Student-created content: for the want of six laptops

I’ve fallen into a pattern this year in my on-site class. I usually lecture on Monday, right after they’ve read the chapter and documents and written a mini-essay with a thesis about the reading. Then on Wednesday, we do group work, which has evolved into each of six groups working together then doing short presentations: 45 minutes prep, 5 minutes per group presenting with everyone taking notes. I create essay questions for exams based on both lecture and their presentations, on the fly every two weeks.

These informal presentations work great for distilling information (if there’s a lot, like a whole chapter with lots of details) or, conversely, getting into details (if each group examines only one source in depth), whatever is needed at the time. I created a peer group evaluation form so they can get feedback on the presentations from everyone, so sometimes we do that.

So what’s missing? Images. Visuals. Audio. There is only one computer in the room, connected to a projector for presenting. Students can create words, ideas, but they can’t show us anything because there isn’t time for each group to create on one machine.

The skill we practice in class is always the same: create a thesis and support it with evidence. Without a way to put together any multimedia, everything is text. I can bring up text or images that I have collected for them to use, but that limits their choices to what I collect. Especially from the half-way point, where we begin moving toward more student-created theses and evidence after practicing for weeks, I’d like them to be able to access everything, or at least everything on the web, and show us what they’re presenting about.

We’d have to go to a lab to create anything, and the labs in the library only hold 24 max (my class max is 40, with 36 still enrolled now at the half-way point). The available lab has the layout in rows facing the front, with all the computers crammed into a small room. Groups can’t work together easily at all. The lab is trying to put each student at his/her own machine, which isn’t what I want anyway.

So today I contacted Media Services, because I’d heard we had a “laptop cart” that could be delivered to classrooms. Turns out that’s not exactly correct. There are apparently three laptops with lousy batteries that would need to be plugged in to the few outlets in the room, and a few more that could be rounded up, but some are stored in a classroom that’s booked all day, so we can’t be spontaneous about using them (this is despite the fact that no one, either in that room or elsewhere, uses them). The cart is actually more like a station that is hard to actually move. Plus Microsoft updates have to been done every week if the laptops are actually used. If they rounded up six machines, there is no cabinet in my room in which to secure them, so they can’t stay there. We’d rather have old things securely locked up and not used, then insecure and used for learning. There be metaphors here.

So, in a flash of inspiration, I inquired about departmental or instructional funds to buy six netbooks, since we just need them for web work. I have six groups of students. My idea was to have them put what they find onto one of the many web 2.0 sites, like Zoho show or something, then present. But there’s no money, I’m told, despite the fact that money is being spent elsewhere (interestingly enough, the example I was given was an expenditure on cabinetry to lock up another discipline’s stuff). And there’s the feeling that the whole laptop experiment, where the few laptops were purchased years ago but no one used them, was a bust, so why bother? The locked up computers are seen as a failure. Plus, years ago the office computers were all put on a four-year replacement cycle, but no one did that with classroom computers, so everything outdates. That explains both why my classroom’s poor little Mac Mini struggles to run 10.5 and keeps having crises, and why the available [sic] laptops are such crap.

I will ask my students whether some could bring their laptops to class to use in groups, but I’ve seen the response to that kind of idea. Some simply don’t want to use their personal technology for school (I recall the shocked look I got earlier this semester when I suggested a student use his iPhone to look up something). Many don’t want others touching their computer. This isn’t just “creepy treehouse” stuff, where they don’t want me in their electronic world — it’s how they assert control over their own consumer products, which are exclusively for their pleasure, not work or school. I get that, and know they’d be much more cooperative and creative with school-owned laptops.

Good pedagogical idea, but not possible for the want of six laptops. I’m sure I’ll figure out a way, though the currrent solution seems to involve extension cords and cramming groups of desks near outlets. But here’s the point. The tech support at my college is very, very good. We have presentation computers in every classroom, even if they are old, and the staff is outstanding. How can new pedagogies develop at places that have less than I do if I can’t even do this? How can real change occur when the baby steps are made difficult for faculty? How can we move toward student-created content inside the classroom when the teacher-presentation model is being reinforced continually? It makes online education seem like an answer to more than cost factors and personal scheduling issues.

2 thoughts on “Student-created content: for the want of six laptops

  1. i hear your pain! last year i was lucky enough to have one class on a free lab line. this year – zippo! all these great things to do (last year we made a film, kept blogs, created a wiki, etc), and not a way to do them, so i’m pretty much back to pen & paper. meanwhile, a whole new building for another (minor) department, complete with a video-conference room (who’s going to use that?) is due to be finished this year.

    my school has 3 computer labs, usually full of ict classes. we also have 1 set of mobile laptops, usually booked up by the statistics teacher(s) (for weeks at a time). what does this leave english? doodly-squat.

    otoh, my students are always keen for an opportunity to whip out their phones or itouches for class :O) you do, however, have good tech support. value that – it’s not often i hear of one in a school.

    good luck with your classes,


  2. Ah, yes, it hadn’t occurred to me in terms of computer folks (and those who have used computers in their discipline the longest) having dibs. Interesting point. I’ll try harder to convince my students to whip out their phones — it may be my best bet in the long run.

    Your classroom problem sounds like a good reason to go hybrid — at least everyone could do the really cool stuff online! πŸ™‚ Come to think of it, that may be a good answer for me too….


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