You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘classroom technology’ tag.

In 2004, Winona State University transitioned its laptop lease program from a standard PC to a convertible tablet, resulting in one of the largest mandated tablet deployments in higher education at the time. Armed with a good price from our vendor, we were able to make the transition without increasing the lease price for students or altering program features and services. Because the model was a convertible tablet that could be used in either standard laptop or tablet mode, the tablet features were simply promoted as value added. The attitude at the time among laptop program decision-makers was, “If we can maintain our edge by offering new tablet features without changing the program, why not do it?”

Early indications were that the tablet features were popular with instructors, especially in STEM fields that relied heavily on board work and overhead transparencies in class. WSU invested in DyKnow to assist these instructors and expand the collaborative capabilities of tablets in the classroom. Faculty also began using digital ink to develop online course materials and evaluate student assignments. Students began using MS OneNote to take notes in and out of class. Overall, our transition to tablets was smooth and did seem to add value.

Today, we are considering a move back to a standard laptop model and discontinuing our support of the tablet.  Why change? Here is my take on why this is under consideration, with reasons listed in decreasing order of importance:

  1. The Cost Gap. The gap in cost between a convertible tablet and a similarly configured standard laptop has increased over the years. For the price of our current tablet (Toshiba Portege M700), we could probably be providing students with a standard laptop with performance and features that exceed the tablet model in some key areas (e.g., graphics processing). Taking another approach, we could be providing students with a less expensive standard laptop that meets minimum specifications, perhaps allowing us to either lower the lease price or add value in other areas of the program (e.g., software, support). As we enter the worst budget crisis in state history, this option may be quite appealing to stakeholders.
  2. The Mobility Trade-off. Tablet functionality has become more closely aligned with mobility over the years. In our laptop RFP last spring, only one vendor presented a convertible tablet with a screen larger than 12″ and that company is now out of business. There is much to be gained from emphasizing mobility in our laptop program. Many instructors use their laptops in class, in their offices, at home, and when traveling. Our students are not only mobile themselves, but are preparing to enter an increasingly mobile workplace. However, concessions must be made to achieve greater mobility. The laptop screen and keyboard are smaller and more difficult to use, particularly for older faculty. Tablet graphics processing is insufficient for various productivity and entertainment applications. These are the primary workstations for students and faculty who must be comfortable using their laptops for long periods of time and for a wide variety of tasks. Surveys of students and instructors indicate a clear split in preference for a heavier, larger desktop-replacement versus a more portable laptop. Employees appear divided down the middle, whereas the majority of students want greater mobility and this preference becomes more pronounced over time. For last year’s RFP, we decided that we could not support two PC models cost effectively. Many employees have addressed usability issues using external monitors and keyboards, but are unhappy about covering this unexpected cost. If we must select a single model again this year, there is a good chance that mobility will lose out to usability and performance.
  3. The Mixed Laptop Environment. WSU has always offered both a PC and Mac laptop model. Thus, there is no guarantee that all students in a particular course will have tablets. This is an obstacle for faculty who want to use tools like DyKnow, the power of which are optimized when all students have their own tablet. Although we address this by asking Mac students to install Boot Camp, it has been enough of a hurdle to put off many faculty and slow adoption. Our decision to maintain the tablet will be based mainly on end user applications versus the more compelling collaborative applications that could really transform learning. This leads to what might be the final deciding factor.
  4. Preference for the Mouse and Keyboard. Setting innovative tools like DyKnow aside and looking at end-user applications, taking notes in MS OneNote and inking in MS Office tools emerged at WSU as the most common uses of the pen as an input device. Instructors and students who use their tablets to take notes and grade papers regularly swear by them and those who don’t, don’t. A good conservative estimate based on a survey administered last spring is that 25-35% of our tablet owners use digital ink regularly. There is a third group of users who don’t use digital ink daily, but absolutely love to use it on ocassion. The pen is great when you need it, but many people don’t seem to need it that often. Perhaps they don’t know that they need it and this is a training problem. Perhaps they would like to use it more frequently, but are bothered by human factors issues. Maybe they have tried it, decided that they really don’t need it that often, and are more effective using the mouse and keyboard instead. I will dig into this in another post, but this will not change the current perception that, since adoption in 2004, the number of regular tablet users has remained relatively low and perhaps WSU could do without digital ink.

As we move forward some of these factors might change and new information might come to light. I am looking forward to the conversation and will keep you posted. I am guessing that we are not the only laptop university engaged in this sort of discussion.

Ken

Advertisements

These are my notes from the Thursday, October 30th EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “REPLAY: An Integrated and Open Solution to Produce, Handle, and Distribute Audiovisual Lecture Recordings,” presented by Olaf A. Schulte, Multimedia Services, ETH Zurich

Olaf and his team developed REPLAY to streamline the capture and upload of lecture recordings. Their application is very impressive, including a scheduling feature and the beginnings of a very interesting indexing system for searching captured content. There is a connection to iTunes U, serious automation for reducing instructor workload and errors, easy admin resources for technical support staff, and the resulting content is not “melted” into one movie file. All assets can be accessed separately by students.

REPLAY uses PLAYMOBIL, a linux-based machine with a NCast capture card for VGA and audio, and Nio security cameras for classroom video capture. One of the funnier challenges they faced involved having to “tranquilize” the cameras because they were tracking instructor hand movements.

REPLAY will be ready for action in February, 2009. However, they plan to join the Opencast community, so you may not see it as an independent entity for very long. On the plus side, cool REPLAY features and functions will hopefully make their way into the Opencast system and I can only assume that the effort will benefit greatly by the inclusion of the ETH team.

As I was sitting in this session, my mind wandered to our motives for supporting live lecture capture and the impact this will have on higher education. I have really struggled with this over the years, resisting the pitches of companies like Tegrity to spend tens of thousands of dollars on their, “capture everything that moves,” solutions. Instead, I have been drawn to tools like DyKnow, that also capture classroom activity, but facilitate the transformation of classroom interaction from traditional lecture to more collaborative and active practices. That being said, I would never obstruct students who can learn just as effectively by watching a recorded lecture as they can by attending that same lecture in a classroom. More power to them. I would also never dream of depriving students of reviewing information presented to them as many times as they desired or of consigning them to the arduous and counterproductive task of transcribing what comes out of an instructor’s mouth. For these reasons alone, lecture capture solutions may be worthwhile. I think supporting traditional lecture capture across the enterprise makes me uncomfortable for other reasons.

Traditional lecture can be very engaging and there are certainly some lecture performances that are best experienced live. However, when migrating most traditional lectures to an online format, you inevitably realize that learners would be much better served and technology would be much better leveraged if the typical 50-minute lecture was produced, packaged, and delivered differently. Technology offers opportunities to do just that. We seem so impressed by lecture capture solutions that only require instructors to press “Record,” but the truth is that this level of usability can be found in a variety of today’s tools and faculty can generally create much more effective and engaging online content from the comfort of their own offices than from the stage of an overcrowded lecture hall.

As the purpose of class meetings transitions from information delivery to discussion and collaboration, I look for traditional lecture capture tools to fade into obsolescence and for tools that support communication and teamwork to become more valuable. We are not there yet, so live lecture capture still seems like a good idea. But is it? Are we doing this simply because we can? How does investing in tools like Tegrity impact classroom design? Are we more likely to design “Tegrity-ready” lecture halls? If there’s no pedagogical reason to capture most live lectures and most instructors would rather teach differently anyway, why invest in tools that perpetuate this method of instruction? Do we want to simply capture what’s going on in our classrooms or do we want to facilitate change? Let’s give this a little nudge by making it easier to collaborate in class and assisting instructors to develop online content and activities that really engage students.

Ken

These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 lunch discussion, “Learning Space Design,” hosted by Richard Holeton, Associate Director, Academic Computing; Head of Student Computing, Stanford University and Phillip D. Long, Prof. of Innovation & Visiting Research Scientist, MIT.

These lunch meetings of constituency groups were a great idea. As much as I like eating lunch with friends and taking a break from sessions, this was a great opportunity to meet new friends and continue processing in an informal setting. There were about 100 people in the room. Ironically, the room was way too small and there was no technology, but we made the most of it.

Richard and Phil asked us to discuss topics that had been placed on our tables and then report out. I was seated at the Planning and Management table with some great folks from a range of institutions from around the world. Most of us were directors or administrators charged with facilitating learning space decision making and supporting faculty. Here are some things that stuck with me:

  • We all had tales of disconnects among executive visioning, facilities planning, and pedagogy. We agreed that this has led to the continued use of inferior teaching methods. In some cases, faculty, departments, and colleges are changing pedagogy and vacating existing facilities in favor of group-friendly spaces, informal settings, and virtual environments. One person described large lecture halls at her institution as now empty except for the occasional campus event. Both of these outcomes are undesirable and reflect the urgent need for a more enlightened approach to facilities planning.
  • I asked whether anyone knew of a school that had this planning-pedagogy connection right. Rio Salado College was offered as an example, which surprised me a bit given its strength as an online provider. Clearly, online and virtual spaces must be considered in this discussion right alongside brick-and-mortar spaces. Perhaps online institutions that are not as bogged down by the old politics of physical space can spend more time and energy focusing on the actual needs of teachers and learners.
  • There were mixed reports about classroom technology standardization. Most agreed that it was difficult to implement in their current organizations. Some were decentralized and others simply had difficulty getting consensus on what standards to use.
  • We talked a bit about creating experimental spaces for faculty where good tools and practices could be developed, refined, and rolled out to campus. WSU is building such a space in its new faculty-staff development center. I spoke with Derek Bruff from Vanderbilt who is also developing experimental spaces. I was a bit surprised that others at the table thought their institutions would not support such an idea. How can we know what to adopt if we don’t try it first? How can we expect faculty to change their approach if we don’t provide them with safe ways to explore? The best ideas for using learning spaces are not going to come from us; they will continue to come from students and faculty.

Ken

These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “Creating Applications for Converged Devices Like the iPhone: Start with a Vision,” presented by Hab Adkins, Manager of Programming and Support, and James Langford, Director of Web Integration and Programming, Abilene Christian University.

As an iPhone user and mobile computing fanatic, I wanted to hear how the ACU iPhone/iTouch deployment was going. This was a fantastic presentation, one of the more exciting of the conference for me. James started by saying that their ACU Mobile initiative was driven by academics, not simply the “coolness factor” of the iPhone. The development work prior to the fall 2008 launch could not utilize the SDK just released by Apple, so the developers used Apple dashcode to create web apps. When asked if they would use the SDK to migrate to native apps, Hab said they were looking into it and that some of the apps might benefit.

They reviewed a number of their applications:

  • Student profiles, including photo submission. Instructors see class rosters with photos and can launch a game that helps them learn students’ names, matching names with faces. They developed an  attendance tool using student photos and class rosters. Instructors see a graphic summary of attendance information at-a-glance and can identify at-risk students quickly.
  • Personalized Google Calendar feed and information about campus events. They have also established a Google Calendar for every course.
  • Point-to-point campus directions. A student developed the algorithm for finding the shortest distance, a great example of involving students in development.
  • Connection to Xythos that allows students to access personal and course-related files and deposit files into Xythos folders.
  • NANO (no advanced notice) polling tools. This was brilliant. We used one of the tools during the presentation. Polling results for multiple choice questions with one-word response options can be displayed as a tag cloud, where the size of the word indicates the number of times it was selected.
  • All services are also available via laptop/desktop from the ACU portal.

My main take away from this session was, if you want to know how to do this right, talk to ACU. Their vision was solid and aligned with campus strategic goals, their development work was inspired, and they accomplished a great deal in a short time.

After the session, I thought about the following:

  • Those of us with laptop mandates know that the portable media player, data storage, communication, and web functions provided by the iPhone are nothing new. However, we have struggled for years to integrate laptops into classrooms ill-suited for their use. We wrestle with weight, power, and other issues that discourage laptop mobility. Is the iPhone a device that competes with a laptop or are we reaching a point where both devices serve different, but symbiotic, academic functions?
  • ACU’s NANO tools illustrate the potential of the iPhone to engage students in class and the value of the iPhone as a media player is obvious. However, the benefits of the Xythos connection and accessing full-page content not intended for a handheld are not as clear. Apple designed the iPhone to provide access to full web pages and other documents, not mobile versions of them. Users then zoom in on the areas of the page they want to review. I think the jury is still out on whether this is a better user experience than accessing “moblized” verions of the same content.
  • I think ACU’s student profile, face-to-name game, and class attendance apps are absolutely fantastic and just scratch the surface of what’s possible in terms of using iPhone-like devices to improve student-faculty interactions both in and out of the classroom. If I am sitting in the cafeteria and I see a former student at the next table whose name I don’t recall, wouldn’t it be great if I could look that up on my iPhone and greet the student by name? Those are the things that students appreciate and remember.

Ken

These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “Teaching and Learning in Two New Smart Classrooms: Research Findings on the Pedagogical Implications of Space Design,” presented by Ann Hill Duin, Associate Vice President & Associate CIO, Linda Jorn, Digital Media Center Director, and Aimee Whiteside, Research and Evaluation Consultant, Digital Media Center, all from the University of Minnesota.

The Digital Media Center assessed the effectiveness of two Active Learning Classrooms at the University of Minnesota. The rooms accommodate 117 and 45 students and include:

  • Large, circular tables
  • Multiple, 3-person, shared, switchable displays at each table (each table can accommodate 9 students)
  • The ability for instructors to display any shared student display on a front screen and push content to student displays
  • Other collaborative accouterments (e.g., glass whiteboards)

Research questions related to faculty attitudes and expectations, student perceptions, teaching and learning strategies, and the impact of the physical features of the room. Multiple methods were used to gather the data, including instructor interviews, student and instructor surveys, student focus groups, and over 30 classroom observations.

Attitudes and perceptions of both students and instructors were uniformly positive and teaching in the room changed student-faculty and student-student relationships (e.g., more contact, more familiarity, greater level of comfort). Instructors reported that the environment supported their transition to a facilitator role and their willingness to redesign their courses around collaborative learning and teamwork. Challenges included training instructors to use the capabilities of the room “on the fly” and human factors issues (e.g., pillars obstructing lines of sight). None of the challenges were major obstacles and neither students nor instructors wanted to return to a traditional classroom at the end of the term.

My favorite finding came from the student open-ended responses. Students indicated that they felt more appreciated and engaged when meeting in the active learning classrooms. This relates to a psychological variable that we rarely measure directly: place attachment. As a former student and faculty member, I know how demoralizing it can be to walk into a large lecture hall where it is immediately apparent that the top priority in designing the space was not teaching or learning, but money. I think it benefits institutions when students and instructors feel attached to learning spaces. Unfortunately, we actively discourage the personalization and customization that would lead to stronger attachment when designing and assigning classrooms. Our focus on standardization and other practices that are blind to the preferred pedagogy of specific instructors, departments, and colleges turn classrooms into all-purpose conference rooms and faculty and students into visitors.

We were reminded in the general session this morning that complexity can be managed using good models and methods. Room planning and assignment are complex processes, but aligning them more closely with pedagogical needs and goals is certainly not an impossible task. What seems to be missing is an appreciation on the part of facilities planners and campus administrators of the value this might add in terms of not only improved learning outcomes, but stronger place attachment. The exciting work by the University of Minnesota is a great example of how departments charged with managing learning spaces might begin to help the institution gain this understanding and change their ways.

Ken

In the second of two posts inspired by a recent article in the LA Times describing Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings in which laptops are banned, I try to capture the issues by taking the perspective of a teacher or meeting convener who has looked out over too many groups busily attending to their laptops and cell phones. In the first post, I took the perspective of someone who has endured too many boring, unproductive classes and meetings. It was surprising how easily the two stories could be transposed. What does that mean?

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical teachers and meeting conveners when faced with a room of text messaging, YouTube browsing, Facebook editing, email checking students or employees.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do understand how technology has changed our lives, why your laptop is an important tool, and how it can be used to support learning, but if you’re going to sit through this entire meeting with your laptop open, please make sure you:

  • Come to the meeting ready to participate in the scheduled task, discussion, or group activity.
  • Don’t distract anyone, including me with what’s happening on your laptop screen, what’s coming out of your speakers, or your nonverbal responses to that funny story on Web.
  • Don’t ask questions later about what you missed in the meeting, what tasks were assigned to you, or what decisions were made that affect you.

I’ve come to this meeting prepared, I’ve provided you with information and materials ahead of time so that you could prepare yourself, and I’ve made it very clear to you why your participation in this meeting is important for both of us. If you still decide to pay no attention to the meeting activities and check your email instead, then I would ask you to reconsider why you are sitting in this room today. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you were forced to be here, that you’re a good multi-tasker, or that I just don’t understand technology. If you pretend to “multi-task,” I might not say anything to you, but you should know that you aren’t fooling me.”

“Although I may look like a Luddite who doesn’t come close to matching Solitaire’s level of excitement and I certainly have hosted the occasional boring, unproductive meeting, the truth is that I am trying very hard to engage you and I care very deeply about the work we are all here to accomplish. I am not simply going through the motions and I am not a meeting junky. I see no indication that you’ve prepared for this meeting, that you’re invested in what we’re doing, or that there’s much chance of that changing in the near future. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to let you sit there quietly and do whatever it is that you’re doing until the meeting is over. I’m fully capable of conducting this meeting without you and working with those who are interested in participating. If I see some sign that you want to participate, I’ll engage you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of asking you to come to these meetings when you provide so little input. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to leave the meeting feeling that it was such a waste of your time. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time getting ready for the meeting. Read the meeting materials. Do the homework. If I’ve asked you to do some online discussion before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then do it. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then don’t attend.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I’m not a mind reader. If you don’t understand why we’re meeting and what’s expected of you, let me know. Give me some suggestions and feedback. Start participating before the meeting. What do you want to get out of this meeting? What’s the best way to make that happen?
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I am going to ask you to engage in some activities that will not require a laptop for taking notes and I may even ask you to use a Sharpie, Crayon, or some chalk. Deal with it. Second, set your communication devices to silent or vibrate and don’t worry about incoming calls unless you think they’re really more important than what we’re doing in the meeting. If a potentially important call comes through, don’t answer your phone in the meeting. Ignore it, then politely excuse yourself and call the person back from outside the meeting room. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are not participating in the meeting and have decided that you would rather do something else, don’t distract me or others. Better yet, quitely leave the meeting.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your learning/teamwork skills could be better. Becoming a better learner and team member is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to participate effectively. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, ask me, your colleagues, or those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s something productive and positive. I don’t so much like the “Devil’s Advocate” method, but if you can use it without deflating the group, go for it. The bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Teacher/Convener 

A recent article in the LA Times described Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings where laptops are banned. Whether it’s a classroom or a conference room, the perception of some teachers and conveners is that people aren’t really present unless they disconnect their devices and give their undivided attention to the meeting. In a two-part post, I will try to describe this situation from the perspective of both a student or employee who has endured too many disorganized and unproductive classes and meetings and as a teacher or convener who has looked out over too many students and attendees engrossed in other things. 

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical students and employees when informed that a particular class or meeting will be topless.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do enjoy interacting with people, but if you are going to ask me to stop what I’m doing and put down the tools that I’m using to do the things that are important to me, then please have something interesting to:

  • Tell me that you couldn’t tell me as well via memo, email message, or online post.
  • Show me that you couldn’t show me as well by directing me to a book or online video, podcast, learning module, demonstration, or simulation.
  • Engage in with me that we couldn’t do as well individually.

If any one of these things are true, then I will gladly give you my full attention. If none of these things are true, then I would ask you to reconsider why you have asked me to meet with you. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you are the boss, that you don’t trust me to read/learn/do things myself, or that you don’t have time to learn how to use the tools that I use every day to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. If you try to force me to pay attention to you, I might obey and give you what looks like my attention, but you should know that my mind is elsewhere.”

“Although I may look like a device addict and I certainly have read the occasional text message when I should have been paying attention to something else, the truth is that I am not really distracted by my devices. I am simply choosing them instead of you because I don’t understand why I am here. I have no stake in this meeting. I didn’t even know what was on the agenda until I walked in and sat down. So far, you haven’t engaged me in any activity that is meaningful to me and that I couldn’t do outside of this meeting. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to sit here quietly and do something else, until it’s clear to me that my presence is important. I am fully capable of giving primary attention to my instant messages while monitoring the stream of activity in this room. If I hear something that sounds interesting or important, I will stop what I am doing and attend to you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of coming to these meetings and getting so little out of them. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to look out over a group of people who don’t seem to be paying attention to anything you’re saying. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time planning for the meeting. If your plan includes spending over 25% of our time together telling me something, then you are not prepared. If there’s something that we could accomplish before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then let’s do it. There are some very good tools out there for facilitating this work online. Let’s use them. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then cancel it.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I am not a meeting addict. I am so tired of attending fruitless meetings and I have no reason to believe that the next one will be any different. You’re dealing with a biased and reluctant participant here. Help me to change. How are we going to spend our time together? What do you hope to accomplish and what’s my role? Help me see that my presence in this meeting will actually be important for both of us.
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I use my laptop, not paper, to take notes: deal with it. Second, there are messages that I might receive during our time together that are more important than this meeting. Like you, I have a life outside of this room and sometimes it intrudes. I will keep my phone on stun, my audio muted on my laptop, and minimize the intrusions. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are engaging me, I won’t have time to check my email. If you are not engaging me, then I am going to do something that I value. I understand completely that this behavior shouldn’t distract others in the meeting who you might be engaging.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your teaching/facilitation skills could be better. Becoming a better meeting facilitator and teacher is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to engage me and support our work together. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, reach out to those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s not just that warm, fuzzy stuff you learned at your last leadership workshop. I like socializing and team-building, but the bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Student/Employee 

Is smashing a student’s cell phone with a hammer in class a good idea? Articles like Samuel Freedman’s recent piece in the NYT, “Class(room) War: Teacher versus Technology,” paint a very depressing and inaccurate picture of our students as irresponsible or unwitting device addicts who don’t appreciate the value of a good, old-fashioned lecture. He glorifies instructors who waste time and intimidate students in class by staging demonstrations of their disdain for student devices. My guess is that all campuses endure these melodramas, but they are few and far between.

We have an instructor who ceremoniously disconnects the classroom wireless access point at the start of each class period. Another has earned the nickname, “Professor Click,” because he tells his students that he wants to hear the sound of their laptops clicking shut. I can imagine the confused looks on first year students’ faces as they sit down in Professor Click’s classroom and proudly pull their shiny new laptops out of their backpacks, ready to take notes, find relevant information on the Web, engage in all sorts of laptop-supported learning activities, and maybe chat a bit with a new friend in another classroom or instant message their mothers that they are sitting in class at that very moment, only to be told to close the lid.

These cases notwithstanding, I think Freedman describes a rather minor skirmish in a much larger conflict. There is a deepening political struggle in higher education that is tied to the advance of information technology, but isn’t about cell phones and laptops in classrooms. Most instructors set clear expectations that stop short of prohibiting devices that could serve legitimate academic purposes. This is just one of the many classroom management issues that most instructors handle calmly and professionally without resorting to the use of hammers. The vast majority of our students respect those rules because they are in class to learn.

It also has nothing to do with competing for students’ attention. Students not paying attention to instructors in class is nothing new. You could be on fire and some students wouldn’t notice. This has never had much to do with distraction. As a student, I was not “distracted” by the crossword puzzle that I worked on during class. It did not lure me away from a riveting lecture to which I was desperately trying to attend. I chose to attend to the crossword instead of the instructor. Today’s students are not distracted by instant messaging and Facebook; they are choosing them over the instructor consciously and purposefully and this is driving some instructors absolutely nuts. Much of why students behave this way is also not new. Some students find certain teaching styles too painful to endure for extended periods. Some don’t find the overcrowded conditions in many college classrooms very conducive to learning. Some don’t understand or see the relevance of what’s being discussed at that moment and figure they can study it later if needed. Some already know the material or feel confident that they can learn it quicker and easier from the textbook or online. Some students are not in class to learn content at all, but rather to learn what it is that they need to learn later when they are with their study group or alone in the quiet of the library. There is nothing new here. Take laptops and cell phones away and these classroom realities remain.

Some believe that new devices have brought new problems to the classroom. I do think there are a few, but I also think this has been greatly exaggerated by those who fear change. Students want to be engaged in the classroom and engaged students do not play online poker or instant message their friends during class. An EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research survey of over 20,000 undergraduates indicated that students do not necessarily want more technology used during class time. In a recent study at WSU, over 1800 students reported spending an average of 78% of a typical 50-minute class period giving their undivided attention to their instructor, slightly more than they thought was required, and an average of 22% of their time engaged in nonacademic activities on their laptops. They reported that they did not find the nonacademic use of laptops by other students in class particularly distracting and they agreed that instructors should set clear guidelines for laptop use. They reported that their decision to use their laptops for nonacademic purposes was not because they felt powerless to resist, they were effectively multi-tasking, or they were completely disinterested in what was happening in class. These are not the responses you would expect from device addicts.

So what’s new? I will leave my thoughts for another post and encourage comments. I think the larger conflict and what’s really bothering some instructors has more to do with the redistribution of power and authority and what Larry Lessig described in a recent TED talk as the return of a read-write culture. Technology is helping to change the students that instructors face in today’s classrooms in ways that most colleges and universities are only beginning to address.

Ken