Some Reflections about my Students

Most of you know that I teach an introductory computer class at the local university. It is an interesting experience – I sort of get a first hand glimpse at the general computer knowledge of a diverse sample of the student body. All my students are non-science majors because math and science folks are required to take a more advanced class. In other words, I usually teach the more clueless part of college population. Which is fine – that’s who this class is intended for. The aim is to make them slightly less clueless.

I taught this course for several years now so I have noticed several interesting trends. I’m actually kinda upset that I never thought to collect some anonymous statistical information from my students. Nothing personal – basically what OS they use, which browser they prefer (and whether they know what a browser is), what search engine do they use, what kind of broadband connection do they have, whether they use a laptop or a desktop, etc… It would be very interesting to have some actual data that would show me how these things change over time.

In the absence of solid data here are some of my casual non-scientific observations:

Dialup is a fable

No one uses dialup anymore. When I started teaching, I would usually ask my students how many of them had dialup, and see a few hands going up. Each semester less people would raise their hand, until there were none. I started asking people if they have ever used dialup – and initially some people did admit to using it. Now when I ask this question I usually hear crickets in the room. This semester someone told me that their grandparents used to have dialup “a long time ago”. Another student was bewildered by the concept of a modem – a mysterious magical device that can turn “the internet” into sound wave type signal that can be transmitted over a phone line.

Floppies are funny

This semester when I brought some floppy disks to class. First I picked up the 3 1/2 inch disk and told them how it could only fit about 1MB which is less than your average mp3 song. Then I pulled out the 5 1/4 inch floppy and few people cracked a smile at the size of it. So I grabbed the 8 inch floppy and everyone lost it. All I need now is few more props and I can totally be a prop comedian like Carrot Top… You know, minus the incredibly goofy look.

Thumb drives are on the way out

I would say that cloud storage has caught on with the masses but that wouldn’t be true. What is true however is that most mail services have decent sized mailboxes these days. This means that college kids can now implement their own cloud storage solution without worrying about space limitations. This scheme is called “let me email this to myself”. I hate when people use email for storage, but hey – it works. It even does versioning – as a side effect of course. None of my students would ever consider a version control anything – but you just can’t update an email attachment in place. Not via webmail at least. So they must email themselves the same document as they work on it.

There are still some students using thumb drives to store their homework, but this is a fading trend. Besides email, the increasing popularity of laptops and notebooks is another contributing factor that will eventually kill off the thumb drives on college campuses.

Macs are increasingly more common

When I was a GA back in 2004 I was actually surprised to see mac users in my classes. This is no longer the case. Last semester I had about 5 or 6. This semester I believe the number was close to 10. That’s out of 25 students.

You would think that this would be a good thing, right? Mac users are usually Windows converts. This means they have been exposed to two operating systems. They knew one way to do things, then they had to learn another way. This usually dislodges something in your brain and causes you go “Aha… OSX and Windows do the same things in conceptually similar ways, even though the details are different”. This is the clue that Windows only users are missing. Once this idea pops into your head, computers cease to be these arcane magical devices and start make some sense. Or at least it was true in the past – almost every single Mac user in the class possessed at least a tiny amount of clue. They were a joy to work with.

But as Macs started gaining mainstream acceptance it seems that users developed strategies to switch operating systems without ever obtaining the clue. As a result, they are the most difficult students to work with. They can’t open OOXML files, they can’t do the HTML file because TextPad automatically goes into WYSIWYG mode when you use it to open a web page. They also love to submit homework in weird file formats. This semester several people sent me .pages documents.

Btw, this is how you peek into .pages file:

  1. Rename to .zip
  2. Unzip it
  3. Go to the folder you just unzipped and locate the QuickLook directory inside
  4. Open Preview.pdf

I believe this method only gives you a preview of the first page, but fortunately this was all I really needed (the homeworks are usually short).

The awareness of Wifi security issues remains constant

I always ask my students the following question: “Why are wired networks more secure than wireless ones?” The student reaction is the same every semester. It is a blank empty stare. So I wait. Invariably someone finally blurts out one word:


I should be used to this by now. It never, ever changes. And yet, I die a little bit inside every single time they do this to me. Sigh… You can actually see it in their faces – none of them has ever actually considered that when you use a Wifi network your data is literally flying through the air, where anyone can intercept it.

Fun fact: the students who loudly express that war driving is “really creepy” are usually the same students who openly admit to stealing wifi from their neighbors.

Students don’t do phone calls anymore

I give my students my Google Voice number in case they need assistance. I also put that number on the syllabus and in the CMS where it can be easily available. No one has ever called me. Not a single student. When I used to put the extension of the adjunct office on the syllabus, I used to get messages from students and I would always get them like a week late because I would be on campus only once or twice a week, and would sometimes forget to check the messages (and I never really bothered to figure out how to do this remotely). But since I got google voice, not a single phone call.

Quite a few students texted me on that number. We communicate via text or email. That said, I usually try to reply students as soon as I see an email or text hit my blackberry – even if just to say “I will look into this”. So maybe they haven’t had a reason to call.

So this is my list of reflections. Maybe I will start collecting random statistical data via an optional anonymous survey next semester. It will probably take me a little while to see new trends emerging. Sigh… I could have been doing this since 2004. Why didn’t i think of it back then?

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13 Responses to Some Reflections about my Students

  1. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Interesting bit on the dialup connections. Working on a contract in a large government department that has offices around the world, there are a lot of places that still use Dialup exclusively. It’s loads of fun to code around bandwidth limitations, let me tell you.

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  2. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    As a college student (although from another country), I can confirm the dialup fact – in fact, I’ve never had dialup in my house, my first connection was a cable (not adsl) 256Kbps.

    Also, thumb drives are only used as a filesharing sneakernet: it’s easier to copy a movie or game using a thumb drive than setting up some kind of shared folder in my Uni network.

    With email, I *wished* they used it for documents – instead, they *call me* to see when I’ll be online so they can send them through IM.

    As for VCS, the whole concept is too difficult for them to understand (even though we’re in a CS course), especially distributed like Git, which would make more sense for our kind of work.
    Also, the teachers have a fucking installed and ready to use SVN server and they spent the whole fucking year without taking one hour to explain us how to use VCS nor would they give us the keys to access it.

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  3. Douglas AUSTRALIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    If you came to Australia to teach your course you would find that a lot of people would’ve used dialup at some point (in some remote regions it’s either that or hyper-expensive sattelite).

    And with services like Gmail offering ever expanding storage and Yahoo offering infinite storage, it’s not much of a surprise that people are taking advantage of them as file storage services, but it’s also a shame they’re ignoring services like Google Docs or file storage services.

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  4. nicholas UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Constanly shifting preferences in the way things are said and done with computers worries me, not because I’m afraid of new things but because I think that over-specialization is a harbinger of weakness and failure. Alot of these new fancy things don’t really add anything to the experience of using what came before it, and before you know it there is a newer fancier thing that renders what you have obsolete even though it performs the same exact function only marginally faster or larger. Thus older tech can be used to do all kinds of nefarious things without anyone noticing because the have moved on to “better” things.

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  5. ths UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    … and nobody seems to notice that (A)DSL is still an analog technology. It’s just a very advanced kind of modem which beeps and whistles, but it does so with incredible CPU power. The big jump in speed came when signal processors became so cheap that they could remove signal disturbances by sophisticated calculations. Imho this was first introduced when modems with 28k8 were introduced around 1995.
    The only difference is that “dialup” is not initiated by the user but by the modem, since everyone has a flatrate today. Some years ago German telecom used to sell time- or volume-based DSL contracts, and you could configure a timeout in the DSL modem for hangup.
    BTW: the UK flag is wrong, I’m in Germany ;)
    thanks for the banana. oook!

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  6. Lily UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’d like to make a few comments on this from a (British) high school student’s perspective.

    We’re a bit behind college/uni students, I guess. Partly because of the younger age of the pupils but also because of a lot of artificial restrictions placed on us by stuff like the censorware the school has in place (can’t access Yahoo! mail, Gmail or whatever).

    Even with students as young as thirteen a good few of them will have used dialup – the ones with geeky families, mainly, who had Internet back when less people used it – but the ones who only got computers in the past few years never.

    You’re right about the floppy disks – a lot of my classmates don’t even know what they are if they see one. We do still have a few lying around, though.

    Thumb drives are in. The school keeps trying to ban them because they occasionally bring viruses onto the computers and can be used to play games during lessons, but the alternative is laughably bad – the school’s online-accessible file system is down all the time and even when it works has a lot of interesting glitches. They banned memory sticks for a while, but had to let people use them again within a couple of months.

    The mac users used to be the kids who had graphical designers for parents. Now all the cool kids have them. And don’t understand why their file formats won’t work and have never had a technical problem in their life they didn’t just pay someone else to fix.

    They don’t know much about Wifi security, or security in general – hence their really irritating belief that anyone who can bring up a command prompt is a hacker :roll:

    Phone calls? Like our teachers would want to talk to us outside of lessons!

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Steve:

    Yeah, I can imagine the dialup situation is different around the world. I live in the Tri-State area – one of the most densely populated regions of the United States so we do get pretty good broadband coverage.

    @ IceBrain:

    Interesting. Here Facebook chat pretty much replaced IM although sometimes people use Skype (or whatever else seems popular) if they want to use cams.

    As for VCS stuff – story of my life pal. I had the same problem when I was in college. This is sort of a standing tradition at my CS dept that the smart student working on a Masters thesis sets up some sort of version control system on the lab machine and uses it for the entire project. The reasoning is that the next person working with the same mentor will likely be expanding or building upon this thesis, and the code will be right there.

    Invariably when the thesis is complete the mentor usually asks the student to “burn them a copy of the code to a CD for archival purposes” which is actually a code word for “I have no time for your version control sorcery, just give me the code”. The code then gets either forgotten forever, or improved upon and eventually given to some brave soul that will try to take it to the next level.

    That brave student eventually inherits the lab machine and goes “Oh… Look, there are 3 SVN repositories, and an old CVS here, all containing obsolete versions of this code. Fuck it, I’m just going to start a new repository for this. :P

    @ Douglas:

    Yeah, it amazes me how a person can email the same word document to their Gmail accound 15 times over the course of 3-4 days, but they will never actually consider working on it in Google Docs even though there is a button in their webmail that allows them to open an attachment in Google Docs with one click.

    @ nicholas:

    A lot of this is just fads and new emerging UI paradigms – but the underlying technology tends to remain the same so I’m not that much worried.

    @ ths:

    Very true, but I think that when we say dialup we specifically think about the slow, “plug it into your phone line” modems.

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  8. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Oh, I feel like such a dinosaur right now :) I had dialup for years. At some point I even got half a year free internet because I was rated third in monthly traffic in our city.

    Also floppies, yeah. The first computer I got that didn’t have floppy drive was my MacBook Pro and it was like January 2008.

    I like to see the progress in work :) it’s especially funny to see old mobile phones in movies, they are huge! And I got my first one in 2002 and there were almost no people around, whom I could call from it.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Lily:

    Yeah, high schools are a little bit different. First off, there is no way to stop students from playing games in class when there is a computer in front of them. I spent most of my lab sessions on newgrounds back in the day. :P

    In most classes we didn’t use computer so I just sat there playing Tetris on my TI calculator. Good times. :)

    Re: calling – college students used to use the phone system quite a bit back in the day. Mostly begging for grades, asking for extensions or telling you how their grandmother died for the sixth time this semester and they had to attend yet another funeral which coincidentally was on the same as the final exam. Now all of that is handled through text and email apparently.

    @ Victoria:

    Wow… Look at how times changed. I wish ISP’s would give you free service for actually utilizing the connection to it’s full extent. These days if you rank third in their monthly traffic in your city, you will get bandwidth severely throttled or your account suspended altogether. Sigh…

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  10. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Well I was a little late for dial up, but I loved floppies. Part of me died, when I had to abandon them. I remember using them quite a lot.
    I don’t use thumb drive, I prefer dropbox to store my documents.
    I never owned a mac.
    Wifi section made me lol.

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  11. Lily UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:


    Oh, they can try to stop people playing games, by blocking the sites, blocking people opening .exe and .swf files and so on, but there’s always a way round that. At the moment, they still can’t seem to find a way to stop people just going to the embedded flash file instead of the actual page – then it works fine. Super squeaky fun time! To be honest, I spend most IT lessons working out ways to circumvent their filters and stuff, then never actually using them. I guess I’m too much of a geek to like the end more than the means.

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  12. Lily UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:


    Oh, they can try to stop people playing games, by blocking the sites, blocking people opening .exe and .swf files and so on, but there’s always a way round that. At the moment, they still can’t seem to find a way to stop people just going to the embedded flash file instead of the actual page – then it works fine. Super squeaky fun time! To be honest, I spend most IT lessons working out ways to circumvent their filters and stuff, then never actually using them. I guess I’m too much of a geek to like the end more than the means. :)

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  13. Andrew Zimmerman UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    It’s because Google Voice is some arcane virtual reality phone number to them.. “What if it doesn’t work?”

    I loved that little number proxy when it came out. Got an invite first thing. Awesome idea.

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