Wednesday, November 30, 2016


The Device Question

I think I asked a version of this several years ago, but in device years, that was the paleolithic era.  

As regular readers and IRL colleagues know, I’m a big fan of Open Educational Resources.  Textbook cost is a real burden for many students, or would be, if they actually bought the books.  Instead, many students don’t buy the books, with corrosive effects on their academic performance and the caliber of class discussions.  OER hold(s?) the promise of taking cost off the table, so every student could have the “books” from the first day of class.  

Although most OER are printable, they’re mostly intended to be used in electronic form.  That means that in order to access them, students need devices capable of accessing them.  

I know there are people out there who have been using OER at scale for a while, so I’m hoping to learn from their experience.  

Which devices seem to work best for students using OER? When I say “best,” I have a few criteria in mind:

I know that some students will just use their phones, but I’m guessing that screens of that size are suboptimal for most academic uses.  That’s especially true for texts with a lot of diagrams, like many science classes.  

Ideally, a device should be able to serve multiple purposes.  For example, a hybrid laptop/tablet could be both an e-reader and a device on which to write papers.  

I’m hoping to find something both suitable and cheap, so we could look into using it at scale.  And I’m not on the payroll of any tech company, so I don’t care about whose device we use, as long as it meets the criteria.

Wise and worldly readers, I look to you.  What has worked for you?  Alternately, have you seen any apparently-good ideas end in tears?  

First thought:

I probably said this last time. You appear to be the data driven type, but here you are just guessing what they have. Particularly as this is a moving target, you need to survey your students regularly and find out what they have. I survey mine, so I can tell you that they all have a computer at home. (I do not try to separate that into laptop versus desktop, but I do know that a few have a computer without network access at home.) On the narrower focus of what portable device(s) they might use to do on-line homework, the answer runs that they ALL use a portable device! About half use a laptop computer, while most of the rest use more than one type. Only a few limit themselves to just a phone or tablet.

Second thought:

I will know more about this next semester. I am looking at transitioning to an OER textbook next fall, and my first step will be to suggest that they try it as a supplement or alternative to our regular textbook in the spring. (No big deal "buying" an extra book when it is free!) That will give me some student reviews of the book and an opportunity to see what they think of the main ways of using it and how it works on their devices.

One colleague who has been using an OER for a few years told me he hasn't had any complaints about e access, and only a handful of students want it printed. He was less clear about whether they read it every day or used it in class.
My students who access our literature textbook in class on their phones are fine for discussion, but are reluctant to read out loud.
The textbook I'm writing for my course is only available in electronic form (PDF).

I give my students free coupons, but others can get the (electronic) book for only $4. So it isn't quite OER, but it is close enough for practical purposes.

Students mostly use laptops to read the book and collect data in the lab, though a few try to read it on their phones, and a few print out sections for highlighting (which gets expensive with the per-page printing charges at our institution).

We don't get to dictate what students buy for computers, and I see a mix of Mac OS, Windows, and Linux boxes. The Windows machines are usually pretty low end, except for a few gaming machines. I see very few tablets—they are too big to put in your pocket and not powerful enough for college students. The old 11" MacBook Air is a good compromise—too bad they don't make them any more.

There's an ed-tech program based here in Missouri called eMINTS that implements in lots of low-resource schools, and they use Chromebooks as the student device. I don't know the exact model, but could find out pretty easily, if you're interested.
several years ago the Florida Consortium started a big push towards OER. I worked on the server side technologies for a while. They recently did a survey of their students,
but I did not find the results. It might be worth emailing the contact person on that survey.

An earlier 2014 survey,
Most used device
Mobile device: 1%
Tablet: 12%
eBook reader: 3%
Computer/laptop: 84%

I teach at a hybrid model online secondary school. All of our "textbooks" are online. Because we want students to also do content creation on their devices, we use laptops. Our students either use school-supplied laptops (we have Windows boxes with 11.5 in screens as our main student computer) or supply their own device if they want a different one.

One thing I'd suggest if you're going to use student laptops with tiny screens is to have some "docking stations" in the library and/or in a computer lab type setup where they can plug their machine in to a dock with a mouse, keyboard, and a bigger monitor for use as a second screen while they work on assignments outside of class time. That lets them have their "textbook" up on the external monitor while they use the laptop screen to work on their assignment so they don't have to tab back and forth as much. (My teacher setup has my second monitor in portrait orientation, and that works really, really well for reading articles or other long texts.) If you're thinking of requiring purchase/rental of standardized computers, the manufacturer probably makes docking stations of some kind for them to make this a single plug-in rather than attaching all of the pieces separately (we use Dells at my school, and right now we have docking stations for the teacher computers but not the student computers).
I second your suggestion that you survey the students (and faculty) about the technology they have access to before committing to purely online materials, and don't forget to ask whether they have Internet access at home. Many of my students (grad students included) do NOT have Internet at home, which is a real problem with, well, almost everything. Portability means nothing if you have to sit in a computer lab (or similar) to do all your online work.

Just for comparison, I teach at a quasi-residential four-year urban university with a history as a commuter college but aspirations to R1 status. We have a very diverse student population many of whom struggle to survive on multiple tiny paychecks, so affording decent hardware and home Internet is not easy for them. So we can talk up convenience etc. all we like, but that won't cover their bills.
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