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”.

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

Engaging Students Through Their Laptops

As more and more faculty begin to flip their classroom, design blended learning experiences, and think about a hybrid model, it is important to consider how students use their technology.  In today’s college classroom, students are not only able to escape paying attention through daydreaming and crosswords, but also by text messaging, browsing millions of webpages, watching streaming videos, and updating social networking sites.  (for more background on this topic, please refer to “What are students really typing?”)

From your position at the front of the room you may notice that the laptop itself creates a physical barrier between you (the instructor) and your students. Furthermore, your students recognize that from the front of the room, you (instructors) can’t see what is happening on their laptop screens. This situation provides a lot of incentive for students to wander away from class-related activities.

Additionally, this means students around the laptop-user can become distracted as their eyes are drawn to web content on the nearby computer screen.

Notably, however, according to a recent PEW Research report students who checked email and distracting websites did not score lower than their less distracted peers did on homework, quizzes, or exams. Only one activity created significant negative correlation with performance: instant messaging.

This reinforces the notion that many students are effective multi-taskers, while tasks that demand constant attention (like IM) are detrimental to student learning.

The problem is many of our students use laptops legitimately, so anytime we ban laptops, we are cutting off the ability of students to do that. So it’s a decision that should be based on data rather than misconception.

Lectures that are taught interactively have been shown to improve student learning. Whether instructors are engaging students through Chromebooks, laptops, or traditional clickers, how effective the instructor is at facilitating interactivity determines how students are engaged.

Laptops enable students who are fast typists to take more comprehensive notes, curious students to quickly search for more information, and, with the right tools, confused students to seek clarification from teaching assistants or classmates.

There are many ways laptops can improve a student’s educational experience. The key to preventing students from spending the entire class on distracting websites is deliberately engaging laptops rather than ignoring them.  I find that the connectivist model of teaching fits perfectly when attempting to engage students through their technology.

Banning laptops eliminates the potential of such technologies as powerful learning tools, and it is unlikely disengaged students will begin to pay more attention. They are still able to find distractions via mobile phones, nearby friends, the student newspaper, or even an open window.

Instead, encouraging students to engage with the class via technology increases student attentiveness, student engagement, and promotes active learning. Students will act rationally and pay attention in class if incentives favor appropriate use of technology.

How do you encourage students to use laptops appropriately during lecture?

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

<– Read the previous post, “What are students really typing”.
–> Read the next post, “Three roles faculty have when incorporating technology into their course”.

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…)