Wireless in the Classroom: Asset or Distraction?

Like most colleges and universities, PSU has spent the last several years expanding wireless access to the network across our campus. Except for the residence halls, where population density precludes good wireless service, we've installed wireless in most public and academic buildings. You want to connect, we're usually there for you.

Faculty are raising concerns, however, about the distraction of wireless in the classroom. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Distractions in the Wireless Classroom, cited the example of one observer…

"[we] were intrigued by the tapping of the laptop keys as students appeared to be taking copious notes. As we looked over their shoulders from our back-row seats, we found instead they were on Facebook, Dave Matthews Band Web sites, instant-messaging friends, and e-mailing fellow classmates." <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i21/21c00101.htm>

While laptops make for better note-taking and in-class exercises, their connection to the vast media, communication and information of the internet poses somewhat of a challenge to an instructor who is trying to get your focus on a specific topic. After all, that is why you're paying tuition.

Frankly, laptops are not the biggest problem. It's cell phones that are changing the nature of the classroom. Imagine the distraction to an instructor when the cell phones go off or vibrations send reverberations through the class. Think of what it does to your focus, then multiply it for the classroom.

I'm not sure there is a simple answer here. For some instructors, those who are more facilitators than information disseminators, student connectivity to the internet poses a wealth of opportunities for in-class discussion, research and analysis. But pity the lecturer, the old-style of class delivery where they are the vessel and you are the receptacle. That tends to lend itself to surfing. Regardless, if you don't respect some basic guidelines of class manners, more and more you'll see syllabus components that prohibit ANY laptops in the classroom. That would be a shame.

I write with a certain sense of authority on the matter. I have my smartphone with me all day. I get text messages from colleagues who want my attention right away. I am always on-call. If someone raises an issue, I quickly get on the internet and get more information. And, if I'm bored and less-than-engaged in a meeting, I check my email. I admit, I'm addicted to my connectivity.

I've found, however, that this type of behavior is perceived as rude and insensitive to those around me. I don't like it when others do it in my meetings.

I also dislike what this constant connectivity is doing to our culture in general. Spend time in an airport, look around at the mall. Everywhere people congregate, they are yakking it up on cell phones, oblivious to those around them. We are fast losing our sensibilities and courtesies in public areas.

There was a time when public phones were in booths. They were designed to help you talk in privacy. Maybe we should create booths for cell phone users.

Regardless, and more to my original point, turn off the signal and stash your phone while you're in class. Use your laptop wisely. It's your money, it's your education. Be courteous.

Penny for your thoughts...

Students, Technology & Trends

A recent study (2004) by the Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR) shared some key findings about undergrads and information technology.1


  • Nearly all (97.5%) students surveyed owned a computer. More than two-thirds of those computers were one year old or less, and most were laptops. In spite of these numbers, most of the students never brought their laptops to class. They cited heft and theft as key reasons.
  • On average, students spend 23 hours a week online. Guys spend more time online than girls. Engineers and business majors more than others. They prefer broadband connections, and only 10% depend on dial-up access.
  • While students use text messaging and other more immediate forms of communication, 83% preferred email as the official means of communication from their schools.
  • Three quarters of the students surveyed used course management systems (like our WebCT), most several times a week. More than 75% prefer at least moderate to extensive use of technology for their coursework.
  • Most students (70%) use computers for downloading music or social networking (Facebook or mySpace).
  • Use of blogs, podcasts and other forms of new media tend to be used by less. While the use of blogs, podcasts and other forms of new media have grown significantly, they are not used by a majority of students.
  • Respondents ranked convenience as the “single most important benefit of IT in their academic experience.”
  • When asked about their priorities, first year students wanted “more network speed and access to music!” Seniors wanted “more computer labs and IT training.”
  • While a majority of students who make up the ‘net generation’ are fluent and highly adaptive to technology, there remains “an important minority of undergraduates do not appear enamored of IT, and some even appear to avoid it.”

These findings are consistent with our experience at PSU. Nearly all have computers, but demand for our computer labs is at an all-time high. Since we serve a rural region, we probably have more students dependent on dial-up internet access.


Students communicate freely through (Facebook, text messaging, cell phones), but still respond well official emails. They appreciate online services. If surveys or polls are provocative, they respond in significant numbers on myPlymouth. They tend to download music until they are warned that they might be caught. Some chase technology, some could care less. There remain some who are overwhelmed and intimidated.


Students are no longer using phones in the residence halls. Nearly all have cell phones and in spite of 500 free long distance minutes per month, less than 15% are using them. This has significant implications for our campus and how we communicate with students.


What does this mean for us? Some questions for thought.


  1. How do you communicate with students?
  2. How should PSU communicate with students? (in other words, what is the most effective means to reach them?)
  3. If there was a pandemic and students were prohibited from being on campus, how prepared are you to conduct your class online?
  4. How does technology enhance what you do?
  5. How does technology undermine or burden what you do?
  6. What area of technology would you like to learn in the next year?