Professor Steve Jones admits being concerned that his students were paying more attention to their computers and to each other than to his teaching. He needn't have worried.
Jones, professor and head of communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago and a senior research fellow on the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is teaching a course this semester simultaneously to students at the University of Illinois' Chicago and Urbana-Champaign campuses. With an Apple iBook laptop computer on each end using Apple's $129 iSight camera and microphone, Jones is able to tie together the two classrooms in real time.
An unexpected development was that students began bringing their laptops to class and having conversations during the lesson with each other--between the two sites. "I started to feel they weren't paying attention in class," remembers Jones. "But I talked to a couple students and found out that what they were doing was class-related. They were asking questions and pointing things out. They couldn't get enough conversation in verbally."
Even on the same campus, users may have different specific computer needs. A botany student may want a handheld device that has add-on components to take samples while in the field. A history student may use video and audio instant messaging to interact with researchers or research primary sources on another continent. Music instructors may be looking for software applications to help them compose new works.
Despite those differences, there are some very clear trends in computer use on campuses large and small, religious and secular, upper- and middle-class: Mobile computers such as personal digital assistants (PDAs), cell phones, laptops, and tablets are taking over as school staff and students use them to create mobile lifestyles. In particular, students are exploiting the technology to work, research, and entertain themselves nearly anywhere on campus at any time.
A related trend across all campuses is that schools are looking for ways to use their students' access to the technology to increase students' interaction with their coursework. That often means communication with students via wireless connections or wired links to give them course plans, research material, online "laboratories" for conducting classes or discussions, or even delivering entire classes and testing to the student online.
Institutions are working hard to keep up with their students' needs by upgrading their infrastructure (usually by installing high-speed communications technology throughout the academic buildings, the residence halls, and common areas, and by increasing the number and the power of servers on campus). Vendors such as Dell Computer, Gateway, IBM, and Microsoft offer software or hardware packages to colleges and universities, and in some cases make grants of technologies for specific programs.
Institutions are also boosting their help desk staff available to offer technical support to the student population, usually through a mix of paid staff and student volunteers. Though some schools try to offer as much support as students and faculty need, others limit their support to technology that meets specific school parameters and then direct the students to the manufacturers for help with unsupported hardware and software.
The College of New Rochelle (N.Y.) is implementing a comprehensive strategic plan. As a part of that, incoming freshmen to two of its schools are being given laptop computers. It also is renovating its computer labs and technology classrooms, making each classroom a potential wireless workplace for students. In fact, wireless access has been expanded to almost all academic and public areas on the campus. Plus, more than 1,500 students and faculty use a web-based course management system.
New Rochelle's students are using "technology as a tool for communication and collaboration," says Emory Craig, the college's director of academic computing. "This fact, along with the increasing miniaturization of the devices, is making technology personal and portable, and more embedded in everyday life. Students come to us with an expanding array of communication devices and the expectation that they will be able to use them."
The University of Miami (Fla.), which recently inked a deal with Dell Computer to streamline its technology purchases, reports that 95 percent of its outdoor areas and 60 percent of its campus buildings are enabled for wireless computing. The school offers free wireless accounts to its students, 4,000 of whom have taken advantage of it so far.
Through the Pew Internet project, Jones has been researching students' use of technology and the internet since 1999. During that time, he has seen students use the internet and their computers to increase the number of people--faculty, other students, and people peripherally connected to a class--with whom they interact. For example, students sign up for e-mail-based discussion groups, even those not run or assigned by the teacher. Three-quarters also said they were going to the library less and were doing more research online. While Jones laments the loss of the social interaction from less library time, new patterns are emerging in which computer labs are becoming a drop-in center for students, even if they have their own computers and internet connections.
"We thought that with so many students using their own computers, the use of computer labs would decline," says Brian Rust, communications manager for the University of Wisconsin, Madison's division for information technology. But at a school in which almost all incoming freshman already own a computer (see sidebar), computer lab use remained steady and even increased at a couple sites. "They consider it a place to check their e-mail and manage documents. That way, they can leave their computers in their homes."
That wasn't the case at Loyola University (Ill.), where declining use of the computer labs has allowed the school to begin eliminating lab seats and reclaiming that space for other purposes, according to Daniel Vonder Heide, director of information services.
Schools are finding similar trends, especially in the student preference for laptop computers. About half of the students at UW-Madison have laptops. Colorado University-Boulder has found that a majority of its students preferred to purchase laptops instead of desktops.
Desktops are still found in many students' rooms, but they may soon be "a thing of the past on campuses, especially for commuter or nontraditional students," says Michael Schmedlen, a regional manager in IBM's education division. He says students "are really nomadic" in the way they go about their campus lives, and they are able to do that because of the long-lasting batteries in today's laptops and tablets, which can be used throughout a day's worth of classes without recharging. The near-ubiquity of wireless access on campuses is another factor in these portable computers' popularity. Tablet computers hold one very important edge over laptops for some students: improved handwriting recognition software makes them the favored choice over laptops for students who prefer to write their notes instead of type them.
University of California, Los Angeles junior Tony Pallatto, the owner of a vintage 1999 Apple G5 desktop, agrees that laptops are more popular than desktops and that laptop speeds are a good match for the internet, word processing, and other uses popular with students.
"It's really helpful if you have a presentation in class. A lot of times students will use their laptops to enhance their presentations with PowerPoint and graphical presentations, creative stuff," Pallatto says.
Vonder Heide notes that he's also seeing more laptops than tablets on his campus. And with PDAs that combine the functions of small handheld computers with telephones, he says cell phones are dropping out of favor.
By January, Coppin State University (Md.) plans to add 12 more classrooms to the 25 it has already converted into "smart classrooms." These rooms have ceiling-based projectors, wireless connections, DVDs, VDRs, and CD players--"all the things teachers can use to enrich their presentations with multimedia," says Ahmed El-Haggan, vice president of information technology.
As part of its ongoing strategic plan, New Rochelle is making all classrooms wireless-ready, so students and teachers can access the internet--and each other--during lessons.
UW-Madison has not gone all-out in the classroom conversion craze. Most classrooms have not been made wireless-friendly. "Some faculty prefer we don't have another distraction during classes," says Rust. But a handful of classrooms and lecture halls have been wireless enabled, mostly to be at the disposal of the lecturer. Instead, the UW's wireless transmission points have been installed in the libraries, the student unions, and other common areas.
Some teachers may even be ahead of their students in their integration of technology into the classroom. Pallatto recalls an algebra teacher who used Microsoft's presentation software, PowerPoint, to create about 90 percent of his lessons. "He walked you through all of the problems, and he had sound effects for all of the steps," remembers Pallatto, a Japanese major, who adds, "He was kind of eccentric."
For those schools taking a go-slow approach on creating smart classrooms, the opinions and experiences of faculty and staff could have the decisive weight. "I'm simply happy that students are engaged with one another in learning," says Jones, recalling his students interacting with each other during class. "Whether or not we know yet whether the learning outcome is better or worse--and I don't think we do--I'm more than willing to try this for a while until we know."
John Burton is UB's San Francisco-based contributing writer.