Wireless escape from boring lectures

Instead of taking notes on their laptops, college students in large lecture classes check their e-mail, exchange instant messages, watch YouTube videos and do a little online shopping, reports the Tampa Times.

Universities across the country have spent millions in recent years installing wireless Internet connections in their classrooms, touting Web access as a way to improve the learning experience. Law professors can direct students to legal briefs and case records online. Political science professors can show students campaign-related Web sites.

But even instructors who embrace the Web say students’ Internet surfing is becoming a major distraction. Many are now banning laptops or penalizing students caught misusing them.

A law professor suspects students of sending IMs to classmates mocking each others’ lame answers and passing notes by writing silly messages in large type that people behnd them can read.

While the economics professor discusses supply and demand, students can shop at Gap.com. When the psychology professor lectures about Freud’s Oedipal complex, students can look up anything from celebrity news to girls in bikinis.

A majority of college classrooms now have wireless networks.

Via The Ed Wonks.

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  1. Wayne Martin says:

    The article provides a basis to believe that LapTops in class are useful: “Today’s students expect wireless access, and more and more of them are abandoning pen and paper for a computer screen when taking lecture notes.”
    But a more meaningful point comes from this statement: “Some lectures are boring as hell, and it’s the rare student who doesn’t daydream sometimes,” said Robert Sullins, dean of undergraduate studies at USF. It would seem that LapTops are providing a good clue to traditional faculty that the “sit-in-class and listen to me talk” needs a rethinking. Given that college costs have risen about 35% in the last six years (about twice the rate of inflation), and many students are finding it difficult to graduate in five or six years, rather than the traditional four years, looking at teaching methodologies that reduce cost and increase the quality of the delivered “product” must be at hand. Some folks may claim that the lecture method is “time tested”, and perhaps it is. But the cost of education is simply sky-rocketing so that the whole process needs to be rethought. Distance learning certainly needs to be fully considered as an alternative. Students needed to make the university profitable that will ultimately fail to graduate need to be provided less expensive alternatives that will keep their families from spending hard-earned family money that could be used for effectively for other purposes that paying for their children to sit in boring lectures and IM their buddies.

  2. I’ve had to point out to my students that TEXTING on cellphones is pretty conspicuous in my classes – I’m an art historian and I teach in the dark.

  3. Since the technology isn’t going to go away, I just wonder what kind of lemonade can be made out of those IM-capable phones and wireless laptops. Nothing springs to mind but there’s something ironic about all that sophisticated communication technology impeding education.

    Wayne, the factoid you tossed out about the high rate of escalation of the cost of a college degree is the hint that leads to the truth.

    “Inflation” is the key word. All that government money that’s pumped into higher ed in the form of student loans, Pell grants, etc is causing “localized” inflation. Local to the higher education market rather then the entire economy. That money distorts the market for education by reducing the value of dollars – inflation – relative to the cost of a college degree.

    If that little summary is true then the answer’s obvious: reduce government aid to higher education. Increase government aid to “make education more affordable” and the cost is driven higher yet. At some point the situation becomes untenable but we’re not there yet.

  4. I’ve been on both sides, getting to college just as they were introducing pre-printed notes and laptops. This was back in 1995 and I was already using my laptop to surf and chat all through Calculus and other classes. I wonder what finally made them mad. 😉

  5. I can understand the delusion that people may have had that wireless access would increase student productivity, but let’s face it: Most learning isn’t all that exciting, and a lot of it is hard work. Deliberately putting in wireless access in classrooms is like putting television sets in the workplace and wondering why productivity drops.

    Quite frankly, the wonder is that the graduation rates haven’t plummeted. I guess students must be a lot more disciplined than they were in my day.

  6. Tom-
    Well, when you have grading systems that are curved to ensure that there are certain percentages who get each letter grade… it doesn’t matter if the entire class never shows up – there will always be A’s.

    You’re right on point, and the same can be said about other industries like health care.

  7. Actually, this is a big improvement from the old days when some students would read the newspaper during boring lectures. We should ask students questions to see if we’re getting through rather than hope that students getting little or nothing from cannec lectures will at least pretend to be paying attention.

  8. I would still like to be able to build a Faraday cage in my classroom to screen out cell-phone signals. I do my level best to make classes interesting – lots of activities, the questions-to-see-if-they’re-listening, applications to the “real world.”

    and I still have people who sit in the back row and text message. I’m all for making learning accessible to the students, but there’s a point where they have to make an effort to meet me halfway.

    I’m not quite to the point of confiscating cell phones but I’m close.

    I think Tom West’s point is well-taken: we can make learning as accessible and interesting as possible and there will STILL be people who regard it as “too hard” or “there are more interesting things to do” or who have convinced themselves that they can multitask, listening to discussion while they surf eBay. Just as there will be people in every workplace who will be dead wood no matter how interesting or good the job is.

    In my experience? The kids who sit in the back row and text are the kids I see again in the same class next semester. (And some of them don’t get it even then that participation is key to success).

  9. The people who regard learning as “too hard” or “boring” should not be in college. Make sure the electronics is put away during tests, stick to your grade scale, and flunk them out. They’re wasting your time and theirs.

    OTOH: “Some folks may claim that the lecture method is “time tested”, and perhaps it is.” IIRC, the lecture method originated in “book factories” back when books were copied by hand. A more efficient arrangement than making one copy at a time was to have one clerk read the original aloud slowly to a roomful of clerks. It was the medieval universities that converted this into a method of education, and I’ve never been convinced that it was ever a good method of education.

    If you’re going to do lectures without much audience participation, just tape them and let the kids view the tapes at their convenience. “Live” is better only if you’re asking and answering questions throughout. At the college level, you probably can’t effectively correct non-participants on the spot, but you will know why they flunk the test!

  10. Tom Hudson says:

    It would be nice to be able to flunk them. And some of them I will – for example, the student who showed up today for the third time (the other two times being exams) and spent the entire class playing with his laptop.

    But: today, professor’s jobs depend in part on student evaluations. At my institution, they’re the critical factor in determining whether or not I get tenure and am kept on the faculty past my first seven years. Want to guess how strong the correlation is between easy classes and high student evaluations?