Tuesday, October 25, 2011


The Cutting Edge May Not Be Where You Expect

Academics have a weakness for the latest cutting-edge innovations. It’s kind of what we do. And in many cases, that’s a good thing.

This week, though, I’ve seen two older ideas come back as new solutions to current issues. They’ve both been out of fashion long enough that they actually seem new, even though they’re anything but.

The first, prosaically enough, is the return of the desktop computer.

People who follow technology know that desktops are rapidly heading for the dustbin of history. They’re clunky and relatively unportable and not the least bit sexy.

But they’re also hard to steal, easy to upgrade and maintain, and relatively cheap for the amount of computing power. In other words, while they might not hold the consumer appeal they once did, they still solve some real issues for institutions.

Laptops and especially tablets can grow legs easily. Some of the measures necessary to keep them in place defeat their appeal. Tablets in particular are basically black boxes; just try upgrading the memory on your ipad. I dare you. But a big old honking desktop lends itself to internal upgrades, extending its useful life and low cost. And tethering a desktop to a desk is no big deal; it’s not meant to move around anyway.

At some distant future point when everyone has their own porta-device, the dedicated computer lab may become redundant. But we aren’t there yet, and desktops still do the job better than their newer, sexier, more expensive counterparts.

The second is even more low-tech, basic, and old. It’s the quiet study area.

Libraries (and “learning commons,” increasingly) are becoming steadily more high-tech, and more group focused. The paradigmatic cutting-edge library space now is the warren of desks with wifi where groups of students can work on projects together, using whatever device they happen to bring with them.

But as the world gets louder, I’m starting to see more demand and appreciation for the old “sit down, shut up, and study” space.

It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially at a commuter campus. We don’t have dorms, and we don’t have a sylvan quad. Space for students to just sit down and study is at a premium. We have a library, but most of the library is given over to tables at which students often engage in group study or other conversation. For a student who may not have a quiet home, quiet study space can be a scarce commodity.

Academically Adrift generated no end of discussion a few months ago, but one of its most compelling findings went mostly ignored. It reported that time spent in group study was negatively correlated with gains in critical thinking, but time spent in individual study was positively correlated with gains in critical thinking. Sometimes you just need to focus. And for all the cutting-edge innovations in instructional technology -- regular readers know that I enjoy my gadgets as much as anybody -- sometimes you just need to get back to basics: a student, a table, a lamp, a book. (Those of us who spent meaningful time in graduate reading rooms in grad school know the setting well. Once silence becomes expected, it’s almost self-enforcing.)

At better-funded institutions, this need may be so well-covered that further discussion is just redundant. But in these parts, blessed silence is a breakthrough.

Sometimes the cutting edge isn’t where you expect it to be. In these two cases at least, it’s in the past.

Yes, yes, yes. The other day a student on this "commuter campus" took refuge in a quiet corner of my department's faculty lounge (which was not otherwise in use). He was soon chased out by a colleague who was affronted that students were "invading" the space. Poor kid. We actually have numerous public spaces on campus but few of them are quiet enough to encourage concentration.
"Academics have a weakness for the latest cutting-edge innovations."

This statement strikes me as almost completely untrue. Maybe it's my field but wow, yeah. Not even a little bit accurate.
We have a "learning center" where students can go for tutoring and to work on computers (desktops!) in carrels. There are signs that they can borrow from the desk that say in huge orange letters "I'M WORKING" as a warning to other students not to stop to say hello. The students actually pay attention to the signs, and leave their friends alone when there's one set up in the carrel.

Most of our students are deaf, so visual noise is much more of a problem than acoustic noise.
I agree with you that computer labs and quiet study spaces are the unsexy workhorses of academic achievement.

One development that's impressed me at my institution is that the top floor of the spacious library has dozens of desks where students work in near silence. Students heed the signs to take cell phone conversations to the stairwells so that the study space isn't disrupted. A culture of respect is one of the most difficult, but most important parts of building a successful educational institution.
Excellent points, DD. But I think you should go to bed before 2:45 am.
At my cc, on the second floor SEM building, outside the classrooms, are tables with chairs all along the hallways walls. Students sit there and study individually. There is no noise. Only Science students usually study there close to their prof's offices and their classrooms and labs and they do not make any noise. They can go into the Math Center Lab if they need to talk or other places if they need to complete group work. Nobody decreed that these tables were for individual study. The tables and chairs were put there long before memory existed and the science student culture has used them for that purpose. Sometimes I suspect others besides science students might use them. The students don't even use their computers. They use their books and papers (which have been printed out from the computers because one can flip through papers and write extra notes and questions than one can scroll through class notes).

I just got another masters degree at a 4 yr + Masters SLAC and I agree that study groups do not help achievement. I was in study groups and they are worthless for learning. Tutoring one on one is better. If the subject matter is so difficult that I can't get it on my own with my textbook and notes, I need a tutor.

My experience with study groups is that there is a lot of socializing that goes on and sometimes the group is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Professor, whiteboard, dry erase marker, book, students taking notes and studying the notes is the way to go for student learning. Add in a patient, caring helpful professor with open door office hours and you have the formula for positive achievement, in my opinion.
Not to mention all of the graduate students who don't have office space who need quiet places to read and write. Not much chatty group work in grad school!
[Desktops are] also hard to steal, easy to upgrade and maintain, and relatively cheap for the amount of computing power. In other words, while they might not hold the consumer appeal they once did, they still solve some real issues for institutions.

I've actually been making this point for a while, and it's completely underappreciated in the tech world. Tech writers need something to write about, so they write about. . . the "death" of desktops, because that sounds vaguely plausible. But "death" in this case really means, "consumers get a lot of surplus."
In my experience, study groups are only useful for math-heavy topics -- either math itself, or engineering, etc. They allow students to chew through problem sets and get the practice they need without getting bogged down on one problem.
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