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The iPod Took My Seat

Times Staff Writer

Americ Azevedo taught an “Introduction to Computers” class at UC Berkeley last semester that featured some of the hottest options in educational technology.

By visiting the course’s websites, the 200 enrolled students could download audio recordings or watch digital videos of the lectures, as well as read the instructor’s detailed lecture notes and participate in online discussions.

But there was one big problem: So many of the undergraduates relied on the technology that, at times, only 20 or so actually showed up for class.

“It was demoralizing,” Azevedo said. “Getting students out of their media bubble to be here is getting progressively harder.”

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Skipping classes, particularly big lectures where an absence is likely to go undetected, is a time-honored tradition among college undergraduates who party too late or swap notes with friends. These days, however, some professors are witnessing a spurt in absenteeism as an unintended consequence of adopting technologies that were envisioned as learning aids.

Already, even as many academics embrace the electronic innovations, others are pushing back. To deter no-shows, they are reverting to lower-tech tactics such as giving more surprise quizzes or slashing their online offerings.

“Too much online instruction is a bad thing,” said Terre Allen, a communication studies scholar and director of a center that provides teaching advice to professors at Cal State Long Beach.

This last term, Allen experimented with posting extensive lecture notes online for her undergraduate course, “Language and Behavior.” One goal was to relieve students of the burden of furiously scribbling notes, freeing them to focus on the lectures’ substance.

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Yet the result, Allen said, was that only about one-third of her 154 students showed up for most of the lectures. In the past, when Allen put less material online, 60% to 70% of students typically would attend.

When it comes to lectures with enrollment in the hundreds, universities usually don’t compel undergraduates to show up, or even lower their grades for poor attendance.

“This is one of the things that divide universities from high schools,” Allen said. “Students are expected to be personally responsible.”

Still, Allen said, to curb “the absentee approach to college,” she won’t put her lecture notes online this term.

If other teachers follow suit, that might make a difference to students such as Julia Bui, a 23-year-old single mother on track to graduate from Cal State Long Beach this spring. This last semester, for the first time in her college career, Bui frequently skipped one of her lecture classes.

Bui ditched for the kinds of reasons that many undergraduates say they do: She found the course boring, and she had other demands on her time. Perhaps the clincher in her decision was that her professor posted his detailed lecture notes online.

“All you have to do is just look over the presentations for 15 minutes and you can learn the material that way instead of coming to class,” Bui said.

Doug Suda, 19, a student in Azevedo’s UC Berkeley class last semester, said he skipped about three-quarters of the lectures, largely because he was busy with an off-campus job and was taking the course only to fulfill a business major requirement. At the end of the term, Suda crammed for the final exam by watching videos of about 15 of the lectures over three days.

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“If I hadn’t had that ... I would have probably failed the class,” said Suda, who instead received a B-plus.

Kelly A. Rocca, an assistant professor of communication at St. John’s University in New York and one of the few scholars who has recently studied American college absenteeism, said she suspects that skipping has reached an all-time high largely because of students’ off-campus jobs and reliance on academic technology.

To combat ditching in her own classes, Rocca refuses to post notes online. With undergraduates, she said, “the more reasons you give them not to come to class, the less likely they are to come.”

Statistics on class-skipping are scarce. But a UCLA survey of freshmen at 142 schools found that 33% said they skipped at least occasionally. (The survey, conducted last fall, also found that 43% frequently were bored and 58% had fallen asleep in class.)

UCLA researchers hastened to add that their figures were only rough measures because of limitations in their survey.

Other researchers have turned up evidence supporting the common-sense belief that skipping class tends to hurt a student’s grades.

Lee Ohanian, a UCLA economics professor and winner of several teaching awards, said he notices that pattern in his classes. The frequent skippers, he said, often “are the ones who are doing just enough to get by. The ones who are getting the A’s are in the front row at every lecture.”

Ohanian said he has found that “too much technology really leads to a passive learning environment” and spurs more absenteeism. He has cut back on posting lecture materials online and now provides extensive notes only for the most complicated topics.

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Despite concerns about absenteeism, schools increasingly are experimenting with ways to let students watch or listen to lectures on their computers or digital music players, such as Apple’s iPod. Last month, Harvard Medical School began “podcasting” lectures that its students can download onto digital music players, enabling them to study while they, say, go for a walk.

Likewise, online, or distance, education programs -- premised on students’ not needing to be physically present in class -- are growing.

Advocates of the new technologies say they give schools an effective, low-cost way to deliver instruction while freeing students to review material at their own pace. The online options also let students participate in discussions electronically and allow instructors the flexibility to make quick changes if they want to delve into, say, a new scientific discovery.

Even some lecturers burned by absenteeism remain upbeat about the benefits of the new technologies.

Azevedo, who last semester became the first UC Berkeley instructor to teach a podcast course, said the virtual-classroom options help many students work around scheduling conflicts.

But teaching experts say Internet-era instructors have to change tactics to combat in-class boredom and absenteeism. Azevedo said he is working to enliven his lectures with material and interaction that students can’t get on the audio or video “coursecasts"; he wants to move to a Socratic teaching method and foster more discussion, while using technology to relay more of the basic information.

“There are a lot of pluses here,” he said. “We just haven’t adapted to it yet.”

To get undergraduates more engaged in his course last semester, Azevedo eventually resorted to offering extra credit to any students who would come to class and provide an oral report on what they had learned from an assigned reading.

“Unless you give students points for being there, many of them won’t show up,” he said.

At Indiana’s Purdue University, which podcasts 150 courses, a few instructors coax students to attend by keeping some answers to upcoming test questions off their recorded lectures, said John P. Campbell, an associate vice president in charge of educational technology. He finds irony in the no-show problem. Student absenteeism amounts to undergraduates paying “a lot of money not to attend,” Campbell said.

A pilot program launched last fall at UCLA reflected the mixed blessings of instructional technologies. For its “Bruincast” program, the university made videos of lectures in four courses that students could watch on their computers.

John R. Zaller, a professor of political science, said he volunteered to participate, initially, to provide an option for students who were going to miss a couple of lectures early in the quarter because of the Jewish high holidays.

Still, Zaller said, attendance in his course on public opinion and elections consisted, near the end of the term, of only about 55% of the 360 enrolled students. That, he said, was down from the usual 85%.

Even so, Zaller said he is willing to participate again in the Bruincast program because of its potential to stretch the university’s resources in serving students.

Zaller said he and other academics “like to think that education is a privilege and a pleasure, but a lot of students experience it as something less than that.... They try to be good, they try to come to class, but they get a little bit tired of it on into the quarter.”

According to UCLA, an informal survey of students in three Bruincast courses found that 27.5% said they were at least “somewhat less likely” to attend class because it was available online. (One drawback to the survey: It was given in class, so it excluded students who skipped.)

Larry Loeher, director of UCLA’s Office of Instructional Development, said he doesn’t believe the Bruincast numbers suggest that students are “systemically missing” their classes.

“For the most part, I think students view it as a safety net. Should they miss a class, they’ve got a recourse,” he said.

Peyman Nazarian, a third-year student at UCLA, found the Bruincasts of his “War and Diplomacy in Europe” course this fall a “great tool” for reviewing difficult points in lectures.

Still, Nazarian acknowledged skipping “a couple” of sessions because he knew he could rely on the Bruincasts as a backup.

“Sometimes I just didn’t feel like getting up,” he said.

What’s more, Nazarian said some of his classmates skipped far more often and would try to catch up in a day or two by watching hours of Bruincasts.

Nazarian, who said he enjoys meeting students in his classes and being able to ask questions of his professors, worries about the future of college education if the use of such technologies spreads quickly.

For many students, he said, the attitude is likely to be: “Oh, wow, I’m not going to show up. Why should I?”


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