Presence, Structured Exposure and Desire



Two years ago, Clay Shirky wrote about asking students in his class to put their laptops away. A recent Medium alert brought my attention to the post.
I had not seen it before the alert.
I have had the post open in a browser tab for two days … disappointed to have missed the original post and provoked by the content.
I am fortunate that I have had lots of driving to do at the moment to give me time to think about Clay’s points.


Clay notes:

  • The practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time.
  • The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year.
  • The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

This led to Clay moving from recommending students set aside laptops and phones to requiring it.
His blog post shares evidence about attention and focus. He writes:

I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction.

He makes a powerful point with this observation:

screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke.

In his classrooms:

It’s me and them (the students) working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.


Structured Exposure

Clay’s post disturbed me in the best possible way. It encouraged me to reflect on the importance I attach to bring your own device classrooms.
I have flipped most of my content for many years and have used classroom environments to explore how students can become produsers of this content.
My experience has been that my classes are negotiable inductions to digital scholarship and learning to deal with the perturbations that information and communications technology bring.
I took a lead from Alan Levine to change my pedagogy to address structured exposure. He defined this as “meeting in a physical space in synchronous time”.
I thought this exposure gave opportunities to deal with the presence and distraction of the devices. It seemed to me to resonate with ways we all have continuous partial attention.
My rationale for devices in my classroom has been informed by the objectives for Alan and his colleagues’ ds106 course:

    • Develop skills in using technology as a tool for networking, sharing, narrating, and creative self-expression.
    • Frame a digital identity wherein you become both a practitioner in and interrogator of various new modes of networking.
    • Critically examine the digital landscape of communication technologies as emergent narrative forms and genres.



I am hopeful that my approach to digital scholarship enables students to make choices about attention and the management of distraction.
I am always relieved when students arrive at my classes. My invitational approach offers them a choice about remote connection and structured exposure.
Kate Bowles helped me think about the space for desire to learn in my classrooms. A few months before Clay’s post, she wrote that the essence of a successful desire path

is that it represents shared decision-making between separate users who don’t formally cooperate. So a desire path is both a coherent expression of collective effort, and completely unplanned — in fact, it’s the opposite of planning. Simply, each one puts her or his foot where it feels most sensible, and the result is a useful informal path that’s sensitive to gradient, destination, weather, terrain, and built through unspoken collaboration among strangers.


It has taken me almost 500 miles of driving to compile my thoughts about Clay’s post.
It has made me acutely aware of the role I play as a meddler in students’ learning experiences.
Ultimately, I hope to be a good enough teacher to engage students in qualitative experiences that encourage them, perhaps even compel them, to engage with the ideas and resources shared openly in digital habitats.
The process has brought me closer to reflecting on a recent observation from Michael Wesch:

You can’t just think your way into a new way of living; you have to live your way into a new way of thinking.

Thank you for reading this post amidst all the distractions you face.

Photo Credits

The parsnip field home (Steve, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Times They Are A’Changing (Brett Jordan, CC BY 2.0)
It is always a miracle (Ib Aarmo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


  1. Thanks for this post Keith, which mirrors some of the things I have been thinking about this week. Last week I was involved in a discussion about whether school children should be allowed to take their mobile phones into school. I would think the context is all important in making a decision about whether or not to allow laptops/phones in the classroom?

    • Hello, Jenny. Thank you for finding the post. I agree, it is context that helps us make informed decisions. I hope you are well. Best wishes, Keith

  2. Its funny how these posts come up. I was just talking to a fellow coach tutor; we agreed you can broadly divide new coaches into two very broad groups. Those that write down almost every word you mutter and take photographs with their ‘phones of anything you write on a board. Almost all of these coaches will pass their assessments. Then the other board group want to engage and feel things; hardly take notes, have to be coerced into completing their written tasks and ask lots and lots of questions. This later group are likely to included several who will only achieve a ‘Not Yet Competent’ on their assessment. But deep down I feel these are ‘better’ coaches.


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