The use of the Internet and all the devices it spawned as well as some stand alone gadgets has been a boon to modern education. Never has so much knowledge been quite literally at the fingertips of mankind. But the devices are not solely employed to tap that knowledge. And instead that capability competes for the attention of the user with all manner of other information. As filmmaker Woody Allen once said, "I believe in the power of distraction." Today's student population nearly embraces the power of distraction.
The familiar bells of the campanile on Iowa State University's central campus are probably not heard as clearly as they used to be for many college students. That is because the music of the carillon is being filtered through the ear buds and cell phones of students as they rush back and forth to classes.
But technology has changed more than just the sound of an education and it has happened quickly.
Rachel Johnson, ISU Master's Student: "When I first started college, I didn’t have a computer at home. My first computer was purchased for my freshman year at college. I was not familiar with e-mail communications. And of course all that has changed."
College students can now visit course Web sites to get their class materials and assignment details. They can download lectures and extra course content on their iPods. Research is done via the Web, term papers typed up on laptops, and assignments turned in via e-mail. And with social Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, college students aren’t just connected while they learn, they’re hooked up socially too. These students seem to be on the edge of the technology frontier.
James Pence, Marketing Director, Teacher's Domain, WGBH: I think that many times kids come to school and they have to power down. At home they’re online, they’re IM’ing, they’re doing their work, they’re checking the Web, they’re going to Wikipedia, they are downloading music, they’re playing music and they’re watching television all at the same time. The classroom is not like that.
Geoffrey Sauer, Assistant Professor, ISU: "Now with things like course Web sites, students can actually work on drafts of papers with each other collaborating online in the evenings without needing to all meet in one central location at certain hours of the day when they can do that. It allows for students to do work when they have the time to do it. Professors spend a lot more time adjusting courses in mid semester. If you have a course Web site, you can put new materials online relatively quickly and easily. Instead of having had to plan with one textbook that you purchased from a textbook publishing company, you can now adapt a bit for how the class is actually developing. I see a lot of faculty doing that a lot more than they did in the past."
But for as much benefit as technology seems to bring to education, some people see it differently.
Michael Bugeja, Director, Greenlee School of Journalism, ISU: "It seems to me that education takes meditation, contemplation. It takes seriousness of purpose. It takes interactive dialogue. And now I think we’re so distracted multitasking during the day that you see students coming in with iPods and cell phones and laptops. And, you know, we have professors who are putting notices in their syllabi about inappropriate use of technology during lectures, so I think that’s a big change. Who would have thought!"
Perhaps moderation and a bit of caution are keys to successfully incorporating technology into students’ college experience.
Sauer: "There are a lot of kinds of judgment that it seems to me that students are going to have to develop to master these technologies. You could resist using them entirely and spend no time with technologies, or you could fall into them and spend all of your life working with these technologies. It seems to me that either of those extremes is a bad idea and what we want to do is figure out how to incorporate them sensibly."
Whether beneficial to a higher education or detrimental to an enriching college experience, what’s clear is that the course technology takes will be an education in itself.