Being connected at all times: Blessing and curse?

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Gone are the days when college students spent hours poring over only print textbooks or shut the book on learning once they left the classroom.

Course management systems, electronic textbooks, mobile devices and other trends in technology are changing the way students approach education.

Even those designing courses have taken notice of how students learn these days. Carlow University tailored its new fraud and forensics master's program for its on-the-go students, who often access information piecemeal, by offering short learning modules in 10- to 15-minute segments, for example.

Both the traditional and on-the-go approaches have merits and drawbacks, students and professors say.

Penn State University education professor Alison Carr-Chellman, who studies how technology affects large systems of education, including K-12, corporate and higher ed, is concerned that a crucial part of learning might be lost when students try to fill pockets of time with mobile learning, just because they can.

"I think that learning -- true learning -- requires a certain amount of reflection," she said, "and I'm not sure you have a lot of time for reflecting when you're standing in line for the bus in 10 minutes."

Some access is a good thing, especially for Zoe Owrutsky, a University of Pittsburgh neuroscience major who balances 10 to 15 hours of research weekly with 24 hours working at the Pitt News, in addition to a full course load.

"Between those three things, I really need to be plugged in," she said.

Pitt uses a learning management system called CourseWeb, where students can access lesson notes and a professor can post grades and start class discussions online on any computer.

In 2011, it became possible for Pitt faculty and students using mobile devices, like tablets and smart phones, to get the same access as students on a computer with a new CourseWeb application, known as an app, said Cynthia Golden, director of the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education.

About 60 percent of Pitt courses offer the app for mobile devices. Last year, the university noticed more people actually connecting via a mobile device. There were more than 20,000 unique logins to the app in 2012, Ms. Golden said.

On mobile devices, students can access content management systems, email and other online resources anywhere with Internet access. There's also a smart phone app for Blackboard. E-readers -- such as the Kindle and Nook -- can load numerous e-textbooks into a single device, making it unnecessary to lug a sack of books across campus.

Sarah Quinn, a sophomore integrated marketing communications major at Duquesne University, checks her school email and Blackboard on her smart phone. She said it's ideal when a course is canceled last-minute or when an announcement is posted.

But Ms. Quinn also just completed a human technology course and knows the perils of being too connected.

"It was kind of stunning how we process and absorb information that way," she said, adding she thinks overexposure can be "detrimental."

Friends have downloaded e-textbooks to their Kindle and Nook devices, but Ms. Quinn doesn't use them herself. Ms. Owrutsky is also partial to traditional textbooks, which she views as more practical for a science major.

Both Ms. Quinn and Ms. Owrutsky said content management systems have made them better note-takers; knowing the resources -- copies of PowerPoints, audio and video recordings and more -- are online makes it easier to concentrate on the information in class, rather than attempting to jot down every word in a lecture.

E-textbooks are certainly lighter than traditional textbooks, and many also posit that they're cheaper. Students can rent an electronic one for only the duration of the course for a fraction of the price of a printed textbook.

But experts also say some students find the e-textbooks cumbersome. For example, it's difficult to spatially understand the number of pages in a book or flip through the pages easily, Ms. Carr-Chellman said.

She likened the technology now to the early days of electronic word processing programs, in which the spell-check option had to be activated. It developed into a more useful one that would underline misspellings and bad grammar, without being prompted.

The use of computers themselves further developed to include social networking -- connecting people instead of just acting as input machines. E-textbooks, she said, should develop similar "compelling features."

As this technology develops, more information is being collected about the students and faculty who use it.

Some learning management systems have begun to track students' reading habits: how much time they spent with the book, even how many notes they're taking.

"Both students and faculty have a certain amount of suspicion around that activity," Ms. Carr-Chellman noted.

Brigham Young University associate professor David Wiley rebuffed critics' comparisons to Big Brother. He championed the concept, the "idea that we can use data to service students way more effectively," predicting that learning analytics will be among the top education technology trends in 2013.

If colleges and universities can collect data electronically about student performance, it can help them identify trends among certain groups of students, Mr. Wiley said. Perhaps students with a particular major took these classes in this sequence. Or taking this science and this math course in the same semester proved calamitous for a student in a certain field.

Professors could use that data, Mr. Wiley said, to help a student determine in what order she should take courses or which she should consider avoiding, based on how other students with similar attributes fared.

"That kid is going to get some real serious awesome service," he said.

In his classroom, Cory Maloney, an associate professor at Carlow University and the school's information management technology chair, is using what Mr. Wiley predicts will also be an emerging education technology trend this year: lower-cost open-source or other textbooks educators can customize to fit the needs of their class and keep up with changes in the field.

"The IT textbook we were using didn't have the most up-to-date information," said Mr. Maloney, who changed to the customized textbook last year.

Before the start of each semester, Mr. Maloney and a colleague can make changes to the book, drawing from their own experiences to inform the content and accounting for frequent changes in the field. They use "Information Systems: A Manager's Guide to Harnessing Technology" by Boston College associate professor John Gallaugher, available via textbook publishing company, Flat World Knowledge.

Mr. Maloney and his colleagues can customize the book, change chapter titles and move content before students order the text. For example, he can now add his own sections on theory that were previously covered in a second required textbook.

An electronic version of Information Systems -- with the local revisions -- costs $19.95 from Flat World. If students prefer print, it's $39.95.

"It's such a cost savings to them," he said.


Molly Born: or 412-263-1944 or on Twitter: @borntolede. First Published February 14, 2013 5:00 AM


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