Distraction and Attention in a Pandemic: Designing a Virtual Classroom

Tembusu College

Eric takes us through the virtual learning activities he put in place to replace the engaged, face-to-face conversations which characterised his final-week reflection workshops, reflecting on the benefits and challenges of the process.

Photo courtesy of iStock by Getty Images

Life under COVID-19 has come to be thought of as being marked by restrictions. As I write, my phone is receiving regular, persistent updates describing what will or will not be open, and what is or is not permitted.

At the same time, much of university life is being delivered through virtual classrooms. Here, in a sense, there are fewer restrictions. This is a reversal of the normal order of things. In classrooms, there are physical restrictions (walls, chairs, tables) and temporal restrictions (timetables). There are also technological restrictions including, sometimes, bans or limits on the use of internet-enabled devices.

Figure 1. An early virtual classroom at NUS was NUS Second Life, a recreation of NUS within the “Second Life” online virtual world developed by Linden Lab.
Photo courtesy of NUS secondlife.

However, while classrooms are inherently restrictive, restrictions, even arbitrary or self-imposed ones, need not be obstacles to learning and could even be necessary. Designers use restrictions to focus on what is essential in a product. The De Stijl1 artists restricted themselves to specific colours and forms. Ernest Hemingway, possibly apocryphally, bet his friends that he could write an entire story in six words. He wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Likewise, when we design a classroom, we work with restrictions to encourage focused conversation.

The German philosopher Albert Borgmann made a distinction between focal things and devices (Borgmann, 1984). Technological conveniences, he argued, had created a device paradigm. We no longer need to gather around a campfire or in a town square to hear each other’s stories and ideas. Instead, we can access them from wherever we happen to be, whether alone or in the presence of others. This is undoubtedly convenient. However, a campfire does not just provide heat, and a dining table is not just a platform to place food. Similarly, a classroom does not just provide shelter from the elements. It provides a focus for conversation.

Since it is a focal thing, a classroom offers few distractions. When you, as a student, enter a classroom, you are prepared to focus on the class. You may daydream or allow your mind to wander—that is also often needed!—but you will also feel some pressure to refocus on the conversation.

In the virtual classroom, the class is just one of a thousand possible things clamouring for your attention. The same device you use to access your virtual class, you also use for myriad other activities. You would not be physically bound to your seat. The previously marked distinction between classroom and non-classroom becomes blurry.

Last semester, I had to reimagine the final week of the class. Normally, we abandon seminar discussions that week for a workshop where students reflect on what, for each of them, was a key moment in the module. In normal times, this is very much a physical activity. We sit in a circle, facing one another (see Figure 2). Presenters would stand, pace, gesture, draw or otherwise express themselves bodily.

Figure 2. Students attending the module UTC1102C “Fakes” at Tembusu College before the COVID-19 restrictions came into force.
Photo courtesy of Eric Kerr

This semester, I began by imposing some restrictions. Students would produce short video presentations. The videos were to be short and focused on their ideas rather than technical proficiency. The recordings could be video of the students talking or voice recordings accompanied by two or three simple images.

This decision involved relinquishing some of the aspects which made our physical workshops lively and engaging: students would not have the chance to spontaneously react and spar with each other or think on their feet when under questioning. However, these limitations also had surprising benefits. The videos were more structured than the extemporaneous or scripted in-person presentations (I allow both) have been in the past. Some students were more candid, confident, and explicitly prouder of their achievements than they might have felt they could be when physically standing in front of the class.

One lesson I draw from this is derived from philosophers, sociologists, and historians of technology who have determined that technologies are media, not tools (Verbeek, 2005). They mediate and structure our experiences rather than simply providing the ability to do what we want to do. E.H. Gombrich gave the following analogy which applies well here: if an artist stands before a landscape with a pencil in hand, they will look for those aspects which can be rendered in lines. If the artist has a paintbrush, their portrayal of the landscape will emerge as masses instead (Gombrich, 1961, p. 65). Thoughtful education, in my view, requires unpacking and interrogating the tools that mediate our students’, and our own, experience. The medium in which we teach can be as important as the content of our classes.


  1. De Stijl refers to a Dutch art movement founded in 1917 in the Netherlands (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Stijl).


Eric KERR is a lecturer at Tembusu College and a research fellow in the Science, Technology and Society Cluster at the Asia Research Institute. His teaching and research centres on issues around knowledge, expertise, and technology. He is Associate Editor at Social Epistemology and Editor of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.

Eric can be reached at eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg.


Borgmann, A. (1984). Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gombrich, E. H. (1961). Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. New York: Panther.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2005). What Things Do. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.


I wish to thank Connor Graham and Sarah-Tabea Sammel for their comments on an earlier draft of this post. Thank you also to the students in the Tembusu College seminars UTC2108 “Technology and the Fate of Knowledge” and UTC1102C “Fakes” for participating in, and reflecting on, virtual seminars with me last semester.

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