Thursday, April 14, 2005

All this technology and all this paper

One of the big disincentives for students to carry around a laptop is it is something else to schlep and they're already schlepping around a lot of other stuff. What is that other stuff? I'm not sure but the last time I taught, which was spring '03, every student seemingly had a huge backpack that was quite full. I'm guess some of that was textbooks, perhaps some notebooks, perhaps printouts of things, I'm not sure what else. None of them brought a laptop and I queried them about PDAs, and none brought those either. They didn't need an electronic calendar for their schoolwork and these kids (honors students) were into their schoolwork. Apparently they needed a lot of paper stuff.

I really don't know how representative that is, but as it gets nice outside and you are walking around your own quad at the break between classes, see what students are carrying. See if they seem loaded down with a backpack.

I tend to believe that the lowest common denominator (or weakest link in the chain) rules. If one class out of 5 requires the students to bring the textbook or the course pack then the student has to make a commitment to a paper approach there and so that the approach for everything. Students will then print out all sorts of stuff that is online, because the student lives in the world of paper. In order for the student to rationally move to toting a laptop around (especially one of those 7 or 8 pound monsters) the student has to expect that everything he wants will be available online (or already on his computer). Typically this means an expectation of abundant network aces and that all the classes make use of online distribution.

This means there is a real coordination problem in moving to the world where students readily carry laptops. Because of that coordination problem, it is easier to go this route in a narrowly defined area than over a broad curriculum. Yet I'm proposing that we recommend laptops to our incoming students, before the coordination problem is solved.

The reason is straightforward. Nationally laptop ownership among college students is over 50%, so it is not such a wild recommendation. But students can bring a laptop to campus and leave in their dorm room only to take home over the weekend. I want them to take the laptops out of this dorm room into spaces where they collaborate with their classmates and perhaps into class. I want the bulk of the students to have the capability and to recognize that is a good capability to have. The first couple of cohorts might not recognize that. But it will move instructors and others communicating with students to think of the issue of viewing the content on the laptop (and on the cell phone), not just distributing the content online to be printed latter. We can no longer wait till the those thoughts happen via natural evolution. We have to engineer the process a little for our own survival. This is a natural place to start, in my view.

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