Investigating a Classroom Management Approach in a Computer Suite



This paper describes my experiences, as a ���new��� lecturer, with aspects of classroom management in a computer suite. It takes as its starting point the differences between teaching ���through��� computers and teaching ���with��� computers, and suggests that students��� experiences of using computers as personal learning tools have implications for their behaviour in collective teaching environments where computers are used.

It outlines some negotiation strategies I trialled to agree on behavioural ground rules for teaching and learning in a computer suite, discusses an approach using musical cues to retrieve student attention, and offers some possible techniques for optimising student attention and cooperation in computer-based sessions.

Annie Haight


The integration of e-learning as a teaching and learning mechanism in British higher education is well-known and increasingly well-established (Benfield and Francis, 2005:3). Virtual Learning Environments are used in a significant proportion of higher education institutions nationally (as well as globally) and e-learning as a discrete pedagogical strategy is receiving an increasing amount of attention in the literature of higher education teaching and learning (see, for example, Salmon, 2000; Stephenson, 2001). In general, the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is well integrated into university teaching, with equipment such as computers connected to data projectors and interactive whiteboards becoming virtually standard as presentation tools for lecturers.

One aspect of the use of ICT in university teaching that receives less attention than e-learning is the use of computers within face-to-face teaching sessions, not simply as presentation tools for lecturers, but as an integral part of the students��� learning experience in the classroom, or, more accurately, the computer suite. Yet with the routine use of computers as teaching and learning tools, it can be predicted that increasing numbers of lecturers will run sessions in computer suites, at least occasionally.

Teaching ���through��� computers versus teaching ���with��� computers

At this point it may be helpful to suggest a distinction between teaching ���through��� computers (in e-learning situations) and teaching ���with��� computers (in face-to-face sessions in computer suites). With the exception of relatively unusual synchronous online discussion, e-learning is generally an individual experience characterised by private study and asynchronous discussion. The individual learner controls the time, the pace, and often the learning environment and level of privacy that contributes to the learning experience.

In face-to-face teaching sessions in computer suites, on the other hand, learners are subject to the same strictures as in other collective classroom experiences, with less discretion over their learning environment, pace of learning, and so on. Most crucially, they are expected to accept the leadership of the lecturer, attending to his or her input, and complying with the timing and nature of the learning activities devised for the session. In modules where acquiring specific software skills forms part of the learning objectives, this results in sessions where lecturer input and group discussion are interspersed with computer-based tasks carried out individually or in pairs.

Behaviour management in computer suites

Unsurprisingly, the learning experiences and assumptions students bring with them into computer-based face-to-face sessions have implications for what is euphemistically called ���classroom (i.e. behaviour) management��� in the primary and secondary phases of education (but which sometimes feels to all teachers, including higher education lecturers, like crowd control). This paper describes my experiences as a ���new��� lecturer with aspects of classroom management in a computer suite.

The challenges involved in teaching in a computer suite were brought home to me when I began to teach ICT to PGCE students at Westminster Institute of Education. I had been out of the higher education context for a number of years, working as a consultant and developer of e-learning programmes and materials. The learning curve in returning to university teaching was steep, but manageable.

What I found most challenging in my first term of teaching, however, was the experience of teaching in computer suites, which were both noisy with the sound of computer fans and air conditioning, and at the same time acoustically ���dead���. Of the two pooled rooms I used, one was long and narrow, with students and machines receding into the distance, and both had muted, non-glare lighting (in compliance with health and safety guidelines). Both had the typical U-shaped seating configuration, with students facing computers ranged around the walls, and a data screen and teaching area at the front. Unlike ICT suites in some schools, there was no mechanism for the lecturer to control what was happening on the other computers in the room. In the ICT sessions, I felt I had problems projecting my voice loudly enough to be heard over the ambient noise, and difficulty retrieving the students��� attention after they had been set a computer-based task.

The latter issue is endemic to computer-based teaching, but not confined to it. There are parallels with the ���broken��� or ���structured lecture���, in which tutor input is interspersed with learning activities students carry out individually or in small groups during the session. Pioneers of the structured lecture such as Graham Gibbs and Alan Jenkins have written about similar issues in managing student attention and expectations in such sessions (Gibbs, 1992a: 48; Gibbs and Jenkins, 1984: 35; Jenkins, 1992: 68-9). Alan Jenkins observed that he called students back from a task by flashing the OHP lights on and off. This notion of giving a sensory, non-verbal cue was helpful to my thinking in devising an intervention strategy to try in my computer-based teaching, as was another observation about good practice in a structured lecture���not to ���send students out and reel them back in��� too many times in one session (Gibbs, 1992b:21; Jenkins, 2002).

The point of teaching in a computer suite is to allow students hands-on experience; the best way to learn computer-based skills is by practice and by using them in a meaningful context for a specific purpose. The effectiveness of learning-by-doing is supported by a venerable body of literature stretching back to Ebbinghaus and John Dewey, and articulated more recently in the principles of andragogy (Adams, 2003; Carlson, 1989). At the same time, however, meaningful learning experiences need to be set up and contextualised by the lecturer, who also needs to facilitate discussion and summarise learning points. To do so effectively, he or she needs to be listened to.

One of the key issues in the PGCE ICT sessions was student attention. I found that students were unabashed about using the computers to pursue their own interests, even in the middle of teaching sessions. During sessions I observed individuals looking up weather reports, checking the results of lottery draws, and participating in online chat uninhibitedly using ���X-rated��� language. Interestingly, they seemed to believe they were invisible in doing this.

Within my first few months of teaching, I had found a voice projection workshop useful, so I contacted a colleague to ask about more sustained coaching or development opportunities in this area. However, when he found out that I wanted the training to help with attention retrieval in my teaching, our conversation proved to be more like a peer-counselling session. He had recently experienced a situation where his students openly challenged an aspect of his teaching, and he described how he retrieved the situation by confronting it directly and negotiating some ground rules for the interaction. Again I found this conversation helpful. One of the issues it started me thinking about was the psychological contract between students and lecturer.

At the same time, my visits to primary schools to observe my students��� teaching reminded me of the importance of learning environments. Primary schools are colourful places, with artwork and interesting visual displays. Often music is played when children are filing in to the hall for assemblies. My visits, and the literature on the use of multi-sensory stimulation to optimise learning, led me to realise that university computer suites can be ugly and soulless. The most interesting things in them are the computers, which can take users almost anywhere they want to go.

Further, I realised that people behave with computers in much the same way as they do when driving a car: they are used to having complete discretion, a sense of freedom, and absolute control of a powerful mechanism. And they believe themselves to be invisible. These are unconscious attitudes, which are in fact reinforced by e-learning experiences and by expectations of student self-learning mediated by computers. They would need to be openly and specifically renegotiated in a teaching context, in order to change behaviour.

Clearly one of the keys to making teaching in the computer suite more successful would be to devise an effective approach to facilitation and leadership in the university teaching context.

Negotiating the psychological contract

In my preparation for further computer-based teaching, I drew on assertiveness theory to construct what I hoped was a mutually respectful ���contract��� on behaviour between lecturer and students during the teaching sessions (Back and Back, 1982: 38 and chs. 6, 13). I identified a number of points which I felt could be openly discussed and negotiated. These included:

  • being open about the issues and challenges of teaching in the space, including the fact that students are facing away from me; my having to compete with the attractions and distractions of the computers; the wide variation in computer skills and experience in the group
  • observing (in teacher training sessions) that the issues I encounter as a lecturer are similar to what the students themselves are likely to experience in their own teaching practice, so they might find the modelling of strategies helpful
  • acknowledging that it can be annoying to be set a computer-based task and then called back from it too quickly
  • promising to keep the number of ���retrievals��� to the minimum necessary to cover the material in a session
  • acknowledging that students learn at different rates and bring a wide range of previous experience and skills to a session, so they were free to negotiate with me about leaving early if they had already mastered the content
  • a few ���non-negotiables���, such as no mobile phones allowed and the rule that students could only pursue their private interests on the computers outside the teaching suite and would be asked to move to a different pooled room if I noticed them doing so

Using musical cues to retrieve student attention

At the same time, as part of my work toward the Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education, I decided to conduct an investigation into the effectiveness of using musical cues to retrieve students��� attention after computer-based tasks. This was inspired partly by Alan Jenkins���s use of lighting cues in his structured lectures, and partly by my realisation that ICT suites are dull physical spaces with little sensory stimuli to compete with the delights of computers. It was also a response to the realisation that the ambient noise in the computer suites would never lessen. The actor who ran the voice projection workshop helpfully pointed out that I would probably always be less successful than a male lecturer at retrieving students��� attention with just my voice, so I decided to see whether a canny use of technology could help.

My rationale was that introducing an out-of-context, non-verbal stimulus would automatically gain students��� attention. It needed to be non-visual, as students are busy looking at the computers, and in any case are turned away from the lecturer. It needed to be easier to control than, say, an olfactory stimulus such as an aromatherapy scent (although I did briefly consider this as an option). Music is easy to play on a computer, can be quickly turned on and off, increased and decreased in volume at will and, in an otherwise relatively quiet teaching room, would be novel and thus attention-grabbing.

I decided to experiment with calling students��� attention back from extended computer tasks with a two-minute segment of music that would increase in volume over the first 15-20 seconds. This would give them enough time to finish what they were doing before returning their attention to me. I wanted to use music that was not necessarily familiar to the students, that was interesting without being too jarring or distracting (and that we could bear to turn off rather than want to continue to listen to). In the end, I used two CDs: ���The Kennedy Experience��� (Nigel Kennedy playing Jimi Hendrix) and ���Conference de Press II��� (Michel Petrucciani and Eddie Louiss playing jazz piano and Hammond organ).

Results of the two interventions

For the next several ICT modules I taught, I explained the use of the musical cues in an initial ���ground-rules��� talk in the first session, making it clear that this was my attempt at a non-invasive way of asking students to finish their tasks and shift their attention back to me. Subsequently, when I came to use the cues during sessions, I was surprised at how quickly and effectively they restored attention. Groups only needed the cues explained once, and responded co-operatively whenever they were used. (I resorted to them only as necessary after an extended computer-based task, in order not to overuse them.) Moreover, while I had anticipated a two-minute transition period, the entire room tended to quieten down, with the students giving me their attention, within about 30 seconds, and sometimes almost instantly. There seemed to be something powerful in the use of the music as a novel auditory (yet non-verbal) stimulus.

The cues saved my voice, and also allowed me to save face, in that they eliminated the need for me to shout, nag, or harangue the students to stop what they were doing and attend to me. Primary-school teachers use similar techniques (e.g. clapping certain rhythms) to re-establish order in a classroom, and advice such as: ���Never start talking till the room is quiet���; ���Never talk over students���wait till they quiet down��� is given in teacher training for the range of educational phases from primary to further education. This is a key aspect to maintaining a level of order in the teaching environment that allows both teaching and learning to occur. The musical cues helped me to establish this in a teaching space that I found infelicitous in many ways.

There was undoubtedly an element of the Hawthorne Effect in my experiment with the musical cues, in that the interpersonal context of their use was crucial. The explanation and use of the cues allowed me to demonstrate respect for the students��� points of view. In the ground-rules talk, I was able to be open about my possible difficulties in getting their attention back, and explain why I was trying to prevent this problem in a mutually satisfactory way. This established rapport between lecturer and students; the music, when it was used, served as a reminder of this. The cues, since they worked so effectively, allowed me to relax, feel more confident in my role, and focus on my teaching.

The few disadvantages to using the musical cues centred mainly on the inconvenience of carrying and setting up extra equipment. There was also the potential to get the timing wrong, for example in allowing students too little time to complete a computer-based task. Once the cue has started, it���s too late to say, ���OK, take another five minutes to finish your work.��� Issues of resources and timing, however, are universal aspects of teaching that are not confined to specific educational technologies. In my own experience these issues were not sufficiently problematical to deter the use of the cues.


In the primary and secondary phases of education, the classroom management implications of teaching in computer suites are acknowledged, if not discussed in detail (Becta, 2001). Equivalent issues in the higher education sector do not seem to be similarly recognised. Yet university students��� previous experiences of e-learning and of using computers as personal learning tools (learning ���through��� computers) influences their expectations and behaviour in computer-suite sessions (where they are learning ���with��� computers). Lecturers may find that students��� assumptions need to be reset in order to establish behaviour that promotes effective teaching and learning in these contexts. An open negotiation of behavioural ground rules, bolstered by appropriately chosen, out-of-context sensory stimuli (such as music) to cue expected behaviours, can be an effective means to managing behaviour ��� and improving teaching and learning ��� in a computer suite.


Annie Haight is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University, specialising in able and gifted education, e-learning and ICT. For a number of years she worked as an independent consultant designing open learning, e-learning, and blended learning programmes in university and other organisational contexts. At Oxford Brookes she teaches ICT on foundation degree, undergraduate, and postgraduate programmes. She is also a member of the tutoring team for the Excellence in Cities National Training Development Programme for Gifted and Talented Co-ordinators in secondary schools, and manages the Virtual Learning Environment that forms part of this programme. She is the editor of cpdgifted, Oxford Brookes University���s website for educational professionals interested in gifted education (

Contact Details

Annie Haight
Westminster Institute of Education
Oxford Brookes University
Harcourt Hill Campus
Oxford OX2 9AT
Telephone: 01865 488302
Fax: 01865 488666

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