Bored of education

By on February 7, 2007

Upon walking into the College of Liberal Arts on any given Thursday evening, just a few minutes before the start of a 5 o’clock Communications Law class, one would likely encounter at least two students already hunched over and tapping away at their slim, gray laptop computers. They have a variety of applications open. Some are retyping notes or finishing up a paper for another class. Others are chatting on AIM to friends or checking their Quinnipiac e-mail accounts. Still others are playing games or surfing the Internet, activities that are made easy now that almost all of the academic areas on Quinnipiac University’s sprawling campus have wireless Internet access. And, at 5 on Thursday evening, this law professor’s class is no exception.

Kyle Taylor, a 21-year-old public relations major from New York, saunters into the class at ten of five and announces loud enough for the eight or 10 students already sitting down at desks to hear: “This is my favorite class.” When he notices that the professor has not yet arrived, however, he pouts briefly and says, “He’s supposed to be here when I say that.”

Without further comment, he plops down in his usual plastic blue chair located conveniently in the very last row of desks in the back of the classroom and pulls out his own slim silvery machine. He plugs the familiar black adapter cord into a nearby socket on the front of the desk and boots up.

The machine’s screen glows bright Microsoft blue and clicks into start mode, revealing an input field that prompts Taylor for his username and password. He types it in quickly with the agility of someone who had done it hundreds of times before and he’s in.

Immediately, he pulls up his e-mail and an Excel spreadsheet that displays the carefully planned roster for a weekend beer pong tournament he is organizing. After inputting a few additional names into the roster, he saves and closes the document so that he might begin to deal with the four or so instant messages that have popped up all over his screen with a string of consecutive PINGS!

It doesn’t take long for anyone to figure out that Taylor, who is 6-foot-2 and solid in a red flat-rimmed backwards baseball cap and matching oversized red and white shirt, is confident and somewhat of a class clown. But he may as well represent any of his 5,400 classmates at Quinnipiac. Like scores of other undergraduates at the university, Taylor often brings his laptop to classes so that he might have a distraction from the tedious note-taking and monotonous lectures that he says many of his professors provide.

“If a class is boring, I’ll bring it,” Taylor said.

But although many students agree that laptops are a satisfactory way to get through a boring class, professors and administrators on the other hand are left to wonder whether the sleek machines are serving their originally intended purpose: to allow the incorporation of technology into the classroom experience.

The Web site for the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning separates types of laptop activities that can be utilized in a classroom setting into eight categories: student-data collection, student assessment, student self-assessment, student research, field research, analysis of digitized performances and student collaboration. But despite these recommendations, some professors are finding more and more that requiring each undergraduate to own and tote to class the standard, university-issue Dell laptop seems to be inviting in more problems.

Unbeknownst to Taylor, the professor who teaches the law class that he attends twice per week is on to his game.

Part-time faculty member Genaro Hathaway, who teaches a class at Quinnipiac Law School in addition to this undergraduate course and allows students to bring laptops to both, says that he can always figure out when a student is fooling around in class. “You can tell when you’re lecturing,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

He said that the closeness and intensity with which a student is looking at his monitor gives it away every time. But he does not seem fazed by the concept of students not paying attention in his class. “I was [actually] surprised to see few or no laptops [at the beginning of this class] because it’s easier for students to take notes on them rather than writing,” he said. “And everything is so based on computers now.”

John Paton, Dean of Academic Technology, feels that whether or not students will use their laptops for the right reasons depends on the professor and type of class. “If an academic use is not presented to the students,” he said, “they will find other uses [for their laptops].”

He said that there is a three-pronged reason for having laptops in the classroom. “First, students need experience with the tools they will be using in the workplace,” he said. “For instance, business students need to learn how to use spreadsheets.” The second reason is for personal productivity. “It’s hard to imagine any student not using their e-mail or Internet.” Third, Paton said, it is meant to enhance, complement and do what no other form of education will allow, such as simulations and collaborative group projects using the Internet.

Earlier in the year, Hathaway, along with the rest of Quinnipiac’s faculty, attended a seminar during which the issue of laptops in the classroom was discussed. He said that faculty members were all encouraged to set out a policy right from the beginning, to monitor students’ activity and provide a set of consequences for non-compliance. “Some teachers put something right in their syllabi stating their policies,” he said. Hathaway, however, is not one of them. Instead, he has a more laid back but matter-of-fact approach to the ongoing problem.

“If you’re going to check your e-mail in the middle of class, that’s OK,” Hathaway said. “But if you’re going to be fooling around and IM-ing, then just leave class. Why bother being here?”

Other professors might agree with this approach, since the laptop activities of students are difficult to monitor. Some technology teachers have a capability called “Remote Access” that allows them to view a generated list of the students logged into desktop computers and the programs they are using at a given time during the class. The capability, however, is limited to computer labs on campus. Everyone else is forced to simply stroll around the classroom periodically to check up on students, an inconvenience that prompts many professors to just let it be. “You’re never gonna stop ’em,” Hathaway said defeatedly.

Taylor argues that he is forced to use his laptop because some of his professors simply cannot hold his attention. “I only bring my laptop to class when the teacher has no control over the class or the class is ridiculous,” he said.

Hathaway feels that it is not the responsibility of the teacher but of the student to become engaged in a lesson. “The way I look at it, someone who is fooling around is obviously not listening or paying attention,” he said. “Either I’m boring or the topic’s boring. But instead of putting effort into an IM, [students should] put it into the class and it will encourage discussion and make the class more interactive.”

Jason Caplin, a sophomore at Quinnipiac, agrees.

Caplin, a political science major, said that it is not always the professor’s fault if students are not being attentive.

“It can and can’t be [the professor’s responsibility]. If a professor is boring, most students, including myself at times, will fool around in class if I feel that the lecture isn’t interactive and I am not learning anything,” he said. “But there will also be those students who will mess around on their laptops regardless of their professor’s capabilities.”

He says that he brings his laptop to class for the reasons that the university intended. “I use it for research, following PowerPoints, typing up notes, doing Excel sheets as the professor is doing it and for presentations,” Caplin said.

Hathaway, like many professors at the university, posts his lectures in the form of PowerPoint slides on Blackboard at the request of his students; but does posting lessons online create an atmosphere ripe for distraction during actual classes?

Taylor responds with a resounding yes.

“If you’re allowed to bring your laptop to class and the notes are posted, it negates everything about wanting to pay attention in class,” he said.

Hathaway agrees and said that if given the chance to teach Communications Law again, he would not use Blackboard. “This is the first class that I’ve used Blackboard in and put the lectures up. I’ll keep doing it since I already started, but I probably won’t do it again,” he said. “I think it should be a supplement but students clearly aren’t paying attention.”

Taylor said that when a professor asks students specifically to bring their laptops to class, he generally uses it for the “right” reasons. “I usually won’t goof off with it,” he said. “I’ll take notes.”

Caplin thinks that by incorporating laptop use into the dynamic of the class, professors can attract more attention from students. “My finance professor, for example, lets us use laptops really for when we are doing Microsoft Excel spreadsheets or to follow a PowerPoint. But I also have another professor who doesn’t permit laptop use even for notes,” he said. “I feel if it’s a class when a laptop can be beneficial, professors should incorporate their lesson plan to have it become more interactive.”

He does believe, however, that it is difficult to control students’ habits and that their antics are causing professors to underutilize the laptop as a learning mechanism.

“It’s a fine line because I feel the laptop is a great tool but so many students abuse it so professors are reluctant to have it used in the classroom,” Caplin said.

If students are not so compliant, professors have a rarely used but available option to “lock down” their classrooms and cut off the flow of wireless access for a designated period of time, according to Paton. Though only one professor in the past year has used such an option, it is available in all classrooms and academic buildings on campus. Paton said that it is a difficult process, however, because before locking down, administrators must consult with other professors of classrooms in the direct area since the lockdown can affect other rooms in the vicinity.

According to Paton, last year 95 percent of students at Quinnipiac took at least one class that utilized Blackboard, the school’s electronic learning management system, and at least 100 professors utilized laptops in the classroom to give tests and quizzes.

When the laptop program at Quinnipiac was still in its prototype stage, President John L. Lahey required that all of the faculty members come to a consensus about whether or not they would actually use the machines in the classroom. They agreed and the program came to fruition four years ago. The 2006-07 academic year is the first in which all students at the university own university-issued laptops.

Though Paton feels that the program has been a success, he is exploring options to get students and faculty more involved with it. Currently, he is looking into offering an even smaller and more compact Dell model laptop to students in the upcoming year. “It’s smaller and lighter,” he said. “The notebooks now are a little bulky now and these might encourage even more students to bring them to class.”

Bulky or not, Caplin and Taylor say that they will continue to use their laptops as they always have.

“The only thing that would prevent me from using my laptop [for non class-related activities].is if the teacher had my respect or if the teacher asked me what I was doing when I wasn’t paying attention or when it didn’t seem like I was paying attention,” Taylor said.


About Dana Owen