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Interactive Learning Environments
ISSN: 1049-4820 (Print) 1744-5191 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/nile20
Student disengagement: is technology the
problem or the solution?
To cite this article: Sue Greener (2018) Student disengagement: is technology the
problem or the solution?, Interactive Learning Environments, 26:6, 716-717, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10494820.2018.1498235
Published online: 10 Jul 2018.
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Student disengagement: is technology the problem or the
…it is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal.
Falstaﬀin King Henry IV Part 2 (Act 1, Scene ii)
Falstaﬀin modern translation wittily refers to having the "not-paying-attention sickness". When we
consider learning in the twenty-ﬁrst century, teachers worldwide are well aware of such a
problem. We grace it with the term "student disengagement". Is student disengagement increasing
because of digital device usage? The potential distractions of device notiﬁcations are not currently
reducing; McCoy (2016), in a survey of American college students in 2015, found they used digital
devices for non-class activities for over 20% of class time, results which were an increase over a
similar survey in 2013.
Sally Weale, writing in the UK Guardian (March 2018) cites Higher Education Statistics Agency
statistics showing that 26,000 students in England, who began studying for their ﬁrst degree in
2015, did not progress to a second year of study. We know from research evidence that engagement
of students within their ﬁrst year of undergraduate study is vital for continuing retention. We also
know that patterns learned in full-time education at school contribute to the concept of self-eﬃcacy
and possibly learned helplessness, which inﬂuence engagement or disengagement in later study. A
US Gallup poll in 2015 suggested that student disengagement increased as students got older,
roughly doubling between 6th and 12th grade (Brenneman, 2016). Within a Higher Education
context, the time frame for seeing a reduction in attendance at classes can be even shorter, dropping
sharply after the ﬁrst few weeks.
So our ﬁrst problem is how to deﬁne the concept of student disengagement and then to consider
whether such disengagement can be associated with current technology. A deﬁnition is far from clear
in the literature. Balwant (2018), building on work deﬁnitions of engagement and disengagement
from organisational behaviour literature, deﬁnes disengagement as "students’simultaneous withdra-
wal of themselves and defence of their preferred self in displaying low activation behaviours that are
characterised by physical, cognitive and emotional absence and passivity" (p. 398) although he advo-
cates further conceptual work to achieve greater clarity on a concept which is not simply the opposite
of student engagement.
The regular US National Survey of Student Engagement (2017)uses the following themes to
discuss student engagement: academic challenge, learning with peers, experiences with faculty
and the learning environment and it is to these themes we should return if we are trying to
improve learning engagement through technology. But to consider for a moment the way disen-
gagement is discussed, Earl, Taylor, Meijen, and Passﬁeld (2017) produce empirical evidence in a
study involving secondary school age children around both active and passive disengagement.
Active disengagement is here seen as disruptive behaviour in class, whereas passive disengagement
(which may in an HE context be associated with dropping class attendance) is discussed as avoidance
of tasks and lack of contribution in class. The study proposes a link between psychological autonomy
frustration and active disengagement, and a link between competence need frustration with passive
So does this mean that passive disengagement may be reduced if teachers oﬀer greater develop-
mental support of competence and more evidence to students of achievement? Logic suggests that if
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
INTERACTIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
2018, VOL. 26, NO. 6, 716–717
students’perceptions of self-eﬃcacy and competence are low, they are more likely to passively dis-
engage, more likely to contribute poorly to learning tasks, showing low vitality and disinterest and
complete the cycle by producing lower results or simply dropping out. Self-determination theory
(Deci, 1971) underpins this idea, especially the needs for competence and autonomy, and the inter-
play between behavioural, cognitive and emotional aspects of engagement are evident. Learning
technology, particularly pedagogic designs which use digital tools to encourage feedback on
achievement and promote interest and peer working, could help here. As suggested by Eccles
(2016, p. 72), if we wish to improve engagement this would require an integrated approach to con-
centration, interest and enjoyment. And that is just what is prescribed in games-based learning
according to Hamari et al. (2016). They consider that engagement is closely associated with ﬂow
and involves complete absorption in a task, leaving no room for distractions (p. 171). So we begin
to see a sense in which learning technology becomes part of the solution rather than the problem
of student disengagement. If we can use such tools to increase academic challenge, learning with
peers, relationships and communication with faculty and a learning environment which ﬁts digitally
engaged learners, we stand a chance of reducing passive disengagement, and ultimately tackling
attendance, albeit virtual attendance some of the time.
The papers in this issue demonstrate a range of ways to enhance student engagement through
the use of learning technology. These include game-based learning, collaborative peer learning,
adaptive learning and enquiry-based learning and aim to tackle self-enhancement and the needs
of low achievers in relation to the competence and autonomy needs of learners. These examples
relate directly to the pressing need to address student disengagement, using pedagogic and psycho-
logical concepts to drive the use of learning technology.
Balwant, P. T. (2018). The meaning of student engagement and disengagement in the classroom context: Lessons from
organisational behaviour. Journal of Further and Higher Education,42(3), 389–401.
Brenneman, R. (2016). Gallup student poll ﬁnds engagement in school dropping by grade level. Education Week,35(25), 6.
[Online] Available at https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/03/23/gallup-student-poll-ﬁnds-engagement-in-
Deci, E. L. (1971). Eﬀects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social
Earl, S., Taylor, I. M., Meijen, C., & Passﬁeld, L. (2017). Autonomy and competence frustration in young adolescent class-
rooms: Diﬀerent associations with active and passive disengagement. Learning and Instruction,49,32–40.
Eccles, J. S. (2016). Engagement: Where to next? Learning and Instruction,43,71–75.
Hamari, J., Shernoﬀ, D. J., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn:
An empirical study on engagement, ﬂow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behaviour,54,
McCoy, B. (2016). Digital distractions in the classroom phase II: Student classroom use of digital devices for non-class
related purposes. Journal of Media Education,7(1), 5–32.
National Survey of Student Engagement. (2017). [Online] Available at http://nsse.indiana.edu/html/annual_results.cfm.
University of Brighton
INTERACTIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS 717