In a darkened classroom at SFU’s Surrey campus, laptop screens cast eerie blue-white light on the faces of about 50 communication students. As their professor lectures animatedly at the front of the room, some listen intently. Others type furiously on their keyboards as they toggle from chat window to chat window, eyes darting from side to side.
Wireless Internet access has made this scene a reality for tens of thousands of B.C. university students. As the speed and reliability of campus networks increases by leaps and bounds, Wi-Fi is changing how students get an education.
“Although these networks feel like they’ve been around forever, they have evolved quite a bit in the last five years,” said Richard Smith, a professor of communication at SFU. “We have new generations of wireless, like 802.11n, that actually permit streaming video and have a lot more capacity.”
In Smith’s second-year class on new media, students with laptops can open up a window featuring a live video feed of the lecture, PowerPoint slides, a list of students who are logged in (including those watching from home), and—perhaps most interestingly—a real-time chat room. He said that if students are going to chat on-line during class, at least they can be chatting about the lecture.
“If you think that the student sitting in the classroom is not texting their friends or going on eBay or whatever, you’re kidding yourself,” Smith said.
Students themselves have a variety of takes on in-class wireless access. Second-year SFU student Cameron Lee said laptops were banned in one of his classes after a student was caught playing games on-line. That was tough on Lee because he can take notes faster and more neatly on his computer.
Lee said the chat room associated with Smith’s class has resulted in some useful conversations with those following the class from home, but he’s skeptical that students can learn while simultaneously using chat programs and Facebook.
“Sometimes you see people with 10 conversations open,” he said. “They’re obviously not getting anything out of the class.”
Brian Lamb, a manager at UBC’s office of learning technology, said just because some students choose not to pay attention in class doesn’t mean Wi-Fi access should be blocked.
“Most students are over 18 or close to it, so I think the fact that we’re all adults makes it less of an issue,” Lamb said. “I’m certain that there are professors who will say things like, ”˜Shut your laptops and pay attention,’ but it hasn’t reached a policy level yet.”
As the dialogue shifts its focus from classroom space to learning space, universities are placing more responsibility for personal time management on the student, where it should be, said Michelle Lamberson, director of UBC’s office of learning technology.
“The idea is creating a safe environment for students to gather together, to study, to collaborate,” Lamberson said.
In Smith’s new-media classroom, Christi Dos Santos said she carries a laptop in her bag but chooses not to use it. “You need to make the choice in class that you will be paying attention and not chatting on your computer,” she said. “I’d just be distracted.”
For Nick Schmid, another of Smith’s students, constant access to the Internet means he can learn according to his own schedule. “Everything is archived on-line, so I can always go back and review classes,” Schmid said. “Who wants to sit there and have someone lecture at you for an hour? It’s nice that I can work on something else, and know that I can catch up on-line a few days later.”
Another significant development on campuses that are already blanketed by Wi-Fi networks is the proliferation of mobile devices that bridge the gap between cellphone and laptop.
“A device that’s about the size of the palm of your hand, with a high-speed Internet connection and a very detailed screen, is racing onto campuses,” Smith said, referring to the iPhone. “And both UBC and SFU have services like emergency alerts on your cellphone, from a snow outage to bombers and shooters.”
With this kind of connectivity, students are not going to stop socializing on-line during class, even if it could be damaging to their education.
“I think it will be up to educational researchers to find the effects,” Smith said. “In the end, it could turn out that it’s a very bad strategy, that by joining them it turns into a pit of chitter-chatter and the university education is lost.”
UBC’s Lamb said he is sometimes dismayed by the trivial nature of most on-line interaction, but he finds solace in the prospect that the new ways in which students are sharing knowledge will revolutionize the learning process.
Back in Smith’s classroom, a bored-looking student lounges in his chair and doodles in his notebook. This is not lost on the professor.
“The students have so many distractions in the rest of their life that they are either drowning or coping already,” Smith said bluntly. “We’re not generating those distractions as an educational institution.”