What are students really typing?

During my graduate career at the University at Buffalo in the Anthropology program, I was occasionally invited to lead a class discussion.  The classroom itself could seat upwards of 200 students, many of which had brought along their laptops.

Photo from Wikimedia.org

On one balmy spring morning, I was asked to give a lecture on social scripts.  Seeing a natural connection to the classroom setting, I began my discussion from the back of the classroom, immediately breaking the students’ social expectations (i.e. their social scripts) for what a prototypical lecturer should be doing.

Although the strategy worked, that is not the point of this post.  Carrying on the theme of a recent “Flipping the Classroom” conversation within the Hybrid Challenge group, I was struck by the number of students who had their own laptops (this was about 8 years ago), and further struck by the percentage of those students who were updating their social network status, checking last night’s basketball scores, or browsing YouTube.

For someone who self identifies as an ‘engaging teacher’ (perhaps engaging teaching assistant would have been more accurate at the time), the students’ lack of engagement left me downtrodden.

Map of Online Communities from xkcd

It appears I was not alone, because recently a St. John’s University law professor had researchers look over students’ shoulders and two University of Vermont business professors used computer software to monitor what students were doing on their laptops during lecture. Though neither study had quite the precision of a true controlled experiment, these results are notable because they relied on observations of students instead of self-reporting and surveys.

In the Vermont study, students cycled through an average of 65 new windows per lecture, of which over half were considered distractions. At St. John’s, most second- and third-year law students used their laptops for non-class-related purposes over half the time.

Any visit to a large lecture is likely to reinforce these data. Students are apt to drift to email inboxes and social networking sites. Facebook is a staple of many college students’ laptop screens.

Many times, students will simply pull up Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to copy down bullets when the professor advances to the next slide, and then return to surfing the web.

The study also revealed a significant deviation between student survey results and actual computer-use practices. Students tend to under-report the amount of time they spend on distracting activities in class.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Self, this is horrible!  By allowing my students to bring their laptops into my classes I am condemning them to a fate of distraction and disengagement.”

To which I reply,  “Wait!  The end is not nigh!”  Do not be so quick to ban laptops in your classroom.

In later posts, I will further discuss the consequences of laptops in the classroom, and propose a number of ideas to engage students through their technology.

This post is part of a series relating to TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

Read the next post –>, “Engaging Students Through Their Laptops”.

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About the author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor

Teaching, Learning, & MOOCs

Author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor

Are Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) here to stay? How are they impacting our teaching? How are they impacting ours students’ learning (expectations)?

As more and more MOOCs pop up, I can’t help but wonder if the current MOOC model is flawed. The drive for mass educational attainment (raised most notably by the popularity of MOOCs) concerns me. The success of a MOOC seems to be measured by seat time rather than learning. I grant you that “seat time” may actually be “listening while driving time,” or “on the treadmill time,” or the always popular “half listening while also Facebooking, texting, eating, and watching the muted television time.”

With this technique, I’m left wondering how many students are engaging the material, and how many are distracted by the instructor. Students complete online assessments through Content Management Systems, automatically graded by the computer. Students go the entire semester with the expectation that they will never need to learn their fellow students’ names, or that the course facilitator will ever know theirs.  Thankfully research is being conducted on MOOC learning outcomes, and we’ll know more as continued research unfolds.

Why is this large classroom/disengaged student model becoming the standard? Replicated online throughout the increasingly popular arena of MOOCs?

Other than the pure size of the classroom, this model is nothing new! (It’s called a lecture.) Rather than bring the lecture online, why aren’t we using technology to bring quality learning experiences to the masses?

As a teacher, I want my students invested and engaged in their learning. As a student, I would want an instructor who can make the subject matter relevant. This can be done online (and offline). The online learning experience is at its best when helmed by an educator who understands that knowledge exists in the world rather than in a Podcast. Knowledge exists within systems access through people actively participating in the learning experience. This type of teaching uses the “Connectivist Model of Teaching” also sometimes called “Connectivism.”

Under this model, online learning becomes a knowledge creation process, not a Podcast consumption process. Faculty using Internet technologies are situated perfectly to teach students how to build their learning network and take advantage of the learning opportunities presented by digital technologies. In this framework, faculty become more than bearers of knowledge (or a voice transmitted via earbuds), they become learning architects, modelers, learning concierges, change agents, synthesizers, connected learning incubator, and network gurus.

By treating your students as participants in the learning process, your students are then able to take the skills they’ve gained in building their learning network and foster them throughout and beyond their time in your course.

Why would you enter the realm of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? How would your MOOC differ from what is already available? Why should it?

(For an alternative model, please check out Jim Groom’s course DS106 through the University of Mary Washington. I think it is a MOOC model worth replicating. And I’m not alone…)

Face-to-Face Education: What Students Are Saying (Part 1)

We asked students around grounds to share their experience with the benefits of face-to-face education in an age of online learning.  During the next few weeks, we will share a number of personal narratives provided by students.

This week, Ashley O’Keefe (Biology Major) shares her story:

“I went into office hours feeling dejected and walked out knowing that I had the ability to succeed.”

In an age of online learning, what are the benefits of interacting in-person with your professor and your peers inside and outside of class?

I think that the benefits of in-person interactions are endless! In-person discussion enhances learning in a way I find little else does. I find that when I am talking to someone, or I am listening to someone talk, I am more likely to have questions, and more likely to engage in a deeper fashion. Dialogue has a way of sparking new thoughts and ideas that I might not have arrived at on my own. In-person interactions are also more engaging, and they feel more important.

Can you give us an example of a face-to-face interaction in an instructional setting that made a difference for your learning?

One face-to-face interaction that really stood out to me was my conversation with my Organic Chemistry professor. I was not doing well in the class, and I began to doubt my intelligence. I knew that to do better, I would just need to work even harder and put in more time. But I needed to talk to someone about it. So I went into my professor’s office hours. Before these office hours, she was just a professor that I listened to for a few hours a week, but after this, the class seemed so much more personal to me. She took 50 minutes just talking to me about the class, about my worries, and she even shared an experience when she was feeling similarly.

This personal interaction made all the difference! I went in feeling dejected and stupid, and walked out knowing that I had the ability to succeed and that I could and would succeed. My professor didn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t tell myself, but it was the personal interaction, and the feeling that she actually cared about me and about how I was doing, that made all the difference in the end. The next test I did tremendously better than I had been doing previously.

What suggestions do you have for professors who want to leverage the benefits of a face-to-face environment?

My best advice for professors who want to increase the benefits of face-to-face interactions is to take time and be available. Obviously, small classes are the best way to go, because they foster these types of personal interactions on a daily basis. But sometimes smaller, discussion based classes are not possible. In these situations, it is so important for the professor to be accessible, and to actively promote questions and interaction with the class.

In one class I took, the professor asked questions to a large class on a daily basis. This caused the class to be more of a discussion, and more of a pooling of ideas rather than just a straight lecture. I really liked this because even if I was not participating myself, I was listening to someone else’s thought process as they reasoned through a question, and as the professor led me to my own conclusions through the thoughts of others.

Finally, being available for office hours and other appointments is essential.

Interested in more student interviews from this series?
Read the next post. –>

Click this link for more information on the TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.