Professor gives students a break to check on their digital lives

By University Communications
February 19, 2015
Associate Professor Markie Blumer tells students it’s time for their “2MTB,” or two-minute tech break.

Photo: Markie Blumer tells students it’s time for their “2MTB”.

Someone who happens to peek into one of Markie Blumer’s classrooms at just the right moment might wonder what is happening.

Why are most of the students using their cellphones and paying no attention to Blumer? Why, even, is Blumer using her cellphone?

Blumer, an associate professor in human development and family studies at University of Wisconsin-Stout, would reply, “Everything is OK. Students are just taking a two-minute technology break.”

The “2MTB” — as students know it — is Blumer’s solution to dealing with an issue that can be perplexing and even disrupting for teachers and professors in the digital age: How to keep young people focused academically for long periods of time when they are used to checking their personal electronic devices every few minutes.

Blumer believes the two-minute tech break, which she has been using since 2013, is good for the overall learning environment and the students.

Rather than tell students they can’t use personal electronic devices in the classroom, she tells them they can — if they sign and abide by a technology agreement and her simple rules: Two minutes only during a time period she designates during the class, and then the devices must be put away again.

“What I have learned is that the best hope for effective technology-related communications is to set up clear expectations, rules, roles and boundaries around technology early on in relationships,” she said.

Blumer uses the tech break in one class, the 75-minute-long Skills Training Individual and Family Interventions course.

“Tech breaks are excellent,” said Kaitlyn Feidt, of Weyerhaeuser, a senior in human development and family studies. “For most students it is difficult to go 75 minutes without wanting to look at your phone or check out the latest on Facebook. Sometimes students just need a few minutes to regroup and get ready for the next topic.”

Elizabeth Cullen, of Menomonie, who previously was in Blumer’s class and now is a teaching assistant at UW-Stout, said students “appreciate the break and being treated like adults. A tech break is something everyone can relate to because social media is the new age way of bonding.”

Cullen called Blumer’s classroom overall “an awesome learning environment.”

For example, after the tech breaks, Blumer routinely asks students if they have any news to share about their digital lives or anything to discuss that has happened in our world, particularly as it relates to the course content. Many students do.

“The two-minute tech break has been effective and powerful in ways I could not have anticipated when I developed it — particularly after each break is over,” Blumer said.

Blumer believes that the break is perfect for the Skills Training course, which “helps students learn effective communication skills, particularly as helping professionals. Thus, we practice not just effective face-to-face communication; we also practice effective technology-related communication,” she said.

A technology issue

Blumer developed the idea after arriving at UW-Stout nearly two years ago and quickly realizing that, with students using university-issued laptops, technology in the classroom would be a bigger issue than where she previously taught.

She didn’t want to implement one of two blanket policies used by many professors around the country, simply ban personal electronic devices or just allow them.

She took the middle ground. “I see my role as one of modeling realistic, responsible and professional technology use,” she said.

Blumer has co-authored a book related to digital communication issues, “The Couple and Family Technology Framework: Intimate Relationships in a Digital Age.” She also regularly presents on the role of technology in couple, family, clinical and supervisory relationships.

UW-Stout has no guidelines on how faculty should handle the issue of students using personal electronic devices in the classroom, leaving it up to each instructor to decide what works best.

Blumer has shared her idea with colleagues at UW-Stout and around the country, although she’s unsure how many have adopted it. One visiting professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Coreen Haym, is using it and reports that students there also love the break and miss it if it’s forgotten, Haym told Blumer.