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A new protocol: summarizing CAT meetings

Posted by: Leonard Nevarez | February 11, 2011 | No Comment |

As resolved in the Committee on Academic Technologies meeting today (see above), we’re going to post regularly on the CAT blog in order to illustrate the kinds of things college committees can use the internet for.  To begin, the chair of CAT will post brief summaries of our meetings, starting with today’s meeting.  If time permits, summaries of prior meetings will be posted here as well, in order to keep the college community informed about the activities of our committee.

under: college committees, meeting summaries

A book worth reading

Posted by: Andrew Tallon | January 22, 2011 | No Comment |

If you were concerned by some of the issues raised in the CAT forum of 30 November 2010, John Freeman’s The Tyranny of Email is a book that will supply some useful food for thought.


under: uncategorized

Notes from 11/30 panel

Posted by: Leonard Nevarez | December 14, 2010 | No Comment |

Technology at Vassar: What are we doing in the classroom?
Student-faculty panel, November 30, 2010
Sponsored by Committee on Academic Technology

Leonard Nevarez: Today’s topic, the laptops, iPhones, iPads, smart phones, and other personal technologies that students bring into the classroom, falls outside the jurisdiction of the Committee on Academic Technologies (CAT).  There are lots of values to the ways students use these technologies in the classroom; there are also lots of concerns.  It’s not CAT’s authority to make legislation on this issue, but we wanted to start a college-wide conversation on it.  We have five panelists today:

  1. Kelsey Forest: Program intern (’11) in Media Studies; employee at Media Cloisters for two years.
  2. Cordelia McGee-Tubb: Computer Science major (’11); Misc editorialist and campus blogger.
  3. Marie Dugo: Media Studies major (’11) and social media editor at Misc.
  4. Adam Newman: writing tutor at Writing Center; founding member of ACCESS (student committee on disabilities and access to learning); board member of Committee on Disabilities Issues.
  5. Andrew Tallon: Art History faculty.


Kelsey Forest: I want to talk about the “myth of student distraction.”  Not that students don’t distract themselves w/technology, but there’s an assumption that if student is on a laptop or cell phone, that they’re doing something personal and unrelated to class.  Pens and notebooks are also personal technologies; what makes them acceptable is that students have learned how to use them for academic purposes.

My research indicates that four colleges (Abilene Christian University, University of Missouri School of Journalism, University of Florida College of Pharmacy, University of Utah) already incorporate iPhone technology into how the class is taught.  For instance, the “hand-raising technology” at University of Utah; students can make comment on the iPhone and press the “raise their hand” button to pass it onto the professor.  Students are guided and trained in how to use the technology in ways that expand the classroom.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb: I want to talk about how computers in the classroom are distracting.  I personally don’t bring my laptop to class because I know I will check my e-mail, Facebook, etc.  So instead I watch other students use their computers, which is equally distracting.  They’ll open up Powerpoint, Moodle, Word etc. to follow along with professor, then at some point they’ll switch to Gmail, Facebook chatting, Google Reader.  I’ve been told to sit in the front row to avoid being distracted by other people’s computers, but it’s strange to ask students who are paying attention to sit somewhere else so other students can distract themselves.

Technology in the classroom can be wonderful because students can follow along.  E.g., students google something the professor said and keep the window open to bring up later on.  I have to write a note in my notebook to remind myself to look at something later.  But still, by and large it’s a distraction for students, and I don’t know what to do.  It’s a sign of disrespect to the professor.  A student would never stare out of a window for an hour, so why should students stare at their computers for the same time?  It must affect the integrity of the class if you know that a third of the class is not paying attention; I find it discouraging as a fellow student.

Marie Dugo: I have my notes for this panel on my iPhone!  I’m a big proponent of technology in the classroom.  Certainly it makes sense in Media Studies.  We need to recognize it’s a decision to make on a class-by-class, case-by-case, person-by-person basis.  There have been classes where I feel I’m at a disadvantage if I don’t have my laptop on.  In News Media in America, I need to see a news story they’re talking about.  I don’t print out my readings in Urban Studies because this color image wouldn’t translate.  I type much faster than I write, and my notes in Word can insert, images hyperlinks, even lecture recordings (with Word Notebook feature).  I keep my Tweet Deck open in the desktop for my work with the Misc.  Yes, I have a lot of things open, but I have the self-control to ignore Tweets about Jersey Shore, etc.; even if I do notice it, it’s gone pretty quick in 140 characters.

I hate to think that I’m disrespecting my professors if I’m looking down at my screen.  I may be looking down, but I’m looking deeper into the class.  I would encourage professors to talk to students who seem completely disengaged by their computer.  If they’re really not distracted, they’ll you; if they are, they may lie to you, but they’ll know you’re on to them.  And students should give professors a heads-up if you’re worried they think you’re disrespecting them.  The problem is not technology but lack of communication around technology.

Adam Newman: I want to talk from the perspective of students with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, using laptops, iPhones and iPads as a form of assisted technology in the classroom.  There are audio recording programs to record lectures.  There are note-taking software for people with executive functioning impairments (problems systematizing and organizing their thoughts) to organize notes, refer back to them later, and identify themes more easily than in 50 pages of paper notes.

I have noticed a lot of distraction in the classroom.  There are programs that lock you out of the internet for a set time, which students could use.  My view is that college is a transitional space, and it’s not the faculty’s responsible to keep me honest; it’s my responsibility to be honest on my own.  I wish every student were fully invested, but it’s their choice and their (parents’) money.  It’s better to learn these lessons before we go into their workplace, where the consequence isn’t a talking-to.

Regarding the issue of students staring out the window, I’ve known students (not at Vassar) with eye-contact aversion who have been severely disciplined by instructors for not focusing on them.  That’s incredibly anxiety-producing for them; they may not be looking, but they’re listening and are as fully engaged as anyone else.  I would also counsel against limiting the use of technology in the classroom only to students with disabilities who are registered with the Office of Disabilities to have special accommodations.  That becomes stigmatizing, since students are designated in the classroom and outed in a way that’s not fair to them; they have the right not to out themselves.  Just because a faculty member doesn’t follow the “universal design” principles of engaging students with all kinds of learning styles doesn’t mean the student without accommodations should be denied the best experience in the classroom.

Andrew Tallon: I’m playing the role of the Luddite with a more conservative faculty viewpoint.  As an instructor of things in a darkened art history classroom, I have a problem with students’ computer screens: glowing devices that compete directly with what I’m trying to teach.  Also, they affect the cohesiveness of the classroom; it may seem fine if one student chooses to distract themself, but that can damage the functioning of classrooms that need everyone to focus on the same thing at the same time.

On a deeper level, we’re dealing with the fall-out of the “attention age” as students’ attention spans are frittered away and as information is normalized into hit counts and boiled down to ever fewer bytes, Tweeted in and out of the minds of our students.  We also see a horror of boredom, but boredom is a formidable engine of creativity.  But boredom is an endangered species; as we post Facebook updates, blog, tweet and do something constantly, where is the silence in which thought has the chance to grow?  There’s been a sea-change in our ability to digest material.  If ten years ago a 50-page reading assignment might not have been exceptional but now it seems to be, can we talk about a rewiring and even damaging of the brain?  What is the multitasking equivalent to deep reading a chapter of Moby Dick?

I fear that by asking students to bring these technologies into the classroom and fill their academic time with busy-ness, we contribute directly to the erosion of their ability to think deeply.  I fear that we’ve been led to think that old pedagogical techniques are irrelevant, and that as instructors we must “play or perish.”  Why do we even need teachers and lectures?  I’m recording this event on our laptop; why couldn’t that recording be a substitute for the classroom? Shouldn’t the classroom be understood as a sanctuary, a place of undistracted, engaged discussion and reflection?


[Faculty]: Recording my lectures without my awareness undermines the trust and safe environment of the classroom.  Students and faculty need to be responsible to each other.

[Student]: I’m concerned about the physical and mental health effects of constant technology use.  I’ve noticed diminished vision, more headaches, more depression.

[Faculty]: Technology is coming regardless of what instructors choose to tolerate in their classroom. Faculty in the sciences know what students will need in their future careers, such as fluency in communication and interaction, and it’s a shame that students are denying themselves that.

[Faculty]: Students need to hold each other responsible for their activities in the classroom.  Have any students ever asked a fellow student not to use a distracting technology?

Kelsey Forest: I don’t think it’s a problem of the technology’s presence in the classroom, but a problem that we don’t facilitate its presence and teach with/to technology.  Our generation is the transitional group and don’t have a lifetime experience or training in using this technology. But more and more students will arrive having been taught these skills in high schools.

[Faculty]: I have to admit, some days I don’t care whether students are using technology in the classroom, and some days I do; sometimes that’s driven by pedagogy, and sometimes by my own crankiness.  Openness and honesty about technology and why faculty may teach a lesson with or without them is a positive thing about the current moment.

[Staff]: As a former student with learning disabilities, I know the recording controversy is not a new issue.  Nor is the concern over technology; there’s ancient Egyptian records expressing concerns that writing is not real learning.  But the distractions caused by the bright, visual nature of this technology is a new issue.

Adam Newman: I question the idea that technology impairs the responsibility students have to one another in the classroom.  I’ve been in many classrooms without technology where I’ve felt a lack of respect from students who didn’t do the reading and come prepared to participate in class.  If they’re not doing the reading, I don’t mind that they stare off into space or their computer screen.

Andrew Tallon: That’s an excellent point—we can’t blame the technology.  The statistics on Moodle indicate that too many students aren’t downloading the readings.  But I think technology has distracted students so much that they can’t do this reading.

Marie Dugo: I realize from this panel that I’m being grouped with students who don’t do the readings because I use a laptop in the classroom. I record lectures out of respect for the instructor; I want to quote and cite my professors in my assignments.  There needs to be more dialogue in the classroom between professors and students and between students themselves about what’s acceptable in using technology.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb: There are ways to compartmentalize the students who are using the technology.  At a class at Columbia University, the professor made students using laptops sit in the corner, where teaching assistants sat behind them and made sure they were taking notes, with the knowledge that they could be called on at any time.

Belinda Guthrie: As director of the Office of Disabilities, I’m extremely grateful for technology in the classroom because it makes an inaccessible curriculum accessible.  Our largest expenditure is on assisted technology, which means the conversations I have with students and faculty now are different than in 1997: note-taking software, real-time remote stenographers.  We have to learn to view technology in the classroom as more than accommodating students with disabilities, and so it doesn’t erode the teacher-student and student-student relationship.

[Staff]: A question for the students—how much are you having actual conversations about technology in the classroom, for instance on the first day?  Or is it the pink elephant in the room?

Marie Dugo: It’s come up in some of my classrooms from the instructor.  I’d appreciate their views on technology being made clear on the syllabus.  But I haven’t had the student-student conversation in any of my classes yet.

Kelsey Forest: I’ve had this conversation with students through my role as program intern in Media Studies.  In a classroom, some students have asked me not to use a computer before; on group assignments, it’s always helpful for someone to bring the laptop.  I’d appreciate if professors made clear why they choose to allow technology or not; the lack of a certain technology is still a technology, still a technological choice.

Adam Newman: I’ve had very few professors mention it in the class; my experience is that it’s more the pink elephant in the room.  I know one professor who allows students to bring laptops but requires they Facebook friend so that he knows who’s logged on and not paying attention.  As for student-student conversations, I’m a forthright person but I’m anxious about mentioning to someone that I’m being distracted.

[Faculty]: I have a no-laptop policy after I allowed them once and saw a student looking at their computer with a big smile on their face; they later admitted they were looking at something else.  I’m not interested in policing the classroom.  I don’t mind if students read online materials, but in my classes I want them to have a different experience reading, so I ask them to print out and bring the materials.

under: laptop policies

Sample Laptop Policies

Posted by: Steve Taylor | December 9, 2010 | 1 Comment |

CAT encourages instructors to include a statement in their syllabi that explains their views and expectations about student use of laptops or other technologies in their classes. If you’ve developed such a statement, please submit it here, for others to consider.

under: laptop policies

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