Blog Archives

Laptop battery – not that kind of battery

We are all only too well aware of the problem of student focus.  The teacher turns her back for two seconds and at least one student is taking a peek at Facebook, or Youtube, or something else they shouldn’t be looking at.

The question – what do you do about it?

Apparently, you do not close down the laptop screen while the student is in mid-surf.  You might get arrested, suspended and find yourself on the receiving end of a battering case.  This is what happened to a lecturer in Valdosta State University in Georgia recently. I accidently slammed a laptop shut quite hard on my fingers (purely by accident of course, and now I cannot for the life of me remember why!) a number of years ago.  Both laptop and fingers survived undamaged. I imagine it would take some severe force indeed to cause injury to either.

Student inattention and self-distraction is a problem that is not going away.  Stories like the one in Georgia don’t help.  They just add to the frustrations of the problem.

There is increasing evidence that our young folk are experiencing addiction problems with their technology devices.  Headlines such as” Facebook generation suffer information withdrawal syndrome” and “Student ‘addiction’ to technology ‘similar to drug cravings” are frightening but need to considered and acted upon.  Students are reported as “having withdrawal symptoms, overeating, feeling nervous, isolated and disconnected, they don’t know what to with themselves or their time” when they are deprived of their technology in the “Unplugged: living without the media” study currently underway. The action of the student, reaction of the lecturer, and subsequent reaction of student in Georgia doesn’t seem quite so strange now.

Plenty of suggestions are given of alternative courses of action.  Examples suggested by commenters on the students’ behalf include: don’t be so rude in a classroom, don’t take the laptop to class, or don’t take yourself to class if you plan to play on your laptop right through it.  This is all good advice but unlikely to be taken up by a student who simply cannot resist the temptation to sneak a peek at that Facebook.

For the lecture, advice seems to follow on practical terms e.g. “the student should be asked to desist, asked to leave the lecture theatre if they won’t desist – but if they refuse to do even this, then it wouldn’t be fair to the other students to disrupt the lecture further – so a formal verbal warning should be issued, and from then on, a formal disciplinary process should be commenced”.  The commentator then goes on to say that very few universities are likely to have such a formal system in place. There is no mention either of what to do there and then when the student refuses to leave the room and refuses to un-facebook.

Another commenter laments the banning of internet connectivity in the classroom, suggesting that the lecturer integrate laptop usage into their lesson plans.  The commenter goes to say that s/he has “established a back channel chat room in which students can discuss the class or anything else for that matter during the course discussion. This keeps them from going on Facebook and focuses them at least marginally on the business at hand”.  Hmmmm, one wonders about the “marginally” and what the “anything else” is.  Integration of the social tools so beloved of our students is not easily integrated into every facet of classroom teaching.  While I like the idea of the back channel, it is difficult to see how it solves the problem.

What, then, is the solution?

Do we need yet another label to slap on students?  No!

Do we want to ban technology from the classroom? No!

Do we simply ignore the student(s) who Facebook their way through class? No!

Do we bar the Facebooking student from ever sitting in class again until they mend their ways? No! (we might be kept waiting some time for them to return)

Do we have individual lesson plans for each student so they cannot claim to be bored or that the teacher is moving too slow / fast for them? No! (how many students do you have, on average, in your classes?)

Do we…………….

It’s Sunday night, I’m back to watching the golf.

To Wikipedia or not to Wikipedia

Do you / should you recognise use of Wikipedia as a source of content for student research projects?

For years, the answer was an overwhelming ‘no’.  It’s open-edit nature meant that it simply had too many inaccuracies and gaps in explanations and meaning.  Lines such as “This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations” or “This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party publications” don’t usually inspire confidence. 

Nonetheless, the fact remains – students use Wikipedia for their research and lecturers telling them not to is not a deterrent to their Wikipedia usage.  Now, with Wikipedia with us for a decade is it time to change our approach.

When asked by students I have suggested that Wikipedia is a useful source and starting-point for ideas and brain-storming.  The vast number of hyper-links available is particularly useful for chasing a train of thought. Some articles have extensive reference lists (many are reputable) that can be worth sourcing.   Having an army of editors to point out that a page needs references or is incomplete is warning itself to users that a page cannot be taken too seriously but yet might be worth exploring.  Using Wikipedia as a starting point in exploring concepts and ideas might cause students to return to the page later and suggest the appropriate edits that are needed.

Wikipedia has come a long way in its 10 years.  Now it has a range of useful features including an “in the news” and an “on this day” sections covering the latest world news stories and a list of historic (modern and not-so-modern) events that happened on this date in previous years.  It also has a range of sister wiki projects, some of which are most impressive indeed.  The following are worth a look:

  • Wiki Commons – a multimedia collection
  • Wikionary – an online dictionary covering 400+ languages
  • Wiki Quote – a selection of quotes from a variety of sources
  • Wiki Books – completed and work-in-progress, a great way for budding authors to get published and received feedback on their progress to date
  • Wiki Species – for those with an interest in flora and fauna
  • Wiki News – along with the latest world stories there is a chat facility to interactively comment on these stories
  • Meta-Wiki – a community space for contributors and anyone else to talk about Wikipedia itself
  • Wikiversity – a selections of learning tools and materials, comes with the by-line “set learning free”, part of the growing trend to freely distribute classroom content, also provides community space for educators to collect and interact

It would appear that the perspective of Wikipedia as a collection of unreliable and ill-considered content is a thing of the past.  However, it’s not quite formal, high-ranking academic peer-reviewed journal status either.

Nonetheless, Wikipedia seems to have an important role in providing content to think about – surely an important feature of any educational program.



The Sunday Times have produced their annual University Guide with todays edition of the paper. It makes for interesting reading.

The ranking order of Universities and Institute of Technology in the country is given. NUI Galway are top. As usual, people are likely to quibble about the components of this ranking and how they are measured. For example, one element concerns the number of first and 2:1 honours given to graduates.  The idea being that the more of these there are, the better. The dumbing-down argument is never far away. I have a previous post related to this so I won’t go into it here. Suffice to say, that I consider the rankings to be an indicator only and recognise that an open mind needs to be kept.

What really grabbed my attention was the profiles of the various universities / colleges. Each institution profile asks a student therein to suggest a “Worst Feature” and a “Deal Clincher” for their institution. The student comments for each institution can be found in the file box on the right (I knew that box would be useful sooner or later).

 Did you notice what I noticed? 

Very very few of the comments concern academia. With only a small number of exceptions, practicalities like parking and social life dominate the list.  I’m reminded of the episode of Friends where Rachel says she switched her major from psychology because “there was never any parking beside the psychology building”. Cue audience laughter based on Rachel not being a serious college student.

Should we as lecturers be worried?  Are learning, skills acquisition or knowledge enhancement not as important to our students as we think they are?   Or are these things simply not at the top or bottom of the list for most of the student representatives here?   

Whatever the answer, it’s a cause of worry.  If student and lecturer priorities have drifted so far apart we have a problem.  We have to fundamentally question what is the purpose of a third level education and we need to do so with our students.

Students across the spectrum

This is the time of year when teachers and lecturers are faced with hundreds (more or less, depending on a whole range of factors) of new faces and names to acquaint themselves with. We wonder how best to engage our young and not so young changes, how to present material in an interesting way, how to get the brain cogs oiled and ready for new thoughts, ideas, facts, options, views, perspectives, terms and theories.  Hours spent on preparation are finally realised in the classroom.

Nothing kills this more than the half hearted “missed class the other day, but ah sure I didn’t miss anything” from the absent student.

Tom Weyman from Utoronto has put this cringing attitude to absenteeism into poetry:

Did I Miss Anything?

Question frequently asked by
students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place

And you weren’t here

Ok, this takes both ends of the spectrum to extremes. Every class isn’t going to provide a sackful of inspired nuggets of heavenly proportions.  Similarly a class that is devoid of an meaning or usefulness at all is highly unlikely.

It’s a case of degree, more or less.

I look after 3 masters levels programs. As part of the taught element of the course progresses over the year I constantly remind and encourage students to be on the lookout for that spark, that interesting little idea or fact that will point them in the direction of a dissertation topic that they can base their masters qualification on.

This  spark will be different for different students. For example, student A who is attracted by the psychology of human online behaviour might not be taken by the finer points of financial accounting. Similarly, student B who is attracted by inter-cultural differences in managing new product launches might be bored to tears by the manufacturing logistics in the development of that new product.

But what if student A misses the classes on online buyer behaviour, and student B misses the classes on international differences on launching new products – because they figured ah but sure nothing interesting’ll happen in that class today so I might as well not bother going in.

The more classes missed, the more opportunities that are missed to query and examine and ponder. Why do students (or their parents) pay good money only to not bother taking up these opportunities that are being offered to them on a plate?

Of course, not all students fit this bracket. Some (thankfully) lap up every opportunity that comes their way.

I never cease to query and ponder why some students in a class are so divergent – some answering “everything” to the question while others answer “nothing”.

End of year review – was it a waste of time?

In the ideal college environment, all the students pass with flying colours, learning and achieving copious amounts of knowledge and skills as well as the ability to apply and use these skills.  Lecturers proceed with ease through the year and end it with a sense of much satisfaction concerning the achievements of their charge.

But the world is not ideal.

There is plenty of research to indicate that teaching and learning needs to change. The annual Horizon report reminds us that learners want to be active in their own learning and offer a range of tools to assist in this. Put more bluntly, is college a waste of time?  The arguments put forward by Mixerergy are as follows, with my commentary in italics:

  • It creates corporate drones

Students lose their independence and become pawns of whatever company pays them enough to help make payments on their debt.  In the light of increased debate about university fees in Ireland, this is a controversial one. Nonetheless, sweeping statement like don’t help anyone, least of all the graduates who want to and are able to contribute in a constructive and effective way to their new employers.

  • What it teaches is out of date by the time students graduate

This is very much dependent on the subject domain. Some domains (e.g. accountancy, perhaps?) change very little year on year. Others (internet marketing, perhaps?) change a lot. Taking another perspective, isn’t it important that students obtain an appropriate grounding so that they can then go with the flow and thereby are capable of adapting to change as change happens in their domain. In my opinion, this is arguably more important than knowing every little (or even large) fact in that domain.

  • It doesn’t teach the way people learn

People learn by doing, not by sitting in a class and being lectured to.  This implies that college is all passive learning and students have no opportunity to practice what they learn. I’m not a fan of the large group lecture (I’ve blogged about this previously) but fortunately I also have opportunities to facilitate and scaffold student construction and development of their own ideas through project work and small-group tutorial classes.

  • Four years of information is too much to retain

Students end up cramming as much information about a class as they need for to do well on a test and they forget almost all of it after they finish a semester. Unfortunately, the grades-based education system as it is now encourages such learn-it-all off-and-write-it-all-down-in-the-exam modes of study. Nonetheless, such study techniques won’t get a student high grades. Yet, it continues to happen. We need to ask why students persist in such study modes when they know they are satisfying only one goal (getting that passing grade) but not another (true learning). Perhaps, the students’ preferred goal is not the lectuers’ preferred goal?

  • The truth is that college is one big party

The under-graduate college years are pivotal for a student. It’s their transition from parent dependency to personal independency. Personal development, growth of self awareness, experimentation with social structures and events that might have been out of bounds previously are critical here. We need to encourage students to strike a balance between the study part and the social part of their college life.  An excess of partying means a student is unlikely to get beyond first year. A college year spent in the library results in an unfortunately one-dimensional students.

So, what’s the answer

Mixenergy suggests letting students work on real projects, and give them experienced mentors that they can turn to for answers and advice.

In reality, what organisation might let amateurs with little experience and even fewer skills loose on any project of theirs?  Employers may be willing to take a chance on this on a small scale but that’s likely to be it. Any more and they risk spending far too long and too much training up the students in the skills and know-how required for the job.

How many mentors might there be per student? Ideally this should be small. But such a structure has resource and cost implications. One of the reasons large size classes are still with us is simply because because they are cost-effective.

Mixenergy raises some interesting issues. Students are different now then in a pre-net generation. They grow up in a technological world that provides different mental models, ways of processing information, shorter attention spans (for more traditional media types) and personal interests that are far removed from those of their pre-decessors. As a result, engaging students with traditional ways of teaching and learning is limited.

The problem is that such ways and methods are so embedded in our institutions that they are very difficult to break out of. We have a wealth of technologies with potential to reach and engage students (see the Horizon report again). Unfortunately, lecturers with an interest in deploying these tools are faced with many obstacles such as the over-emphasis on grades and traditional exams, not to mention institutional policies and procedures that dominate most educational institutions today that (sometimes, inadvertently) work against novel and innovative ways of active student engagement.

Yet, we persevere!  Giving up is simply not an option.

Talking about what generation

I came across an interesting item in Weblogg-ed about The Dumbest Generation – a review of Mark Bauerline’s take on how students are not benefiting from the digital world in any way that will make them more discerning, literate, analytical, knowledgeable, etc.

Here’s a copy of my comment –

I’ve been teaching IT in business for almost a dozen years and I believe that the students I see in front of me are getting more and more tech-literate every year. Yes, there are still those who need someone else to set up their Bebo page but they want that Bebo page. What is more interesting is what they do with these tech tools. Increasingly they are reaching outside of their classroom and immediate environment into the wider world, forming attachments with people and (in many cases worthwhile) causes that would be outside their reach if it wasn’t for their tech tools. In my view, to say that students of today aren’t enriched by web2.0 (or whatever you want to call it) is doing them a disservice. It is up to us the teachers and lecturers to reach out to the students “extra-curricular” digital activities and apply / tweak them to the classroom and learning outcomes for our courses. The kids aren’t dumb. If the course content that we want / need to teach them doesn’t grab their attention through traditional means, we need to tune into a toolset that they can relate to. Hello digital media, here we come.