Digitising student engagement: A logic of learning or a logic of control?

Commonly accepted as an essential prerequisite for academic success, student engagement continues to be a preoccupation of mainstream discourses at all levels of education (e.g., Gourlay, 2015; Coates, 2010; Prensky, 2010; Kuh, 2009). The dominant conception of engagement aligns around cognitive, behavioural, and affective dimensions. Cognitive engagement is the most difficult to pin down, but typically consists of students’ intellectual involvement in their learning. Behavioural engagement refers to students’ participation in formal learning activities which includes complying with expectations of conduct, attending lessons, being punctual, and so forth. Emotional engagement refers to the relationship networks between students and their teachers, with their classmates, and with the school community more broadly (Fredericks et al., 2004).


Throughout these distinctions, engagement tends to be fixed as a temporal undertaking: “a task- or domain-specific event, as the student is engaged in a particular learning activity (for a matter of minutes) or in a particular course (for a matter of months)” (Reeve, 2012). Extending traditional notions of engagement, Lawson and Lawson (2013) present a framing of engagement as “the conceptual glue that connects student agency (including students’ prior knowledge, experience, and interest at school, home, and in the community) and its ecological influences (peers, family, and community) to the organizational structures and cultures of school” (p. 433). This systems-oriented view moves beyond the social-psychological preoccupations of research on student engagement to incorporate salient sociological dimensions, including school characteristics, populations, place-based influences, and their various interactions.


Despite its application as a proxy metric for learning, student engagement remains decidedly ambiguous as an analytic construct. It is, nevertheless, still widely deployed by public and private agents as justification for school investment in various educational technologies. Such technologies can be seen as reconfiguring the process of teaching and learning in the classroom. The educational application Nearpod is a pertinent example of the reconfiguration of teaching and learning specific to notions of student engagement.


In essence, Nearpod is an online resource that allows teachers to create their own interactive multimedia presentations for the classroom. They can also choose from a library of ready-made plans. Students can use the application on their devices to access content and submit responses to open-ended questions, quizzes, polls, drawing activities, and so forth. From their own computer, teachers can interact virtually with students as they work through presentations in real-time. The technological platform is marketed as an interactive all-in-one classroom tool to “create, engage and assess”. As one Lakeside High teacher puts it, Nearpod results in “100% engagement”.


While Nearpod is promoted as able to “harness” students’ attention through its compelling content, the underlying power of the application is grounded in a logic of control that promises to keep students “focused … minimizing off-task behaviour”. In sum, Nearpod offers educators the opportunity to bring classrooms to “life” while disciplining students through controlling their digital devices (Nearpod, 2015). This potential is expressed by another Lakeside High teacher who explains that the program allows him to:


“… monitor what students are doing in real-time. You know how part of classroom management means walking around the class to keep students on task? Well I don’t really have to walk around with this application to be able to know what they’re doing. I can see what students are doing as they’re doing it. If they’re not on task, I’ll know and I’ll call them on it.”


Nearpod’s centrepiece is its analytics potential. Teachers can now, in real-time, access detailed reports and usage statistics disaggregated by class, teacher, and student/s. In this capacity, student engagement becomes reduced to, measured by, and understood in numerical terms. In one sense, Nearpod is merely following a trend amongst many new digital media, exemplifying the practice of quantification of self prevalent in technologies from the Fitbit to RescueTime. Yet important questions arise when thinking about student engagement as defined and decided through technologies such as Nearpod, including:


  • In a school climate increasingly driven by the digital, what does it mean to be engaged?
  • How is engagement reframed and enacted through the use of digital technology?
  • How do these digitized conceptions of engagement impact education as a process of becoming?
  • What are the gendered/racial/class-based dimensions to such constructions of student engagement?


While Nearpod is not the only educational technology artefact shaping student engagement, it is a good example of how student engagement is being changed by the digital. In order to grasp how such technologies are reframing notions and practices of student engagement, it is necessary to begin to unpack the human experiences of engaging with such digital technologies, including people’s practices, feelings, emotions, assumptions, thoughts, and beliefs – all of the factors that form part of the social context of the digital school. Bauman’s (2014) points on the use of sociology as a method of problematising what is taken for granted and revealing power differentials, injustices, and inequalities come into play here. Examining Nearpod as one part of an assemblage of commercial and public interests all vying for control over teacher/student bodies and minds may serve as an entry point into understanding the phenomenon of quantification of school and self and associated moral implications.



Bauman, Z. (2014). What Use is Sociology? [Interviews with: Jacobsen, M. and Tester, K.]. Cambridge: Polity.

Coates, H. (2010). Development of the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE). Higher Education, 60(1), 1–17.

Fredericks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109.

Gourlay, L. (2015). ‘Student engagement’ and the tyranny of participation. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-10.

Kuh, G. D. (2009). The national survey of student engagement: Conceptual and empirical foundations. New Directions for Institutional Research, (141), 5–20.

Lawson, M. A., & Lawson, H. A. (2014). New conceptual frameworks for student engagement research, policy, and practice. Review of Educational Research, 83(3), 432-479.

Nearpod. (2015). Nearpod product/service. Facebook. Retrieved http://on.fb.me/1xty3iG

Prensky, M. (2010). Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Reeve, J. (2012). A self-determination theory perspective on student engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement (pp. 149-172). New York, NY: Springer.