Science & Research

In search of the cyborg student

By
Sunday, May 30, 2010

If you listen closely, you can hear two sounds wafting through Salomon 001 as Associate Professor of Sociology Leah Vanwey lectures to the students in her introductory statistics class.

The first, drifting down from the ceiling, is the whir of the dual overhead projectors, splaying Vanwey’s PowerPoint slides across screens on either side of the room. The second, rising up from all corners of the room, is the lilting clatter of keys — a persistent soundtrack to the day’s lecture on regressions.

As students’ eyes flit between the glowing screens perched in front of them and the slides projected on the wall, Vanwey waits for an answer, but none is forthcoming. She’s chosen to use a hypothetical data set about people’s computer use to model a regression line on the board, but no one is volunteering a value.

“Okay,” she says, “maybe you average 10 hours a week on the computer in the classroom.”

It is moments like these that I set out to capture when I ventured into five lectures over the course of two days to observe students’ use of technology — laptops sucking students’ attention toward Facebook and GMail, the silent crush of wireless data drowning out the professor’s best attempts to compete. But, while I found some poster children for a laptop ban, the reality of the situation proved more nuanced.

Vanwey’s class, for example, did have its share of cyborg students, seemingly mind-melded to their laptops. The back row in particular was littered with them — one student glanced up from her computer only twice during the last 10 minutes of lecture. But there was another student who spent her time calling up the current lecture slides from the course Web page and tapping out her notes right in the margins, scrolling forward and backward to refresh or linger over a point. And a majority of students in Vanwey’s class, as was true in all five that I visited, used no computer at all.

There is no question that 21st-century technology has already penetrated deeply into Brown’s classrooms, carried there by laptop-toting students and PowerPoint-reliant professors alike. But its effects are difficult to generalize. Students have more control now over what information they can consume at any given moment in the classroom than they have ever had before, and they choose different ways to employ it. 

Where we go when we go to class

Classroom distraction is hardly an information age invention. Few people would be surprised if archaeologists announced tomorrow that ancient cave paintings were actually the doodles of bored caveman pupils daydreaming of the buffalo hunt. But armed with laptops, students often satisfy even the most fleeting whim or passing urge with an immediate tap of a finger. Disconnecting from a lecture lull is as easy as connecting to just about anything else in the Google age.

On the same afternoon as Vanwey’s class met, Professor of Economics Glenn Loury delivered the semester’s final lecture of “Race and Inequality in America” to a couple dozen students in a small classroom on the second floor of Wilson Hall. As Loury read through an impassioned summation, touching on Barack Obama’s presidency and the legacy of slavery, half a dozen students had laptops out.

One student, the glowing workspace of his widescreen MacBook Pro easily visible to all but the professor from his seat near the front row, flipped back and forth between his e-mail, the technology blog Gizmodo and the Wall Street Journal’s website, searching for articles about the television site Hulu. In front of him, another student casually flipped between Facebook and celebrity blogs. Another clicked through field hockey photos.

Facebook and e-mail accounts were almost universal draws for students with laptops in the five classes I visited — all but the most diligent note-takers indulged themselves a quick e-mail check or newsfeed perusal. The New York Times, Wikipedia, Google and — to be fair — Brown’s MyCourses site were also popular attractions. Most students (though by no means all) who had laptops had at least a leaf of typed lecture notes open, if not the class slides. Twitter, it should be noted, received only one brief visit from a single student during my hours of observation.

Some students rhythmically flitted between the Internet and their notes at regular intervals throughout the class, maintaining a staccato ballet as they deftly shifted among three, four or five open windows. One student returned to Facebook easily a dozen times in the space of one lecture.

Others were seized by sudden technological compulsions, like the student in “Environmental Science in a Changing World,” who took notes in a notebook for most of the class but, at one point, abruptly pulled out a laptop for about 20 minutes and typed out a detailed, multiparagraph e-mail that included the phrase “I’m too bored right now in ENVS to give a (f***)” before putting it away again.

Others’ humors were more whimsical, like the student who took a few seconds to unsubscribe from the Vermont Teddy Bear Company’s “Beargrams” during the same environmental science lecture, or the student in Vanwey’s class who spent a good half-hour paging through Time’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2010.

Elsewhere, in a planetary geology lecture, a student couldn’t resist the pull of a dense geochemistry study sheet he kept pulling up and skimming — he had a final coming up.

Laptops, I noted, are not the only agents of distraction. One senior in a review session for “Public Economics” chipped away at a crossword puzzle on her iPod Touch. Across the room in Metcalf Auditorium, another student cradled an iPhone in her lap. She scrolled through it casually, sometimes holding it up to her face and sometimes laying it flat on her desktop. Text messaging was a common, if surreptitious, pastime.

Study buddy

Brown students’ electronic devices are not just tantalizing distractions. They are, for many, legitimate aids — and not just for the hearing-impaired student who relied on a Disability Support Services laptop to read a running transcript of a class I sat in on.

Some took a professor’s lecture outline and filled notes into that. Others took advantage of a word processor’s flexibility to jump forward and backward, rounding out sentences and filling in gaps. In one class, two students, seated side-by-side, pulled the day’s PowerPoint slides up on their respective laptops and dutifully followed along, rarely if ever flipping away.

In “Environmental Science in a Changing World,” a freshman who had earlier been reading e-mails and updating his Facebook status elucidated a passing mention of media mogul Ted Turner’s land holdings in New Mexico by flipping to Turner’s Wikipedia page. (On the other hand, he lingered there for nearly five minutes, laughing quietly with a friend after reading the section on Turner’s undergrad years at Brown.) In Loury’s class, too, a reference to last year’s Henry Louis Gates controversy prompted a student to refresh his memory on Wikipedia.

And those smartphones and iPods? One environmental science student used his iPod Touch to pull up an article mentioned by the professor and casually skimmed its contents.

In “Public Economics” (after which someone explained to me that the professor was “reviewing stuff most people didn’t need to review”) several students took matters into their own hands.

One student used her Blackberry to scroll through her calendar with one hand while flipping through her notebook with the other. As the professor lectured, she jotted down which lectures from the course she was missing notes for.

In front of her, a junior who started the afternoon by firing off some short e-mails and paging through his Google Reader eventually found his way to the class’ MyCourses page. There, he downloaded several readings from the course to his desktop, pulling them open one by one and skimming. He took few notes on the broad overview of the
course being outlining on the board. After his perusal of the readings was complete, he didn’t stick around much longer, packing up his things and ducking out up the aisle several minutes before the professor concluded his lecture, the last of the semester.

The students applauded, and laptop screens snapped shut.