Freshers who've majored in eBay

June 2, 2006

When US students were given laptops to aid in note-taking, many of them ended up surfing the net in lectures. Stephen Phillips explores the pitfalls of progress.

When laptops first appeared in lecture halls in the 1990s, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the new technology than Erik Brynjolfsson. "I thought it was so cool," recalls the professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But his enthusiasm wore off in 2000 when he found himself at the back of the room for a guest lecture by business guru Jay Walker. The lecture was fascinating, Brynjolfsson says. But you'd never have guessed so from the rows of students surreptitiously multitasking in front of him. One was browsing the online edition of The New York Times ; another was visiting auction site eBay. Back in his own lectures, Brynjolfsson instituted a "closed-laptop" policy. "We co-create our learning experience," he says. "It's not a matter of sitting there passively."

At the time, rolling back the technological tide would have been considered pioneering. Nowadays, his views are shared by more lecturers. In an era of proliferating technology, the spectre of digital distraction is increasingly vexing US faculty - and UK lecturers are beginning to ask similar questions as ever more campuses develop wireless networks. John Dale, head of development at Warwick University's e-lab, got a host of responses when he wrote of his concerns about laptops in lectures in his blog.

"To me, the interesting question is what laptops in lectures are actually good for," he says. He adds that students do not need to be online to benefit from factors such as speedier note-taking. "If internet-equipped laptops in lectures serve no useful purpose, rather than penalising students who find laptops a better way to take notes, would it be a better strategy just not to provide wired/ wireless networking in lecture theatres?"

In the US, the most recent Campus Computing Project survey, which tracks technology adoption in US higher education, found that 28.9 per cent of institutions had wireless networks and 64 per cent had plans to provide them. But the poll also reported "evidence of a backlash against wireless from some faculty who would prefer students [not to] hide behind their computer screens".

Some students, however, are unwilling to give up computers. Law students at the University of Memphis complained to the American Bar Association in April that a professor had banned laptops from her lectures. The association threw out the grievance.

Resisting technological encroachment is not always straightforward. The Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles installed systems to block wireless signals from classrooms to stop students surfing the web during lectures. But it had to dismantle the system last year because it was being breached by ever more sophisticated outside networks. Stanford University faculty contemplated a similar system before ruling it out as "technologically unfeasible", says John Bravman, professor of materials science and engineering and vice-president for undergraduate education.

The Darden Business School at the University of Virginia now switches off classroom internet connections during teaching time unless faculty specify otherwise, "for the same reason we don't have windows in our classrooms, (so as not) to interfere with intense concentration in class," says Randall Smith, the chief technology officer.

New students at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, are told of the perils of digital distraction. Earlier this year, the campus installed a parabolic mirror at the back of a new classroom and plans to put in more. The mirror allows lecturers to keep tabs on students, but "it also makes the subtle statement that [lecturers] can see who's on e-mail," says John Clarke, assistant dean and chief information officer.

Geri Gay, professor of communications and information science and director of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory at Cornell University, says that the educational instinct driving such moves is sound. He co-wrote a study in 2003 that found that 44 students who were told to keep their laptops closed in class significantly outperformed a cohort given free licence to use theirs in tests designed to measure information retention.

Students skimming headlines and e-mail kept up with class debate, but if they became engrossed - even if the material was educationally relevant - their ability to recall information was seriously impaired.

In another study of students' laptop usage between 2001 and 2004, Gay found that many were epic internet surfers, often logging on for seven to eight hours a day. But they were also asked to record their views in a diary. "At the start, all the words were about freedom to access things," Gay says.

But towards the end, they were using words such as "distraction" and "temptation".

Chuck Wight, a chemistry professor at the University of Utah, has also had a change of heart about the extent to which some new technologies aid learning. He experimented with posting lecture material online in the late 1990s, expecting that it would free students to engage in higher-order thinking because they wouldn't constantly be taking notes. But he stopped when attendance at his lectures fell by about a quarter. He now posts only pop quiz-style tests online.

Terre Allen, professor of communication studies at California State University, Long Beach, began posting her lecture presentations online in 2004. Attendance tumbled by 60 per cent within two semesters. Allen e-mailed the no-shows. "I said, 'what about interacting with your classmates and listening to what's said in class?' They would say, 'I have the notes, what else is there?'"

Such experiences drive fears that technologies such as course-casting - "capturing" lectures as audio or video files, such as podcasts, that students can tune into on computer or download to iPods - will cut lecture turnouts. But Bravman notes that when engineering lectures were made available as video downloads in the mid-1990s, fears about non-attendance were not realised.

In a poll this year of 222 students who were involved in a course-casting pilot study at the University of Washington, 16 per cent reported they were less likely to attend lectures, 79 per cent said it would have no effect and 5 per cent said they were more likely to attend. Experts agree that the utility of course-casting lies in the fact that additional material can be delivered more efficiently, not in replicating lecture content. Indiana's Purdue University boasts America's largest course-casting initiative. It spans more than 70 specially equipped classrooms and 60 courses. Laurie Iten, associate biology professor, records five to ten-minute podcasts, reviewing and previewing ground covered in lab work, freeing her up for lectures.

"Students seem to be eating them up," she reports. But Allen is worried by the growth of online courses for on-campus students as well as distance learners. Patricia Feldman, interim executive director of extended education, says that this year, per cent of students enrolled at Arizona State University, America's largest campus, are also taking courses over the internet.

In South Dakota, the figures are higher: 42 per cent of those taking distance education courses - largely online - also attend courses on campus. Allen says that students who study online don't benefit from the alchemical nature of the classroom experience and don't feel as connected to the university, which puts them at greater risk of dropping out. On the other hand, Wight says that a mix of online courses interspersed with on-campus ones allows students to juggle hectic schedules. "It's no longer possible to draw a distinction between totally online and totally classroom," he says. The debate doesn't surprise Jeff Hancock, assistant professor of communications at Cornell. "Universities have developed conventions and norms over centuries that have changed [only] very slowly," he says. "In the past decade, there's been massive technological upheaval. Institutions are still now establishing new norms."

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