Science & Research

The rise of the cyborg student

By
Thursday, May 27, 2010

The University’s website has received its fair share of criticism since its unveiling in 2006. It can be counter-intuitive, confusing and difficult to navigate. A new design is currently in development, to find what University administrators call a “better fit” for Brown. All of this is despite sifting through 40 shades of brown and paying hefty professional design fees only four years ago, when the current class of 2010 began looking around for the right “fit” of their own.

The whole exercise seems a bit absurd until one takes a quick look around campus: Students are on the Internet constantly, bringing their laptops and smartphones everywhere. The libraries are filled with people reading books and articles on scanned databases while their bound brethren languish on the shelves. Google has become the new mom, answering questions about casseroles, nagging coughs and tipping procedures from pretty much anywhere. 

This coexistence defines the Brown student today: a sort of cyborg, an amalgamation of person and hardware that emerges equally in the classroom and on Facebook. To many, the University’s website, not the Van Wickle Gates, is the main gateway into the world of Brown — a hub that is worth the effort for Brown to get right.

But in this mad rush to situate Brown in digital discourse, where does the University’s mythology fit in? What’s happened to the idea that this is a place where students navigate through seemingly infinite perspectives in search of their own? How do the ideals of the New Curriculum stand up to a radical new way of learning and thinking about scholarship? And how are long-standing dynamics — between teacher and student, writer and reader, active and passive — adjusting to this total reconception of what it means to be part of the Brown community?

Life in a wired Brown

When Michael Pickett, vice president for computing and information services and chief information officer, talks about his job, he beams.

“Sometimes I go home and think, ‘They pay me to do this?’ ” he said, playing with his newly purchased Apple iPad, which he is personally testing for potential University use.

Switching easily between folksy idioms and corporate IT lingo, Pickett exists on campus largely to make technology available, secure and easy to use for Brown’s faculty and its “born-digital students,” as he calls them.

“We value the conversations we have with students” about technology, he said, pointing to the University’s conversion from an internal e-mail and scheduling system to Google’s free education tools as the result of student input about what is most useful.

The new Google Apps suite, which includes e-mail, shareable web documents and calendars, is “rated for business,” he said, and comes with a slew of privacy protection and support options. Pickett states proudly that the institutional version of Google “was not hacked by the Chinese,” as the everyday commercial version that anyone can use reportedly was.

The new system will also allow for an unprecedented amount of interconnectivity among departments, and between students and professors, that puts Brown ahead of the curve among comparable schools, Pickett said.

“One of the greatest things about Brown is the conversations between students and faculty and students and themselves,” he said. The ability to facilitate new and better communication with things like Google Apps is “very Brown.

Perhaps a more difficult part of the University’s efforts in technology is identifying which services and hardware are demanded where. Four years ago, Computing and Information Services was in the middle of a push to increase the availability of a then somewhat novel service: wireless Internet. In dorm rooms, on the college greens and in classrooms, little white boxes with blinking green lights were being installed, a new selling point for the University as well as a gamble on its importance for the future.

Now, Wi-Fi has almost completely usurped traditional plug-in Internet service. “It’s been a real game-changer,” said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services.

Klawunn said even the most mundane issues, like increasing the number of plugs for computers in study spaces, often dominate discussions with students about how to improve their quality of life.

“We look at where academic work is located, what it looks like and what (students) need to do it,” she said.

Shelves, at a threshold

Increasingly, this has meant places other than the traditional center of study, the library. Or at least, not the library of yesteryear, where young scholars poured over tomes with that slightly funky smell that comes from years in the stacks.

Circulation of hard-copy books has dropped by about 15 percent in the last 10 years, according to University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi, who oversees all of Brown’s library collections. Purchases of new books have slowed as well, and ink and paper now receives a steadily shrinking share of the library’s resources.

At first glance, it might seem that libraries may be on their last legs. But amid these trends, library attendance, measured by the number of card swipes at entry points, has skyrocketed. Last year, Brown’s libraries saw more than one million unique entries. Students and faculty downloaded more than 1.75 million full-text articles from subscription services in that same period. Hemmasi said the library’s budget for electronic resources has jumped from what was once just $20,000 per year to a whopping $6 million in 2009.

These shifts suggest a changing role for the library, from a place where students find resources to a place where they use them.

That’s why Hemmasi emphasizes “access.” Students don’t need trade books that “every other school has” — they can access them online, or through book-sharing services with other, more conventional libraries, she said.

“What we need to focus on is what researchers need and can’t get anywhere else, the rare things other libraries don’t have,” she said. In part, this means acquiring the ancient maps, constitutional documents and papers of luminaries the University likes to tout on its website. But it also means making these rare and fragile documents available for everyday student use.

“Right now, it is like (rare materials) have chains on them,” Hemmasi said. But, she added, “natural user interfaces” can improve students’ access to such documents. These interfaces are, essentially, touch-screen computers that allow users to mimic “real-life actions,” like ripping pages out of documents or hand-rotating precious and exceedingly fragile scanned materials on the digital screen. 

The Microsoft Surface, a product with a multi-touch interface, is slated to go into use next year. Hemmasi also envisions collaborative computer walls, where groups of students can work on projects and presentations together, a sort of “social studying” — an idea growing more and more important in Hemmasi’s library system. New areas like the Rockefeller Library’s Finn Reading Room and the Sciences Library’s Friedman Study Center and science resource center also offer new ways for students to interact around work.

But do all of these futuristic tools and social study spaces really belong in a library? What about books?

Increasing the availability of resources in any way possible does “everything that’s good about books and so much more,” Hemmasi said. 

“What is study about today that it wasn’t about before?” she said. “Our job is not to dictate how (students) use library resources or library space. Our job is to provide access to what people want.”

Gizmos and peptide bonds

The popular conception of a “classroom of the future” looks a lot like Assistant Professor of Biology Arthur Salomon’s lecture course in biochemistry. Salomon can rattle off a list of about a dozen innovations currently in use in his 245-person lecture course, from online lecture
streaming to an electronic grading system that allows for students to receive e-mails with scanned PDF copies of their graded exams within 24 hours of the test.

“Anything we can dream up, we will try it,” Salomon said, and the collection of self-created programs catalogued on his website bears witness to this fact.

But the technological march forward has not come without snags. He estimated that posting lecture videos online led to a 30 percent decrease in attendance after he introduced the practice four years ago. To encourage attendance and “interactivity” — Salomon’s word for class participation — he introduced in-class pop quizzes.

Students use wireless clickers to answer a question at some point during the lecture. (Think “Ask the Audience” on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”) Despite significant attrition in the lecture hall once the day’s question has been asked, Salomon credits the clickers with counteracting the drawbacks of putting lectures up for all to see whenever they want.

Salomon speaks with pride about the streamlining, anonymity and speed that these improvements offer. The availability of the online resources has largely replaced students’ need to actually talk to the class instructors. To make up for this lack of communication, the class has a live blog for students to ask questions and an online extra-credit discussion group for bio chatter.

This all might sound like a little much — like the proverbial old lady who swallowed a spider because she swallowed a fly. What about the basics — a professor speaking to his students? 

“Students come to me to learn biochemistry,” Salomon said. The technology helps with that, so what if there is less personal interaction?

To Jacob Murray ’12, the “so what” is fundamental.

“There is something to be gained from interaction” with professors, Murray said. Learning to communicate and get to know people — professors and students alike — is part of the unique Brown experience, he said. “If the University did not provide space to learn that skill, that would be concerning,” he said.

Murray seems to share with many current students a sense of excitement for a more responsive and interactive future coupled with reluctance to give up what feels like the right way to learn.

In terms of technology in the classroom, Murray said he hasn’t been “blown away” by anything a professor has thrown at him. Then pressed for what would send him aloft, he suggested more interactivity —  instant polls, “something dynamic.” 

“Professors are more motivated to interact with the class if they don’t have the tools,” like PowerPoint presentations, that can cheapen the written word or limit flexibility, he said.

“Some of the best lecturers are professors who write on the chalkboard and aren’t reliant on external things,” he said.

The new New Curriculum?

The role of technology in scholarship reaches beyond cool clicker gadgets in classrooms, as the availability of countless journal articles, new data sources and affordable computers with real processing capabilities change not just how people research, but what kinds of questions they ask.

It is a bedrock assumption in statistical theory that as the amount of available information becomes infinite, the probability of finding a piece of information within that huge trove approaches zero. It is a result as fundamental to the modern study of the probabilistic universe as it is counterintuitive — though in the age of 24-hour news and over 75 million unique Twitter accounts, one begins to get a picture of a future where anything useful is absorbed into the infinite expanse that is the Internet.

With this seemingly infinite supply of potential data, scholarship in the Internet Age is about more than just the sheer volume of information. It requires an entirely different approach to research, one that finds the digital diamond in the rough, albeit with a little help from resources like Google Scholar and WorldCat.

Or a massive, 14 teraflop, multi-million dollar supercomputer, which booted up on campus this spring, providing 50 times more processing power than anything Brown has had before. The supercomputer is the latest move in a concerted effort to tap massive stores of data more effectively for teaching and research.

Jan Hesthaven, professor of applied mathematics and director of the computational center, said the new tool is necessary for the growing, multidisciplinary demand for computing power.

“There’s no expectation that researchers have their own library,” he said. Just as there is a shared library for book resources, there is a “shared computing infrastructure.”

Hesthaven is clearly practiced in talking about the benefits of the computer, citing potential applications for research, collaboration and even enriching high school curricula. He described how new sources of data beg for both new kinds of analysis and new questions.

“The data become your experiment,” he said. The influx of data from websites such as Facebook, the human genome project, and the U.S. census “inspires researchers to ask ‘how can I study this?'”

It is worth noting that the probability theory described above is taught at Brown mostly in decidedly untechnological classrooms, with students scribbling hand-written notes in notebooks. The sort of monumental changes that Hesthaven implies in his tech talk have implications beyond just using technology itself.

Professor of American Civilization Susan Smulyan has spent much of her career looking at the way technology and society interact and shape each other’s development.

Recently, she has looked toward digital scholarship and social media, asking how such tools change the dynamic between teacher and student.

“New media break down the boundary between research and teaching,” she said. Internet technology allows for projects and collaborations that are both instructive and instructing, challenging the traditionally authoritative divide between presenter (professor) and learner (student).

But this begs the question of whether that is necessarily a good thing. Many student research projects start and finish on the Internet. Do the infinite resources available on the web give students too much freedom to decide what parts of cyberspace to use without adequate filtering? Are there any drawbacks to increasingly available web resources?

“What danger could there be?” Smulyan repeated, almost hurt by the question. “For me, it’s that there’s not enough stuff available” — said with the conviction of a true believer in what she calls an “information revolution.”

“We have always told students to look at sources critically, and that hasn’t changed,” she said. 

Prognosticating the future

When people — even at left-leaning Brown — talk about technology, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the philosopher Friedrich von Hayek, whose liberal ideas about freedom in society undergird libertarian political thought.

Smulyan says social networking “will engulf” the Internet. Hesthaven, the supercomputer guru, describes the increased availability of studiable things as a “data explosion” that will leave the weak behind and leave only the (computationally) powerful and adaptable left in the scholarly world.

But, at Brown at least, the process of technological change seems to be less like free-market competition and more like a curated evolution. Improvements in infrastructure, software and support are made in a delicate balance of what people want and what CIS and Brown administrators think is good for them.

CIS phases out its support for old programs and hardware when it thinks it is time for hangers-on — Eudora users or Windows 95 devotees — to give up the ghost, Pickett said. There is equal involvement in the other direction, where CIS staffers test and determine which devices and services may best serve University needs, and promotes those products.

“I’m a really geeky guy, and it’s important to have geeky people try stuff out,” he said, pointing out his efforts with the iPad and new support for Google’s Android mobile phone operating system. “But is it right for other people? … Is it ripe yet? Is it time? Does it help more than it hurts?”

The University library hand-picks the services and devices it believes will best serve the Brown community, and anticipates students will “grow into” them, Hemmasi said.

It is an approach that echoes the wink-and-a-nudge spirit of academics at Brown, where enthusiasm for the freedom to take any class is mirrored by complaints about a lack of advising. Whatever has been the intertwining course of scholarship and technology at Brown over the last five to 10 years, the relationship between the two is likely to continue its circuitous path.

“We get more change than any other area of the University,” Pickett said, again with his broad and joyful smile. “We have to stay on our toes. It’s a lot of fun.”