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Laptops and the Classroom June 1, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in university.
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While not writing my final exam, and not re-grading old tests, and not doing a number of other things I should do today, I came across an article on laptops and the university classroom on Ars-Technica.

…stopping the Internet from getting into the classroom is a waste of time. Students are not going to tolerate laptop bans in the classroom, especially in undergraduate. Professors are going to have to deal with the frustration of seeing their students giggling about "Snakes on a Plane!" during their lectures on Stoic passions.

I’ve got a couple of students that use portables in my classroom. One is a tablet-pc, and is used to take notes. The other one or two are regular portables – I have no idea what the students are doing on them. But these students have always participated in class or answered questions, so I’ve never really given it any thought. If the portable was a distraction – a bunch of students were leaning over to look at what someone had on their screen – I would feel differently. I have definitely looked at the NYTimes during a conference talk in the past. Indeed, sometimes when talks are given to a room of high energy physicists you can look out at the meeting and I’d say about 80% of your audience has their laptops open and is processing email: the clicking of keys is not subtle!

All-in-all, wireless access in the classroom should be a benefit. An engaged student might search for something that went by quickly in class. Or perhaps finding something to contradict what is being said in the classroom. All good, in my mind. I also agree with Ken, the author of this Ars post, that it is a losing battle trying to block the internet. Soon there will be a large number of ways to access the internet (WiFi, WiMax, EVDO, etc.) – some of which won’t be under direct control of the university.

So, us professors had best get used to it. Anything else we should be doing? Ken has it mostly correct:

Really, professors shouldn't be doing anything new. A well-structured class should have a lecture component that delivers material and analysis necessary for the student's performance in the course.

Exactly. Ken’s next statement is interesting too:

The bigger question is, if Joe Baccalaureate got through Econ 101 with an "A" while spending his time manicuring his rotisserie-style fantasy baseball team in lecture, what was the lecture for to begin with?

I don’t know how it works so much in the humanities, of course, but in the sciences you mostly learn by actively doing something. The lecture is the most passive section of the course. So, if the professor isn’t careful, the students can go through it without it being useful. Studying for the test, doing HW, working on labs, etc. – that is where the students will end up learning. Modern teaching and lecture techniques are trying to change this (i.e. asking the class clicker questions, getting them to talk and otherwise think during class). But we still have a way to go before we really make lectures as useful a 50 minutes as they could be.

BTW, the comments above are for large classes. The dynamic changes for smaller classes. It will be much harder to get away with bumming off in one of those – the professor can so quickly walk around the table to see what you are looking at that… well, you’ll have to be prepared for it.πŸ˜‰

UPDATE: There are some great comments on this post by current and former students. If this topic interests you at all, I high recommend reading the comments!

Comments»

1. Dave Bacon - June 1, 2006

Okay I’ll admit that I have used instant messaging during a talk at a conference. But really when someone says something funny, no one laughs, and your friend who you know would laugh is sitting across the room with their laptop open, what else are you supposed to do?

I’ve also had the opportunity to see someone reading my blog during a talk at a conference. I almost went online and posted a post saying “Stop Reading and Pay Attention to [Name of Speaker]!” πŸ™‚

2. Julia Schwarz - June 1, 2006

Actually, I find laptops to be a bit distractng during class, especially if you have internet. Even though you want to take notes and pay attention, sometimes you really do want to look into something in more depth. The problem is, if you do this during class, then by the time you’ve stopped reading and are paying attention again you’ve missed half of the lecture. I mean, the point of going to lecture is to listen to lecture, not to browse the internet. You could do that at home.

3. Nate Bottman - June 2, 2006

I think that the quote The bigger question is, if Joe Baccalaureate got through Econ 101 with an “A” while spending his time manicuring his rotisserie-style fantasy baseball team in lecture, what was the lecture for to begin with?” That’s the question – if a student can learn the material without coming to lecture, is the lecture important, for that student? I don’t think that lectures are necessarily necessary for each student, in each class – though, there has been a lot of resistance to increasing the number of televised classes, largely because of the want to keep lecture attendance required. Go OpenCourseWare!

4. gordonwatts - June 2, 2006

To give some context to these comments, both Nate and Julia are students in my course. Dave is another random prof who likes to play with quantum computing. Dave, you should definately had posted to the blog!

Julia: that sort of thing I don’t mind — you were spending time actually thinking about something that was talked about in class. The more people engaged, the better. Perhaps, since I know you are using OneNote, you should “flag” those topics in the future to come back to.πŸ˜‰

Nate: there is a huge debate that rages over this. I think I’ve written about this previously. For these big survey courses you have a point. The material is pretty basic. But there are several things to be aware of. First of all, we aren’t just teaching the physics; we are also teaching you how to solve problems. And hopefully we are teaching you how to do this by working with others. It is much more difficult to do this when you aren’t at the U. Finally, we need to teach you how to put together a critical argument. Frequently this can be done only face-to-face. That doesn’t happen much in our lectures at this leve (much more so in our tutorials), but happens more and more as you head towards upper division. So, I think you can probably learn a lot of the stuff of physics if you are using open course ware or similar, but you won’t have the same education. And you’d be able to tell the difference between two people of similar ability who went through an remote learning experience and a university experience. Finally, if we could actually manage one-on-one teaching we’d be amazing. Think of what that would mean: there wouldn’t be lectures. There would be a session with a lot of back and forth — the student would have to be totally enganged. Now, if only we could afford that!πŸ˜‰ I suppose a number of the smaller liberal arts colledges do better…

5. Alex Chen - June 2, 2006

Furthermore, lectures oftentimes cater to this “one style fits all” type of learning. However, they rarely acknowledge differences in learning styles, which often results in certain students getting absolutely nothing out of class. Of course, I have a learning disability, so I’m somewhat atypical. Indeed, if you read the biographies of many Nobel laureates, you find that many of them were primarily self-educated. Now, of course, they’re smarter, and don’t have to ask as many questions when self-educating themselves. But I do believe that if people can extend to forums (and forums that SUPPORT LATEX), then there will be questions asked. But this will ONLY HAPPEN if society stops placing such a big role on lectures.

So, what of putting together critical arguments and problem solving? Look, there are forums. http://www.artofproblemsolving.com, http://www.physicsforums.com. They have extremely active homework help forums, and the more people who come, the more questions that can be answered. Furthermore, if interest in forums for these subject areas increases, then there will be divergent forums so that there won’t be overcrowding.

Now, of course, there’s this “face-to-face” element that neurotypicals typically treasure. But really, how much of it are most people getting in lecture anyways? The people who ask questions, constitute a very small proportion of the class. The majority of the class just passively listens in lecture.

I really feel like I’m throwing away my parents tuition money, because I don’t really get anything out of lecture, when the professor usually repeats what is said in the textbook. There are some forays here and there of course, but really, they’re going to be in some other textbooks.

Besides. What would you rather do? Pay a couple of thousand dollars just to listen to someone lecture in real life or pay nothing and just get everything out of reading a textbook, DOING THE EXERCISES, and ASKING FOR HELP ONLINE if necessary. Even if the former method was slightly more effective than the latter, I wouldn’t call the former worth the money. And many forums such as physicsforums.com have policies against tutors doing homework for the question-asker.

6. Alex Chen - June 2, 2006

Now, what of group work? I can easily see how that can be done over forums as well. It’s not the same as face-to-face interaction of course, but really, the skills are easily transferrable.

My proposed solution (for now, anyways): acknowledge those who want to go through the materials alone. Let them take tests to see if they’ve mastered the material (and that shouldn’t be so expensive). Meanwhile, let those who want to come to lecture continue to come – at least the class sizes will be somewhat smaller. But seeing how people are so firmly encased in tradition, change comes slowly.

Sure, they won’t have any sources of external motivation – but if they are choosing such a route, they should be self-motivated enough to guide themselves internally. And oftentimes, doing everything internally is the most efficient way to learn. There could be students who go through the course without being recognized – but the university already has plenty of those students, especially in the majors colloquially known as the slacker ones.

Of course, we often see that the first-year courses are the easiest to take online. I think the UW is generous with credit transfers, at least with respect to the community colleges.

What of later year courses? Can they be done online as well? We do see that a lot of the grad-level EDGE courses have opportunities to learn via distance learning. It escapes me why students who take those courses have to pay just as much money as those enrolled in the regular course though.

7. Alex Chen - June 2, 2006

I really liked the Collegeboard AP system. The expectations of what you had to study were clear. And it’s so easy to self-study APs (go to http://www.talk.collegeconfidential.com for NUMEROUS examples).

For certain people, especially a lot of INTPs, they only get frustrated in class and get poor grades.

8. Alex Chen - June 2, 2006

Those with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, or both, often find lectures extremely painful, and would do best studying everything by themselves. MANY scientists had traits of both Asperger’s and ADD. There is a large comorbidity between the two.

9. Alex Chen - June 2, 2006

The first part of my message didn’t get through:

Furthermore, lectures oftentimes cater to this “one style fits all” type of learning. However, they rarely acknowledge differences in learning styles, which often results in certain students getting absolutely nothing out of class. Of course, I have a learning disability, so I’m somewhat atypical. Indeed, if you read the biographies of many Nobel laureates, you find that many of them were primarily self-educated. Now, of course, they’re smarter, and don’t have to ask as many questions when self-educating themselves. But I do believe that if people can extend to forums (and forums that SUPPORT LATEX), then there will be questions asked. But this will ONLY HAPPEN if society stops placing such a big role on lectures.

So, what of putting together critical arguments and problem solving? Look, there are forums. http://www.artofproblemsolving.com , http://www.physicsforums.com. They have extremely active homework help forums, and the more people who come, the more questions that can be answered. Furthermore, if interest in forums for these subject areas increases, then there will be divergent forums so that there won’t be overcrowding.

Now, of course, there’s this “face-to-face” element that neurotypicals typically treasure. But really, how much of it are most people getting in lecture anyways? The people who ask questions, constitute a very small proportion of the class. The majority of the class just passively listens in lecture.

I really feel like I’m throwing away my parents tuition money, because I don’t really get anything out of lecture, when the professor usually repeats what is said in the textbook. There are some forays here and there of course, but really, they’re going to be in some other textbooks.

Besides. What would you rather do? Pay a couple of thousand dollars just to listen to someone lecture in real life or pay nothing and just get everything out of reading a textbook, DOING THE EXERCISES, and ASKING FOR HELP ONLINE if necessary. Even if the former method was slightly more effective than the latter, I wouldn’t call the former worth the money. And many forums such as physicsforums.com have policies against tutors doing homework for the question-asker.
==

However, there are some aspects of the university that you cannot get anywhere else, easily at least. Those are labs and research.

10. gordonwatts - June 2, 2006

Hi Alex — thanks for the comments. There is one set that came through twice — turns out wordpress (which runs this blog) took most of your comments as spam and was waiting for me to clear them!

First of all — you are totally correct. People with ADD and other learning difficulties will find lecture less or more useful. Things we can do to help out we should. Be that putting things online or whatever. I think a lecture’s usefulness is inversely proportional to both the # of students attending and how advanced it is. The more advanced, the more you get out of it. The huge survey courses — like the ones you’ve been taking — are really no good when it comes to learning unless some interactivity is present. If the prof just talks at you… well, that isn’t so good.

A word of caution. Most of us treat high AP scores as a sign of someone that will do well, not necessarily someone that knows the material. Asking someone who does well on a test to explain the physical concepts they are using or to solve multi-step problems — a high AP source means they have a better chance of wading through it, not that they actually know it. At least, that has been our experience here at the UW.

I love the phrase “neurotypicals”.πŸ˜‰

Those two forums you pointed out look pretty cool. I wasn’t aware of them. I’ll references them to the folks that are teaching the honors class next year (as well as the regular classes).

I don’t agree with your group-work conclusion. I think the face-to-face skills and the forum skills are very different. I work extensively with my students (graduate students) over email, forums, and the like. But sometimes, flying out to chicago and sitting down for 3-4 hours for face-to-face… well, it feels like it is the equivalent of 3-4 days worth of email back-and-forths. Much more efficient. That said, as science budgets get tighter and tighter, and science becomes more and more global, we’ll need to improve our forum techniques and tools! But, in the end, you guys can often teach each other better than we can.

Your proposed solution — let those study at home that want, those that get something out of lecture shoudl go — is basically the model I think we currently have. We do some in-class stuff (like clicker questions), but, frankly, this is such a small part of your grade it will only make the difference if you are _seriously_ boarderline (I can say this since tomorrow is the last lecture!).

BTW, in my limited view of how remote courses work, it seems that the professor has to do more to get those to work than a regular course.

11. Alex Chen - June 3, 2006

Thanks for your response, Dr. Watts.

The thing with my proposed solution, however, is why require students to pay for courses when they can simply try to test out of the courses? There’s something known as “challenging a course,” which the physics department does allow. The problem with that, however, is that such a thing is generally quite discouraged.

Of course, putting notes and other things online will benefit the student who wants to learn by himself (in the case that the professor goes beyond materials covered in the book). However, as Nate previously mentioned, many professors do not do such a thing, because if they put everything online, then class attendance declines. The more in lecture that is also in the book, the lower the class attendance rate. However, if it declines, then the class seems smaller and those who actually do attend the class get more 1 on 1 interaction. So when professors intentionally give material only in lecture, students pretty much have to go to lecture to do well in tests.

Of course, doing everything by yourself on your own schedule requires more self-discipline than being guided by a teacher – I can definitely see how it could encourage people to wait until the last minute to cram an entire quarter’s worth of course material into one day, which generally doesn’t work. And if deadlines are set up for certain assignments, there are costs involved (on the other hand, there are ways to reduce the costs in such a system). Certain students will benefit more from this, especially the student with ADD who is self-motivated, but this probably will not constitute a huge amount of the population.

Are our tuition dollars solely to fulfill the expenses of teaching the particular student, or are they more than that (since I’ve heard that the university requires tuition dollars to operate)? Are they supposed to cover the costs of the lecture as well?

As for catering to different learning styles, it’s going to be expensive for the university. Seeing how bureaucratic the institution is, it’s not going to be easy to convince the institution to remodel itself for those with special needs. Usually, students with different learning styles do better at liberal arts colleges than in large research institutions. However, many parents are very reluctant to send their children to liberal arts colleges (there are also negative stereotypes about them).

Indeed, there are problems with AP tests, as there are with tests like the WASL and such, where there is a standardized format of grading.

Group work versus forums, yes, I can see how doing things in real-life is more efficient than things on the Internet. We could try to encourage real-time group interaction over the Internet with “boards” that allow people to use the mouse to draw equations and such, and then convert the drawings into actual math scripts (there are programs for this that were originally designed for blind students – I know you came to that presentation). Furthermore, people can use microphones to make it more like real-life. It’s not a complete substitute – however, I do believe that students can the material quite well with such a method.

Of course though, if everything is done online, we also run the risk of cheating – that students taking the online course will hire more knowledgable students to take the online tests for them. There is one expensive solution to this which I just thought up – require students taking the tests to set up a webcam of themselves, and then have some people monitor the webcams.

Finally, there are ways to reach out to the students with different learning styles. Computer games can be designed to teach certain aspects of the material (for example, the video game Supercharged).

12. Alex Chen - June 3, 2006

Of course, the large survey courses can be replaced with online courses – however, there are few online courses to correspond with the higher level courses. It may be less effective to teach higher-level course material online – however, for the students with different learning styles who still would not benefit much from physically attending the higher level courses, they may learn more efficiently through online courses, even though they may face a disadvantaged compared to the students physically attending the class.

13. Alex Chen - June 3, 2006

Required online graded tests and e-mail reminders are also ways to get students to not procrastinate to the last day (but for most humans, I guess they aren’t as effective as physically going to lectures). As for costs, there is a large infrastructure cost, but the additional cost for each additional student should not be very much.

The problem with required online graded tests, of course, is that a student can hire someone else to take the test for them. I would be curious as to ways to avert this issue that don’t cost much money. The webcam idea is one, I’m not quite sure how expensive that would be.

Neurotypical humans of this era seem to get a lot more satisfaction from face-to-face interaction than from online interaction (I suppose one of the factors included is body gestures). Perhaps the newer generations will be more comfortable with online interactions? Then again, humans are not evolutionarily adapted to live in the digial age, sadly enough.

Furthermore, as for the liberal arts colleges, they cost a lot of money, and it isn’t easy (for many students) to win a scholarship that brings the price down to that of a large research institution.

14. alex chen - June 3, 2006

Why were my comments thought to be spammy? Was it because I tend to post many replies back to back? (I have a tendency to post like that because I don’t want my thoughts to get lost in case I accidentally close the window or something – and I’m used to the edit button on the forums I go to).

15. Alex Chen - June 3, 2006

So essentially, I’m advocating for a couple of things:

1: Distance education, which is already here, but there aren’t many courses for which distance education is available (pretty much only the freshman level classes – some of the classes for higher-level students also should have distance education opportunities). And many universities are reluctant to accept credit for it.

Oh, and speaking of which, students probably could also be required to take tests at a certain location with a proctor (much like they are for the SAT). (a way such that students won’t hire others to do the work for them)

2: Unschooling, in which the student pretty much totally takes charge, and should only be required to pay money for the tests. It’s only suitable for some students, (or those who want to save money, too) but we should leave this option available.

Now, there are still reasons why students may have to be physically present at the university. One – the labs. Two – projects. Three – group work. Four – research. Though I’m not particularly a fan of forcing students to do group work, even for tutorials and not projects. Students should elect to have the opportunity to do it or not; I know some students who are very intelligent and who really get impatient in such settings (though I’m not one of them).

Of course, having students physically present together will encourage group work on homework. I guess most students do it even here – but I think many students still choose to do it solo, especially considering that this is a commuter school.

16. Alex Chen - June 3, 2006

So then, if more students don’t pay for university, how will the university be able to support itself?

One solution: raise taxes. :p

Though I guess it will have to rely more on private donations, which then makes it expected to fulfill the expectations of those who make donations.

17. alex chen - June 3, 2006

And I agree with Nate – go Opencourseware! Going on other university webpages on the same subject material (as long as those webpages are good and provide a lot of guidance, such as review questions, past exam solutions, etc…) pretty much makes taking the actual course useless. Though of course, as subject matter becomes more esoteric, the number of useful webpages for the course material decreases. Sad that some universities restrict access to courses on their servers…


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