Teaching Unplugged: Slice of Life #sol15 11/10/15

slice of life

I am unexpectedly guesting in another professor’s classroom for a couple of weeks, teaching Macbeth. On my second day, we’re talking setting, and I ask students what a heath looks like. They stare at me and say nothing. Not sure if they’re quiet because they don’t know what a heath looks like or if it’s because it’s 9 a.m. and nobody is quite awake enough to analyze literature or summon mental images of Scottish landscapes.

I start to ask the class to Google an image. And then I notice that no one has a computer in front of them. No one has a device. There are no tablets in evidence. No phones. Every student’s place at the table looks exactly the same: giant Shakespeare textbook, pen or pencil, spiral notebook open to take notes. This is an old-school classroom. This is teaching unplugged.


I don’t do unplugged. I bring two, sometimes three devices to class with me. Every student has one, sometimes two devices in front of them. I ask students to Google answers to our questions, to check the course hashtag on Twitter, to live tweet class, to look at a classmate’s blog post. We’re all online, off and on, throughout class.

I’ve always thought that our online presence enhances our in-class experiences. But there is an attention and presence in this unplugged classroom that stops me short every morning that I teach the class and makes me reconsider.

Could I go device-free in my classroom? Would I want to?

Everyone in this classroom is fully present. Totally attentive. All of them. Every morning. For every minute of every class. I’m not used to this. All eyes on me for fifty minutes. What I’m used to in the classroom, I realize, is competing for my students’ attention with their devices—devices I invite and even require them to use in class. Of course the idea is that they’re using their devices and the connections and information at their fingertips for good, to further their knowledge about the course, to ask questions and get answers from experts, to share their thinking. But the quality of our attention is certainly compromised by the presence of devices. We are not fully present with each other. There is nothing special or sacred about this time. We are in the room together, and we are learning, but we are also in virtual rooms with many other people, and that fractures and dissipates the energy available to bring to this room, this learning.

I haven’t yet been able to leave my devices in my office. They’re my security blanket. What if I need them? I’m trying to imagine the Shakespeare emergency where class would come to an absolute standstill and no further progress could be made until some essential piece of information is checked online. But it’s hard to envision a scenario where I would absolutely have to have my phone to be able to teach. One student did ask me when Ben Jonson published a Folio of his work, and I was pleased to look it up and tell him. 1616. But it was hardly a crisis.

Leaving the devices in the bag, in the car, in the office might mean that I can’t access that photo of a Scottish heath or check a publication date. But in exchange for information,  I have fifty minutes of my students’ undivided attention—just as they have fifty minutes of mine. I never before considered how valuable, scarce, or special that attention really is.


Photo CC-By English106 @ Flickr






31 responses to “Teaching Unplugged: Slice of Life #sol15 11/10/15”

  1. Deb Day (@mrsday75) Avatar

    I’m with you. I don’t do unplugged. I have, however, started asking students to shut computers and put away their phones at times. That request seems to help us strike a balance (well, most of us). This is a constant conversation with some of my students–when is it appropriate to be on device and when it’s better to put it away.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I’m curious how that works for students. I know for myself, I get frustrated when I want to have my device and someone tells me I can’t! I wait impatiently until the ban on devices is over and I can start multi-tasking again! It’s definitely an important conversation to have.

  2. jarhartz Avatar

    You bring up great points. I love devices. My students love devices. Many gain with the tools. But, I also wonder what we lose in the process. Attention, engagement is a valuable commodity for ourselves and for our students. I believe we need to monitor abilities to engage in all kinds of thinking, with and without the device. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I thought I already understood what I was losing and gaining in the process of incorporating everyone’s devices (including mine!), but this class has convinced me that I really did not understood fully!

  3. carriegelson Avatar

    Attention, undivided. Wondering if this will become increasingly rare. Enjoy this experience – I have the feeling you will continue to do a lot of thinking.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      You’re right–been thinking about this as I plan some for classes next semester. Are there any where I want to have no devices? Maybe.

  4. principalberry Avatar

    Boy this makes me think a lot about tech, learning and human communication. I’m going to be thinking for a while!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I’m such a tech person–it’s challenging for me to do this thinking!

  5. Linda Baie Avatar

    I guess I would say, as we often did at my school, “it depends”. Each setting calls for a different experience, doesn’t it? It depends upon the kind of lesson planned: interactive, talking in small groups, sharing learning, or listening to the professor sharing her own expert knowledge. You’ve brought a thoughtful question, Elisabeth. What will we ask for at certain times?

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I do think you’re right, Linda. I notice that my students use their devices throughout all of these lesson types. I’ve always thought of the conversation as one about appropriate and inappropriate times for devices, but this class has me thinking it goes farther than that.

  6. Linsey Taylor Avatar

    Part of me cringed at the thought of unplugging for 50 minutes! But the other part of me thought what an awesome relief! Maybe try 1/2 a class of unplugging. Baby steps!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I cringe at the thought too! What if I get bored?! I’m going to have to talk to the students and ask them about this. How do they do it? These same students are in some of my other classes, and they aren’t unplugged there!

  7. Dana Murphy Avatar

    Holy moly, this is a thought provoking blog post. This is a struggle in my personal life as well. Being constantly connected has reaped many benefits for me, but I wonder what I’ve lost as well.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Constant struggle for me too. Instead of picking up a book, I am much more likely to scroll through Facebook or Twitter. I value my connections there, but I feel like I am losing that same quality of focus and attention I appreciate in this particular class.

  8. Terje Avatar

    Interesting to read this as my third graders learned about augmented reality today. Moderation and balance is my take on using technology in class.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Moderation and balance–great guiding words for an approach to technology in the classroom!

  9. jkmclain3 Avatar

    I think instead of avoiding the technology we have teachers need to start embracing it and implementing it in their everyday class! Students love technology, why not give them a way to enhance their learning? Not all technology is bad and I think as educators we need to realize that!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      That’s been my view as well. I’ve had no reason to rethink that in my own classes, where it seems like tech works quite well. But wow, there’s just such a different feel to this particular class that’s tech-free.

  10. Elizabeth Gordon Avatar

    Great post! I feel compelled to get MORE plugged in! As of August I purchased a smart phone for the first time in my life and am still struggling with using it for anything other than phone calls (and even that was a challenge.) My laptop is heavy so I don’t bring it with me very much. After reading your post and the comments made, I feel like I better get on board soon. I am earning a BS in secondary education and more and more I am realizing that technology is a vital part of that experience.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I think at our institution, we often conflate technology with pedagogy, and they are not the same thing. I use a lot of social media in my classes because I want my students to see these sites as tools for learning that can be meaningfully and purposefully integrated in our classrooms and significant for our learning. Certainly my PLN (personal learning network) and online presence is key to my own continuing professional development.

  11. Erica Avatar

    Technology is such an interesting and conflicting topic–both in the classroom and life in general! Finding a way to strike a balance is SO hard…smartphones and technology are so addictive! As a mother, I often feel guilty about spending too much time on my device of choice–either doing homework or pinning a new recipe. In class, I generally try to stay off my phone, but it definitely is nice to have the security of knowing that I can be reached in case of an emergency, and it is handy when I need to check a fact or remember how to spell a specific word. However, my husband–who is also a college instructor (who, incidentally also teaches Macbeth, which is his favorite Shakespeare piece) is very much that “unplugged” teacher–which makes me laugh, because he texts me when I am in class! The key, overall, I think, is to embrace technology and find that balance so that we are using it appropriately–because, if we face the facts, technology isn’t going anywhere!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      So funny! Macbeth is my LEAST favorite, though I did have much more appreciation for it after teaching the last couple of acts. I use my devices in class for the same reasons you mention–to be available if my son needs me and to look up information and resources. It has never occurred to me to do it any other way. In fact, I’ve always felt that my students are mostly attentive and present in class and that we’re balancing our use of technology with quality face-to-face interaction really effectively. But the experience of teaching in this different classroom has made me question that!

  12. shannonhorn1 Avatar

    I’m not sure if all schools are like this, but in my middle school and high school we were not allowed to use any technology in class unless it was the school’s laptops in order to complete research or write an essay. Would you let your students use their phones, tablets, etc. in your classroom if you were teaching at the middle school or high school level?

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Absolutely! My son’s school fights a losing battle against phones every day. So much wasted time of kids getting in trouble over phones. Of course, the consequence of inviting students to use their phones for learning is that you have to change how and what you learn. When everyone has Google in their pockets, you can’t ask exclusively Googleable questions, and the content of his education is largely memorized factual information that could be found with a two-second Google search. I think the unintended consequence of banning phones is that kids never leverage them fully for learning–and let’s face it, I do most of my learning on my phone, my iPad, or my laptop!

      1. shannonhorn1 Avatar

        It’s always been interesting to me how many times I’ve been tested over information I’m expected to memorize. Unfortunately, even though I aced all of my sophomore geography quizzes, I honestly don’t think I could label half of what I used to be able to.

  13. Scott Day Avatar

    “Fully present Totally attentive.” These are wonderful words. An amazing opportunity for dialogue.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Thanks, Scott. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me. I’m looking forward to having a discussion with the students about their experience of learning in a tech-free classroom, especially since most of them are very familiar with my tech-full classroom!

  14. moddyscience Avatar

    It’s definitely a changing world and I think you are right to go bring in student learning aide, especially when most kids are used to seeing devices every day of their lives. My brother, for instance has created an attention problem within himself from being so desperately connected to the internet and he is the most successful in the tech-classrooms that you mention. I wish you great success.

  15. […] Teaching Unplugged shares an experience guest-lecturing in another professor’s classroom where no devices are allowed. The quality of attention, depth of conversation, and intensity of interaction surprised me and made me question the multitasking I invite in my own classroom. […]

  16. […] Teaching Unplugged, which describes an experience guest-lecturing in another professor’s classroom where no devices are allowed. I’ve been really happy with the way I use technology in my classes–until I taught this class. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: