Tim Blackmore is one of the most popular professors at the University of Western Ontario. Students rave about his introductory Media and Society class, and they describe him as funny, helpful and interesting. On a teacher-rating website (ratemyprofessors.com), one student gushes that Dr. Blackmore is "THE GREATEST PROFESSOR THAT EVER LIVED."
But even the legendary Tim Blackmore is having trouble connecting with today's students.
"Your average 17-year-old is not going to pay attention to 50 minutes of straight talk," he says. "So I break up my lectures with film clips and audio clips." But these days, when the white overhead lights in Dr. Blackmore's classroom are dimmed to show one of his clips, what he describes as "a blue full-moon glow" rises up to re-illuminate the space. It's the light being cast from the laptop computers of the nearly 300 students in his class.
"They're downloading porn, browsing Facebook, playing solitaire and trying to listen to the lecture, all at the same time," he says. "These students have every imaginable kind of data and media available to them. Always. This isn't the MTV generation we're talking about — this is the everything, all-the-time generation. It's difficult for a professor to compete with that. It's like trying to capture the attention of a cat."
For years, Dr. Blackmore has resisted using a microphone in class. Instead, he relied upon training received from an opera teacher who coached him on the projection and control of his voice. This year though, he's finally making the switch. "I consider strapping on a mike to be a bit of a failure," he says, "but I've realized that I need more volume and presence to compete for students' attention now. It's an arms race of technology."
Technology has long been cited as a major threat to the traditional role and functioning of the university. Back in 1922, Thomas Edison forecast that motion pictures would replace textbooks within a few years. (A prediction that could only have been made by someone who never had the experience of watching a filmstrip in school.) In 1932, Benjamin Darrow, founder of the Ohio School of the Air, wrote that radio had the ability to become "the textbook of the air" and "make universally available the services of the finest teachers." Five years later, Mr. Darrow's school was out of business. In the 1950s, educational television was the new miracle technology, but it never evolved much past Sesame Street and The Joy of Painting. In the 1970s and '80s computer-based learning was supposed to be the wave of the future and now it's the Internet poised to tear down the beloved ivory towers.
In a piece in Forbes magazine in 1997 about the growing e-learning movement, management guru Peter Drucker was quoted saying that "Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive." Recently, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison predicted (echoing the claims about radio 75 years ago) that in the future we will only need about 60 professors. Those great teachers are the ones whose courses will be converted for electronic transmission for consumption by all.
Give the earlier unfounded predictions, it's difficult to take seriously those who foresee the death of the university. After all, the fundamental dynamic at the heart of the university — one educated person standing in front of a group of eager young minds, asking them to question the world — has remained essentially unchanged since the time of the Academy of Plato, despite the invention of, well, everything.
If universities do wind up falling by the wayside, Clifford Stoll, a California astronomer-turned-author ( Silicon Snake Oil, High Tech Heretic), has a novel idea for what the United States could do with its surplus campuses: "Thanks to the Internet, we can convert all these old red-brick, ivy-covered buildings into prisons!"
Fortunately, Canadian universities don't seem to be at risk of being turned into prisons any time soon. Just the opposite, in fact, as Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., recently announced its plans to expand into the former site of the federal Prison for Women. According to a recent study by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, university enrolment is expected to continue to grow by 70,000 to 150,000 students over the next decade.
A university degree is increasingly regarded as a basic requirement for entry into the labour market and as long as this trend continues, our universities won't be disappearing any time soon. What is changing, though, and what will continue to change, is the array of challenges faced by the students at the centres of these institutions.
Campus-technology surveys from across the country indicate that a majority of students now own laptop computers and in the last few years, campuses have invested heavily to provide nearly-universal wireless network coverage. When you put those things together with an Internet that has become a robust media source, the sheer number of distractions now facing the average student is staggering. Along with the various temptations of the Web, students are also perpetually plugged in to their entire social lives via e-mail, instant messaging and social-networking sites such as Facebook.
Distractions, of course, are nothing new to students. There have always been sarcastic notes to pass, important doodles to draw, hangovers to recover from, and classmates to ogle, but the competition for student attention has never been as fierce as it is today. This state of over-stimulation fed by constant connectivity leads to a phenomenon dubbed "continuous partial attention" by Linda Stone, a lecturer and former Microsoft executive. Her thesis is that the need that digital workers and students feel to monitor everything at once is driven by a constant fear that they might miss something important. The result is a high level of stress, accompanied by an inability to devote full attention to what is happening in front of them.
In response to waning student attention levels, some professors call for a laptop ban, or at least a system that would block wireless communications during class. This is probably a classic example of shouting at the wind. Dr. Blackmore is skeptical that any kind of policy solution would fix the problem. He insists students will ultimately take responsibility for their own lives and educations.
"It used to be that students would ignore you by reading the newspaper in class. Or maybe a couple would sneak into the A/V room to make out. I've never been one to yell at students or kick them out of class. If that is how they want to treat their university career, that's up to them. Besides," he says, "laptop bans don't work. We know that. They just make students angry."
In fact, rather than looking for ways to limit the effects of mobile technology in the classroom, universities across the country are doing all they can to embrace it. Some schools have even started to mandate laptop use, either in certain programs or throughout the entire university.
Every student in the University of Ottawa's medical school is now required to have a laptop. The same goes for information technology management students at Ryerson University in Toronto, and students at Western's Richard Ivey School of Business. At Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., students have been paying the university to provide them with laptops for the past 10 years and every program on campus is designed around laptop-based learning. Ontario's newest university, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), also provides students and faculty with either a laptop computer or a tablet PC and programs are designed around the use of that technology.
According to Richard Marceau, the provost of UOIT, the fact that every student at his university has a standardized laptop gives them a strong competitive advantage. "Comparing a classroom where everyone has the same computer, running the same software, to a classroom where everyone is using a mish-mash of different technologies is like comparing a Formula One race car to a Chevy Impala," Dr. Marceau says. "We spend a year mentoring our professors to enable them to make the most of the available technology. This is not something you can do without an institutional strategy."
UOIT prides itself on being a market-oriented, career-focused university and makes an effort to install on students' machines the same software as used in industry. "This way we can give our students real-world problems to work on with real-world software, not scaled down problems that they would never actually encounter," Dr. Marceau says.
Not everyone wants to drive a Formula One race car, however, and the idea of a university providing a standardized laptop to every students strikes some as almost totalitarian. After all, for many students a laptop computer is not only a learning tool but also an extension of their personalities, an important aspect of their social lives.
At Acadia, 10 years' experience providing a laptop-based education to students has led the university to decide that it needs to get out of the laptop-leasing business. Starting in September of 2008, Acadia will stop providing students with computers and will instead give them a set of performance guidelines that their machines must meet. A laptop will still be required equipment, but students will be responsible for finding and purchasing their own machines.
Scott Roberts, Acadia's executive director of communications and marketing, says technology has simply caught up with the school in the past decade. "Our original assumption was that the hardware had to be homogeneous, but that has changed as the available equipment has become more versatile," he says. "Providing laptops today is just inconsistent with student lifestyles. If you're a Mac user, you want to use your Mac in class. If you run Linux, you want to use that. Macs and Linux boxes can emulate Windows and run all the software required for class, so there's no reason to limit that."
Ultimately, though, the issue that may have forced Acadia to overhaul its program had nothing to do with the classroom. "Students want to be able to take their computers home with them over the summer," Mr. Roberts explains. "That was our biggest issue."
Whether students provide their own laptops or get them from the school, the technology allows professors to seek new ways to engage students and explore new pedagogical possibilities. At Acadia, the pervasiveness of technology in the past decade has meant that even the English professors are figuring out ways to use computers in their classes. Jon Saklofske, a young professor who admits to growing up on a diet of computer games, now creates interactive games to help his students better understand the literature they are studying.
Last year, Dr. Saklofske, with the help of a student programmer, built an interactive text adventure game based on Mary Robinson's 1799 novel The Natural Daughter. The object of the game is to try to become a successful young women in the 18th century, and Dr. Saklofske designed the game to illustrate how difficult that would be. After trying many different paths in the game, students learn that about the best a young woman can do is find a husband, look after his house and, if she's lucky, stay out of debtor's prison. The game isn't very slick, and it's hard to believe that many students would choose to play The Natural Daughter rather than, say, Grand Theft Auto, but they'll certainly learn more.
Dr. Saklofske emphasizes that the game's function is not to replace textual analysis, but to enrich the learning experience, just as another professor might show a filmed adaptation of a literary work. "Games," he points out, "have been accepted as a learning aide in elementary schools and high schools for years, but the possibilities of gaming as a pedagogical tool have been ignored at the university level." This year, Dr. Saklofske and his programmer are working on a new game based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Other professors, both within the English department and across the university, have been trying out the technology with a view to using it in their classes. "They are all looking for new ways to connect with students," Dr. Saklofske says.
Another technology with a game-like feel that is popping up on campuses are personal response systems, or "clickers." These devices, about the size of a television remote control, allow professors to solicit answers to multiple-choice questions during the course of a lecture. After speaking about a topic for a few minutes, the professor can post a question on a screen at the front of the classroom and students indicate their answers by pressing the appropriate button on their clicker. Results are tallied and displayed for everyone to see and discuss. Each clicker carries a unique identifier, meaning they can also be used for pop quizzes.
For traditionalists, turning a lecture into an event that might be hosted by Howie Mandel seems sacrilegious. At Western, Dr. Blackmore calls clickers "remote controls for professors" and has no interest in trying to integrate them into his class. At the University of British Columbia, on the other hand, Carl Weiman, a Nobel laureate in physics who is leading a multimillion-dollar initiative that aims to revolutionize the teaching of science, is a big advocate of clicker technology. In Dr. Weiman's view, not only do clickers help keep students engaged, but they also provide immediate feedback to professors about how effective they are at getting the material across.
Even the iPod is being explored as an educational tool. At York University in Toronto, philosophy professor Diane Zorn, who recently won one of the school's top teaching awards, is one of the few professors in Canada who makes her lectures available as an audio or video podcast. This allows students-on-the-go to consume the material wherever and whenever it suits their needs. Handheld technology, Ms. Zorn explains, is particularly valuable to the growing number of students who are "kinesthetic learners," those who tend to be labelled as hyperactive.
Along with podcasting her lectures, Ms. Zorn also has set up an interactive website for her class, which includes forums for students to discuss the lectures and assignments, and an area where she makes herself available for instant messaging during "virtual office hours." Her goal is to create a learning environment that is "reciprocally adaptive," with the ability to constantly evolve to meet students' needs.
There's little question that the virtualization of the classroom holds a lot of potential advantages. Not only does it allow the flexibility that students love, but it also promises substantial cost-savings to universities. Alex Usher, vice-president and Canadian director of the Educational Policy Institute, believes this is the only way universities are going to be able to keep costs down in the long term. "They want to be able to teach more people while using fewer resources," he says.
Back at Western, Tim Blackmore reflects on how much things have changed in the 17 years he has been teaching. "When I started, we were still accepting hand-written essays. Requiring things to be typed was seen as classist," he recalls. "In the early '90s students were still ignorant of the digital world. I used to have to pressure students to get e-mail addresses ... To get one, they had to go to a certain building and fill out a form and they just didn't see the point."
It wasn't until the World Wide Web became popular that Dr. Blackmore saw a real change. No longer did he have to urge students to use technology: they were driving it, asking for more and more of the course to be available online. Suddenly he was spending up to three hours a day answering e-mails from students. Increasingly he feels the pressure to set up a virtual classroom, where all the material would be available to students any time they want it. He's resisting this, however. "Nothing beats a physical classroom," he says. "The classroom will always be important. If I could just sit in a room with 20 people and discuss ideas, that's the best way to teach. "If I have to go online with those same 20 people it will never be as good. It can't be.
"Some of my colleagues like to talk about all the ways that student have to access their courses. But in my mind, if there are 99 ways to get the material, that just means that there are 98 ways to avoid going to class."
Follow us on Twitter: