question is: why is not the instructor making use of the fact that students have the technology? If students have relevant, related activities to do, such as searching for resources, online articles, or connections with other scholars or students, then it would be perfectly legitimate for them to be using their laptops in class.

An even more important question then arises: why do the students have to be physically present in the lecture room to do this? What is the instructor providing that uniquely requires them to be present in the room? Giving information? No, that can be provided over the net. Discussion – maybe, but that can also be done online. Seeing a professional approach an academic issue? Yes, but a lecture is not the only way to do this.

A lecture should not be the default model anymore for higher education. It is one, often valuable tool in an instructor’s toolbox, but like all tools, it should be carefully used for the tasks it does best. The same applies to laptops. If they are not required for learning purposes, turn them off.


  1. I’d add a couple more questions:

    Why would we think that the Instructor is in the best position to know whether a particular student can or will make effective use of a device during class?

    Why would we think the answer is the same for all students in a class?

  2. Possible answers to Tony’s questions:
    1. Lecturers don’t use technology in the same way as their students and they know it, it’s hard for them to say with confidence that laptops aren’t needed.
    2. Using laptops/ipads/iphones/smartphones as an essential tool in class implies all students will have one. Until this becomes an institutional requirement, individual lecturers would be penalising less well off students.
    3. Students want more contact with lecturers not less and at present this is perceived as face to face contact via lectures and especially seminars.


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