Thursday, November 17, 2011

Abundance: A tale of student usage

I was reading the blog posts that were posted yesterday on Change MOOC on the topic of Learning in times of Abundance and it suddenly hit me*, this learning in times of abundance reminds me a lot of the research I did on digital natives (article forthcoming). Yes technology (seems to be) ubiquitous, and so is information, but as  Eric Duval admitted in his intro post:
Really big caveat: of course, all of this abundance talk is only relevant to us who are the privileged few, who do not need to worry about where we will sleep this evening, or how we will feed our children…

I thought of a few more caveats, one of which I mentioned before, that of literacy. Abundance is almost useless without the literacy to use it...sort of like the old saying: so much sea and yet I am thirsty (OK, I paraphrased a bit right there). The other thing that I was reminded of is actual usage of this abundance.  In a lot of the good digital native research† that I came across looked at factors such as how technologies are used (social versus academic and the chasm between), and whether students bring those devices to the classroom.

Research has shown that there is a chasm between social use and academic use, and that students can't necessarily bridge this on their own. So abundance isn't really helpful when you can't use those devices, services, information providers to your advantage without being instructed to do so.  Other research‡ also shows that students were unwilling to mix their social lives with their academic lives, so in order to use this type of abundance one would need a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde approach to social media (abundance) in the classroom. I think that we Change MOOCers are probably an exception to this.

Finally, I was reminded of a recent Educause annual survey of incoming freshmen that indicated that about 80% of them had a laptop.  Now the question is do these students bring these devices to school?  If they do, how often and for what purpose.  My personal feeling◊ is that a "laptop" is semioticaly the same as a desktop computer for these students. When laptops became portable, they didn't just allow people to take them from one place to another but this also allowed for home users to take up much less space on their desks for the computer. A desktop, monitor, keyboard and mouse take up way more space than a laptop that has everything all in one place.  Thus, students living in dorms or  apartments shared with other people would be more likely to buy a laptop because it can fit in smaller spaces, it can move around the apartment when it gets noisy, and if needed, it can be locked in a drawer when you have parties or get-togethers. The semiotics of a laptop in this case aren't the same as the semiotics of a portable machine that you take everywhere, but rather of a machine that take up less space and if needed can be moved to another place of study• .

Why do I mention this?  Earlier this semester a colleague of mine and a former professor wanted to use Google Moderator for a large class.  Moderator works well on computers but in reality it sucks big time for mobile devices. The experiment, as I understand it, was not so encouraging. Why?  Well, people didn't bring their computers, or just didn't participate. While laptop ownership was abundant in the class, and pretty much everyone had a smartphone or tablet, it was hard to use such a service because of the semiotics of the laptop and the non-usability of mobile devices on this service.  The one thing that wasn't abundant in this case: tabletop real-estate!  Technology was available, but if a computer or tablet were to be placed on the desk, that would be all that could go on there. No books, notebooks or any other type of writing or reading implement (or beverage for that matter) could be placed on the desk, which made learning feel cramped and not that comfortable• . Learning can't take place when a learner is uncomfortable - so, guess what, people didn't use back-channel tools, because they didn't fit in with the overal environment! Abundance is great, but it can't be an island in and of itself - it needs to connect with the other aspects of student learning (in this case the spatial configuration of the classroom).

* idea for iOS developers: develop connections between ReadItLater and blogging software so I can just send links to my blogging software from ReadItLater to be able to cite things...
† good research being actual research, not "fluff research" that just mindlessly repeats "common wisdom"
‡ Apologies for my laziness in not providing citations...I promise to post my paper on digital natives once done :)
◊ I have no way of proving this, but it would make for an interesting study (if not done already)
• I should say that these are my interpretations of the situation
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