Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In Defense of 1:1

So, as you might imagine, a bunch of people have been forwarding me the article from Friday's Wall Street by Gary McWilliams, "Laptops in classrooms not working out as hoped".

It quotes Dennis Adams, a University of Houston computer systems professor, as saying:

"You can be in the front of the classroom and your hair could catch on fire and they'll never see it because their eyes are glued to the 14-inch screen at the end of their nose,"

The article goes on to assert that, because the laptop/wireless combination allows students to do other things in class, there is "a rising backlash against classroom computer use from professors and schools". Responding to faculty complaints, several schools have even investigated wireless blocking mechanisms, only to find that blocking the net is an arms race that can't be won.

So is this article the death knell for ASU 1:1? I don't think so...

The back half of the article was much more telling than the front half I thought.

  • 31 percent of the classrooms at U.S. colleges and universities already have wireless-network access, and the percentage is rising rapidly.

  • Notebook computer costs are plummeting, making the portables standard issue for students.

  • While some profs may not think much of laptop access in class, the students like it just fine.

Yes, the students interviewed for the article used the laptops for taking notes and asserted that portable, personal computer use made them better students. They also said it let them make better use of their time.

The article also says that some professors have responded to the prevalence of networked computers in class by changing their teaching styles to make their classes more engaging. A fantastic side effect I think.

ASU 1:1 is not some radical new experiment in pedagogy. It's an acknowledgement of a changing reality. With each passing term, more and more students bring their own portable hardware to school with the reasonable expectation that it will help them in their education. We can either sail on that tide or try to hold it back. I say the opportunities far outweigh the risks, and that further, trying to resist this tide is nothing short of luddite.

But what about the Wall Street Journal article Sannier? Can't you read? "Laptops in classrooms are not working out as hoped!." Just admit you're wrong and move on. Find some other hobby horse to ride, cause students packing portables would challenge today's campus lecture experience.

Hey, I admit it. There's no doubt about it. This technology is a challenge to the current way of doing things. And not just at the schools in the Journal article either. Wireless portables are already changing things right here at ASU.

As part of my getting acquainted with things here, I've been making a habit of sitting in on lecture classes lately, whenever I walk by an open door -- engineering, business, computer science, you name it. Here's what I see.

Go by any lecture hall at ASU and you can already experience the "Airport Phenomenon". Every electrical outlet will be covered, just like Sky Harbor. People lying on the floor and sitting in the aisles just to be near the juice -- while empty seats, especially at the front of the hall, go begging.

What's more, a lot of those students lolling about with their laptops aren't always paying the closest of attention. (In fairness, a lot of students in general aren't paying the closest of attention, but that's a subject for another day). I've paid particular attention to the laptop crowd though, and unlike their un-augmented colleagues, they aren't sleeping. When the laptopians aren't paying close attention and taking notes with their machine, they're doing any of a thousand different things -- surfing, im'ing, writing papers for other classes, paying bills -- you name it. Just like the guy in the Wall Street journal said.

Does this represent the death of higher education?

I don't think so. I mean, ask yourself -- what are they doing there in the uncomfortable aisles, laying next to the AC, playing online chess while the professor lectures? Why don't they stay back in the dorm, sit in a comfy chair and play on a big monitor. They can't be doing it to suck up to the professor. If they aren't going to pay attention, why do they come to class at all?

I think for most of them the answer is simple. They are paying some attention, just not all of it. They're hedging their bets, covering the bases, while simultaneously trying to make the most of their time.

I have to admit I feel a certain kinship with these folks, because I do the same thing all the time. So does a large part of corporate America, especially in big meetings. At EAI, this was called Boswelling, named after Bill Boswell, one of the pioneering practitioners of the art of selective attention.

My laptop is almost always open, whoever I'm with, but when I'm in a large meeting I use it just like these students do. I use it to make the most of my time while staying in mental touch with the main act.

If there's something going on on the main stage that requires or attracts my attention, then it gets it. But a lot of the time, the main act doesn't need me, and I don't need it. Say somebody asks a question that I already know the answer to, or we're covering something I'm already pretty familiar with. Then I opt out and maybe process some email instead.

Do I miss out on things? Sure. Absolutely. But so do you, whatever you do, but especially if you spend a lot of time in boring meetings trying to pretend that you're paying attention to things that don't really interest you. Sure you catch things those like me miss. But I say instead of hoping to catch useful crumbs as they fall off of uninteresting bread, dial up some hot, bakery-fresh data and get snacking on things you know are of interest you instead.

I think these kids are no different. They don't skip class because they don't want to miss something important. They're covering their bases, working/playing on their laptops with half an ear cocked to make sure that they know what they're supposed to know. Something interesting or confusing comes up, their attention goes straight to the front. Watch them and you'll see its true.

Some are better at this selective attention game than others of course. It would probably help if we taught people how and when to pay attention in this brave new world. It wouldn't hurt if we made class more interesting into the bargain.

Thinking that lecture styles won't have to change as these powerfully interesting portable devices become ubiquitous is a little naive. Of course we'll have to make things more engaging. This is somehow a bad thing?

There are other alternatives to making lectures more interesting and interactive of course. For example, what if we made digital copies of every lecture available on-line?

I have no doubt that if we did that in-class attendance for lectures would decline -- for some courses precipitously. No doubt about it.

Because a digital copy of a lecture will beat the live one nearly every time. If I were a student, I'd love a school where I could get the lectures digitally.

Unlike a live one, a digital lecture can be viewed at a student's convenience. The boring parts can be skipped. A digtial copy can be edited, indexed, and searched. And most importantly, a digital copy can be kept and reviewed with perfect fidelity -- forever. Think eidetic memory, but for everyone.

I loved old Bruno Smolec, my luddite high-school math teacher. He had a commanding bearing, and a great command of his subject. Great voice too -- deep, rich, sonorous, with a weird edge to it. If you could imitate Bruno, you were the hit of the cafeteria. He was one of my best teachers.

But when I think back on Bruno's class, I can hardly see him through the mists of time. And I sure can't remember Green's theorem, even though when Bruno taught it to me, he made it completely transparent. Wish I had a digital copy of the 10 minutes it took Bruno to make it clear as crystal. I'd play it for you, and then both of us could remember what Green's theorem is all about. I think it would be the de facto standard for Green's theorem instruction actually, but unfortunately it's lost forever. How long are we going to keep reinventing the educational wheel?

Let's be clear. ASU 1:1 is not about laptops. Laptops are the how, not the what of 1:1. ASU 1:1 acknowledges an existing technological trend as an opportunity, and asks what we are going to do with that opportunity. By acknowledging that the 1:1 educational platform is a developing reality, we can realign our support and pedagogical resources to cope with that reality, and develop programs to exploit it to improve the quality and control the cost of education.

If 1:1 is not about laptops, what is it about then? It's about teaching students how to use personal portable computers to learn better. It's about helping faculty learn how to use this new platform to teach better. Its about reorienting university technology deployment to make it easier to go to school here, to work here, to teach here, to discover here.

ASU 1:1 is not about replacing teachers with technology. It’s about using technology to make it possible for teachers to get more contact and interactivity with students, not less.

Laptops aren't going to just "work out" as we hope. And they aren't going to just go away either. But if we make using them as a learning platform an ASU priority, we can turn them from potential liability to incredible asset.

It won't just "work out as we hope". It will take planning and hard work. So let's get busy.


saj,  October 19, 2005 at 9:09 AM  

They keyword here is HOPED. In defense of 1:1, this article had no real research to back it up. Why would we hope 1:1 would work? I think we need to make sure it works for both the faculty and students - and we can.
As the Student Response Systems (ASU is using CPS) become more common place in the classrooms, faculty are finding that this tool is great way of finding out if the students are listening and comprehending material. Combine the two and problem solved! Ha, if it were only that easy.

pchorner,  October 20, 2005 at 11:01 AM  

Aren't laptops sometimes called notebooks? Could that same instructor who is cited saying that if his "hair caught on fire nobody would notice" be biased? Twenty years ago he could make the same statement, but the class would be burried in a paper notebook and not an electronic one. They still would be drawing pictures and writing other things. I do not see any teeth in this instructor's statement. A student who is able to exist unteathered to specific locations with their schoolwork has the capability to exploit every opportunity made available to do their assignments and creative endeavors. I also would like to see an evironment where the student has the same freedom as with the physical notebook- she can buy whatever brand and color suites her fancy as long as she is comfortable and able to do her assignments. To add to Adrian's comment on a digital lecture, I am all for it. Classroom time is better served when the instructor is a facilitator enabling topical engagement with the class members. Having the ability to whip out my laptop and quickly do a search on something to add to the dialog. I am all for it.

Nancy October 20, 2005 at 1:35 PM  


I think 1:1 is about connectedness. Hardware is, oddly, as ephemeral as any other part of this picture. Computers get obsolete real fast. What's important is that every student gets an equal opportunity to be connected. If 30% or 50% of students come to class with a laptop today, what's happening to that other percent, the ones whose parents can't afford anything more than books and rent, and how about the ones who are working at crummy jobs to pay their own way through school? It's as if, 100 years ago, some of the kids in the one-room schoolhouse could afford a pencil and paper, and the others who couldn't dig up the cash had to rely on memory. Access to digital resources is as important today as a pencil and paper was 100 years ago. If you don't have it, you are not equipped to compete.

Likewise, universities and colleges who don't recognize the need to get connected, to connect their students and faculty and staff, are not going to be equipped to compete. I've been looking at Case Western Reserve University with some envy. They have set up a university-level wiki for discussing things they (the Case community) would like to do, as well as giving students blog space. Heck, they're even trying out the idea of giving alumni blog space.

Check out the way they're thinking of using their wiki. Check out their wiki-fied Google map of campus. Check out their dynamic graphic map of wiki content.

Is it just a gimmick, or have they, at Case, broken through those crusted layers of habitual thought that disallow invention, enabling them to find new ways to connect and pool knowledge?

Now I will reveal my true motive in all this. I think - I fear - that life on our planet is near the brink of discontinuation, and without the best of our collaborative intellectual efforts, without inventing new ways of bypassing crusted layers of government, power structures and belief, that we will lose something infinitely precious. We are all responsible for that.


shauntu,  October 25, 2005 at 2:35 AM  

Certainly, looking up information on something the instructor said but didn't elaborate on, would be better than sleeping through the class cause the material being taught is not going in the direction you are interested in...

LaurieR,  October 25, 2005 at 11:14 AM  

We're doing 1:1 here in the Law School. While we don't require that our students have laptops, about 98% of the 1st Year students that started this fall have one. Our help desk team provides full support to them. We also support all the faculty and staff. Our professors are increasingly getting laptops in addition to or instead of desktop systems. We're understaffed and overworked, but our faculty, staff, and students appreciate having the capabilities and the service. 1:1 works for us.

We find the key of successful support of 1:1 is educating the computer users so that hopefully they can solve the problem the next time they have it (teaching them to fish). We're lucky in that as time passes, each incoming 1st Year class is more tech savvy than the one before. They already know about spyware and security software. Granted, it is probably easier for us in that we only deal with graduate level students.

We've also recently had discourse about the use of laptops in class, the wireless access that we have throughout the law school, and what can be done so that students don't surf while in class. Many of the students are IMing, checking email, surfing... but most are taking notes, going to online law databases to access cases that are being discussed in class so that they can read the entire case later, IMing questions to each other about what is being discussed at that moment... Extending their ability to make sense of the difficult subjects they are bombarded with every day... As a philosophy, I believe that students (of all ages, really) should be responsible for their own learning. They can get the degree they pay for, or less, or much, much more. It's up to them to use the technology in a productive way.

marty,  October 26, 2005 at 2:55 AM  

I totally agree with Nancy. The inept response to Katrina shows how poorly we are doing as a society in responding to such basic needs as disaster response. Colleges are giving A+s to students who haven't mastered the material and these people go on to make flawed decisions in real life. The laptop issue is a side issue. The real problem is that we are still teaching the same way we taught before the web existed. The web makes possible a collaborative approach to education (among many other things.) We could be creating wonderful web sites devoted to particular subjects that would be the collective effort of professors and students all over the world. Professors would provide content and students would provide feedback on how comprehensibly the material was being presented. There would be links to remedial subjects. In fact all human knowledge could be linked and contained on the web. Professors would be relieved of the burden of trying to come up with ways to catch students attention and feed them new information. Classes would become problem solving sessions where students work on teams to apply information they have already mastered from online courses. The problem is NOT that there are not enough laptops. The problem is an outmoded form of teaching.


Claver November 2, 2005 at 4:24 AM  

Educational technology, laptops and internet enhanced instruction, has the potential to greatly augment classroom learning. In the spring of 2005 I participated in a project that evaluated the impact of laptops on the learning outcomes of students at Dakota State University. The results were impressing. The only two major concerns were social computing during the lecture that caused distraction or divided attention. The other issue was the need for adequate training to integrate technology into the course design. I think you may find this article interesting: “The effect of Wireless Mobile Computing on Course performance: A Course Comparison and Participant Perception Analysis” available at: link