Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Virtual Napkins

What will the student computing environment be like a few years hence? That is the subject of this post.

Let me begin with the following. My campus currently does not have a computer ownership requirement. There are a couple of professional programs, Law and MBA, which do have a requirement and the MBA requires in addition that the students have laptops that they bring to class. Several other smaller schools or programs are in the talking stage of such a requirement. I assume they will get there in thme next year or two, though there are obstacles (some of which I talk about below). Computer ownership within the Freshmen class that started in fall 2004 was almost 95%, with about 60% of those being laptops.

But most students don’t bring their laptops to class. In the first two years, where the students are apt to take a lot of lecture classes, they will be sitting in fixed seating with fold out tablet arms to support a (paper) notebook. There is really not enough surface space to support a computer. And most of these rooms don’t have power to the seat, so even when we put wireless in, we’re in the process of doing that now, if students have several classes in a row they will likely run out of power unless they tote extra batteries. Further, we are a big campus geographically and if one has to tote a laptop around campus, along with textbooks and other course materials, it is just too much.

So an interesting question is where do students do the online part of their course work? Do they go back to their residence and work on their own computer? Or do they go to a lab? Or do they go back to their residence and then take their laptop to someplace they can work (perhaps with wireless access)? I believe the answer is all of the above, but I don’t have a good sense of the relative importance of those alternatives. I will also note that the presence of cell phones and iPods among the students is huge, but for the time being the use is mostly unrelated to instruction.

What about preferred platform? We have a pilot project on campus called Writing with Video that many people are excited about. It has been approved for our general education, composition II requirement. The expectation is for this course to start ramping up in fall 2006. Students will be expected to have access to a modern Mac, as that is the best platform both for getting started with video editing and for embedding video and text in a common view to display both in conjunction. (Though I like my tablet PC, I’m buying myself a Mac desktop so I can test out for myself this assertion about applications and also just to have a new toy for the holidays.)

This leads to its own issue. I don’t know what the penetration of Macs is with the incoming students, but for the last several years Mac ownership has dipped well below 10%. So to get Macs to these students, those directly involved with the IT support for this course are going to start a leasing program, wherein during the semester the students take the writing with video course they will have a Mac laptop. It will be extremely interesting to see the student behavior after that course is over. Will they become hooked on the Mac and make it their platform for all their courses? Will they view the Mac as a curiosity only for Video production, which remains a sidebar activity for them? If the latter, will they expect that that campus (or the colleges) provide Mac computer labs so they work on their video project there? Nobody knows the answer to this. It is an interesting experiment.

For some of the units that are toying with a laptop requirement, the issue is the price of the specialized software licenses and whether they can come up with a bundle of applications that is sufficient for the core instruction in the program but is affordable for the students. This turns out to be a vexing problem and in some cases the software vendors won’t allow key served applications that might reduce the aggregate licensing cost. Again it seems possible that students under such a requirement will start demanding labs instead. To me that makes sense if the students also benefit in going to the lab either by working on projects with classmates or by being able to access expert advice that can’t be delivered well online. But absent that, a lab solution instead of any anyplace solution seems archaic.

In my own discipline, economics, and in math and quite a few other disciplines where students have to do a lot of equations and diagrams, a Tablet PC would be wunderbar. Economists, in particular, are known for going to restaurants and coffee shops and debating their favorite issue with diagrams drawn on napkins. (Remember the Laffer curve?) With a Tablet PC, students could do this online and then share their diagrams. (Ergo the title of this post.) So if all econ students or all math students had tablets, I’m quite sure they would be used intensively in instruction for the homework part, if not for the live class part. But, unfortunately, penetration of Tablet PCs among the students is quite low and in the absence of the tablets one has to teach the class quite differently.

In days of yore, I had the students use Draw, or Paint, or some other similar program to make Econ graphs and submit those as part of their homework. But the reality is that using the mouse, as distinct from a pen input, is quite clunky for making the diagrams. So students who are diligent will make the diagrams first on paper, practice there, and only then translate those to the computer. And students who are less diligent will not practice much at all and not get very proficient with the diagrams, which is a key skill in understanding the economics.

An instructor with a modest sized class who is serious about getting the students to learn the economics might very well opt for paper based homework, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, even if that instructor is otherwise disposed toward using technology.

I just checked the Gateway site and their new 14” tablet looks quite reasonably priced. But will students go for it? There is a huge coordination problem afoot here. If students have the Tablets we will teach one way. If they don’t we’ll teach a different way. If students expect us to teach one way, they might very well buy Tablet PCs. If they don’t have that expectation….

Predicting the future about the student computing environment is difficult because of the coordination problem. The only thing I feel safe in predicting is that there is too much diversity on a campus such as mine to imagine that we’ll converge on one computing environment for all. I’m jealous of those campuses that mandate a common platform for their students. But at the same time I recognize that depending on discipline we do quite different things with technology and we likely will not serve anyone well by aiming for a standard somewhere in the middle.

1 comment:

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