Wireless browsing in class can lower grades

April 14, 2001

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Look, Professor, no wires!

More and more colleges are installing wireless networking, so that a student sitting in a lecture hall, a classroom or even outside the building can pop open a laptop computer and connect to the Internet at high speed. Is this a resource students will use to enhance their education by looking up relevant information, or will it distract them as they browse?

Cornell University researchers say that although networking provides some benefits, the distractions are evident, and teachers must adapt to the new technology.

Researchers in Cornell's Department of Communication, Department of Computer Science, and the Human Computer Interaction Group gave students in two classes laptop computers equipped to connect to a wireless network and monitored their online activities. In a traditional lecture-style class in computer science, students who spent the most class time browsing the Web got the lowest grades. But in a highly interactive class in communications where classroom activities made extensive use of the students' wireless capabilities, those who browsed the most scored highest, the researchers found.

In both classes, they found that students who had the largest number of browsing sessions during class tended to have higher final grades, but those whose browsing sessions were more drawn out tended to get lower grades.

William Y. Arms, Cornell professor of computer science, taught the computer science course. Geri Gay, Cornell professor of communications, taught the communications class and supervised the study, and reported on it at the National Science Foundation conference on Innovative Learning Technologies in October in Washington, D.C. A report will be published in a special edition of the Journal of Educational Technology and Society: IFETS (July, 2001). "Longer browsing sessions during class tend to be a liability…regardless of the nature of the students or the course," they said in their report. "Longer browsing sessions during class tend to lead to lower grades, but there's a hint that a greater number of browsing sessions during class may actually lead to higher grades."

The researchers also found differences between men and women in the kinds of web sites that were most distracting. Men's grades suffered most when they browsed sports and finance, while women were more likely to get lower grades when they spent time on multimedia and personal portal sites. However, the researchers noted, just the amount of browsing the students did could be correlated with their grades, no matter what sort of sites they looked at.

The research, dubbed Project Nomad, was supported by a $300,000 grant from Intel Corp., which paid for the laptop computers and funded the installation of wireless base stations in several campus buildings. The wireless hubs relay data to tiny radio transceivers in the laptops, giving users a high-speed connection to the campus wide-area network.

The computer science course (CS 502) was taught using a traditional lecture and note-taking format that made little use of the laptops possessed by students in the class. These students could access Powerpoint presentations used by the lecturers from the course web site, and the final exam was "open-laptop" -- students were allowed access to lecture notes, readings and other resources, but no e-mail. They had the option of e-mailing their solutions at the end of the exam, and 80 percent did so, Arms said. The communication course (Comm 440) was taught using a more participatory discussion format, including group projects that required communication and collaboration, directed and undirected browsing during class, and some assignments that required use of software on the laptops. In effect, Gay said, the lecture course served as a control group to compare with the use of interactive wireless learning.

In both classes students reported using wireless networking in positive ways, to interact with other students and exchange resources dealing with their courses. "I am convinced -- but do not yet have the hard data -- that the students read more of the assigned readings and were more likely to check facts rather than just guess in class" Arms said.

But sometimes they also admitted to being distracted. "You could be sitting there sending instant messages back and forth about the speaker at the front of the room," one student said.

Online logs revealed both the good and the bad. Web browsers on the laptops issued to the students were configured to go through a proxy server operated by the researchers, whether they were connected through the wireless network or through a direct wired connection at home. This allowed the researchers to log each student's online activity 24 hours a day. As a condition of taking the course and being issued a laptop, students agreed to allow their activity to be observed. At the end of the semester, the researchers had logged 1.7 million records.

Students in Comm 440 also kept their own detailed logs, recording when and where they used their laptops, what applications they used for what tasks, and what the social context was. Communicating via email or instant messaging was by far the most common task the students reported, followed at some distance by class work and web browsing. Students seemed to have email or instant messaging running, at least in the background, no matter what other work they were doing on their computers. Not surprisingly, class work was most often reported during the times the students were in class.

All this, the researchers said, means that some of the claims made for wireless computing in the classroom need to be taken in context. Advocates for wireless networking say there are educational benefits to "ubiquitous network access," and that, in effect, such access extends the school day. These benefits might exist for some students in some contexts, the researchers said, emphasizing the word "some." But the advisability of introducing wireless could hinge on the characteristics of the students, the course content and structure, and the availability of other computing resources on campus, they said.

"It really does transform the classroom environment," Gay said, speaking of her own teaching experience. "We can bring the real world into the classroom, but it has to be structured."
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Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. The Cornell Human-Computer Interaction Group, with a link to the Nomad Project: http://www.hci.cornell.edu/ .

Cornell University
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