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:
- Rename to .zip
- Unzip it
- Go to the folder you just unzipped and locate the QuickLook directory inside
- 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?