Thursday, August 26, 2010

Semi-OT: Requiring a Data Plan?

I read a news article yesterday that said,


“As instructors, it might behoove us to take a look at whether we want to require a hardcover textbook or a data plan [for phones],” he said. “It’s not going to work on every subject, and it’s not going to work in every department, but we need to look at it.”

This set my mind churning.

First, a bit on my perspective:

I work at a major university. I am a gamer, as well, who happens to dislike using cell phones because they are noisy, distracting, and demand your immediate attention. They are also very audio-centric, which doesn't mix well with my heavy preference for writing and visuals: I want to type and read, not listen. I will confess that, out of my phone-hating bias, that I didn't bother TRYING to learn how to send a text message on my phone until I was sitting bored in a car in a parking lot 5 months ago, and only did so because I knew it would be text-based.

I am an odd mix, certainly: a (relatively) young phone-hating gamer who works in distance learning at a university. I can respect that phones have their ingrained place in the American society, however, given the way that they interconnect people in places where a computer's internet access isn't assured. When it comes to learning, connectivity is key.

Requiring a data plan??

Why would a college instructor do this, specifically, for their class?
  • They themselves are heavy phone users
  • The school is in an area with good cell phone signal
  • The curriculum doesn't require a lot of software programs that a phone would be unable to run
  • There is no guaranteed wireless connection around campus/dorms/where-ever the class may be spread, as may be the case with a school spread through a town
What is a data plan but an internet connection for your phone? Am I perhaps spoiled by living in an area where students are all given great wireless access for their laptops, with a centralized campus and a wireless signal expanding even to the bus system?

To be honest, if I were ever confronted by an instructor who told me I have to get a data plan for my phone in order to retreive online class materials, I would balk. For one thing, I would have to get a new phone that would allow me to type better. And a larger screen that could reasonably read the websites without converting it all into ugly chunks of plain text with horrible formatting. And a better scrolling option. And I'd have to remember to charge it and take it with me every where. And I'd wonder why my teacher is so interested in being able to send me emails or class announcements while I'm out on Friday night with friends.

At that point, I would say, "A laptop would serve me better. Why is a laptop with internet access not enough? Why should I get a phone data plan instead?"


Some may argue that it'd not be a big leap to require a data plan, "Everyone already has a phone, and most already have a data plan." I'd have to argue against this. I was forced to get a cellphone by my then-fiancee during college because of safety reasons: I was doing field work and he wanted me to be able to call out if there was an emergency. As someone who enjoys backpacking, I couldn't argue with his reasoning. Within the first year, though, I lost it down a hole in a huge field while doing soil sampling. I still go camping and expect my cell phone to be a durable, rugged, preferably water-proof lifeline to emergency services. A blackberry is unlikely to survive me very long. (EDIT: Rhii tells me Blackberries aren't the delicate flowers I make them out to be. :) I stand corrected.)

Aside anti-phone wierdos like me, there are those who can't afford one, or can't afford the data plan. Locking an international student into a phone plan for the sake of making sure they can check email on the sidewalk just makes me squirm. Buying textbooks for a class is painful enough, but at least a $80-$160 book (and that's on the high end) for one class is cheaper than a $60/month data plan for dealing with heavy email attachments and web use. A class that doesn't need a textbook would otherwise be a financial breathing point, saving the student money, but instead it would be filled with an even more expensive data plan.

This is in addition to the basic computer requirement held by any major university, because a phone's not going to be able to run the necessary software to create presentations, spreadsheets, or term papers. There are also special software packages like AutoCAD, ArcGIS, and Photoshop and design studios. Some classes/programs even require Tablets.

Why not a laptop? Laptops come in all sizes and power, and can have internet access of their own. Computers are required for most American college students, anyway. You can get a cheapo word-processing, internet-browsing laptop for the same price or less as that little iPhone, and it'll still weigh less than most text books. You can get a decent laptop and use it for internet access, while it can also run programs you want/need (like if I want to play WoW while sitting in a cafeteria), both in the classroom and for recreation.

I don't like it.

I'm not saying that there aren't some people who like data plans for their phone; there are certainly some out there who find it more convenient to have a pocket-sized web browser. Being able to price-check or look up reviews while standing in the store is always a bonus.

REQUIRING a student to get a data plan for a phone (when some may not even have a phone) for a class, however, is a little extreme, given the current cost compared to already having a computer requirement.

So, I guess I'm just left baffled. As time goes on, phones and laptops are becoming more similar, and the lines between them are blurring. Requiring a student to have both with internet access for the sake of a single class just seems like asking too much, financially. I just can't understand the reasoning of requiring, specifically, a phone data plan for a class that will span all of 3 months, when a student may instead prefer to keep their internet access mobile via a laptop.

So I'm throwing this out there. I know we, as gamers, tend to rely much more heavily on having a good, strong computer: do you have a data plan on your phone, too? Is it used enough to be worth the money you spend? If you were a cash-strapped college student who had to buy a laptop for a whole degree program and were then asked by a single class to also get a phone data plan, would you complain, or think it unfair to those students without data plans already?

Or, perhaps, is the quoted person assuming that the student won't have a computer? Have I been spoiled in my perspective by the computer requirements at my own and other major universities? (EDIT: the quoted person's university has computer requirements, as well!).

I think that rather than requiring a data plan, the class should simply require reliable internet access.


Anonymous said...

I work for a major university as well and have seen this issue pop up from time to time in regards to campus security. In the aftermath of campus shootings and some of the more mundane but much more frequent concerns of really bad southern storm weather - the desire to have all students/faculty/staff opt in to a mandatory text plan for cell phones was raised. This brings up a lot of issues in regards to privacy if nothing else. Not even going to go into cost.

Oh and hey - MOAR PUPPEHS! My wife and I have been mooning over Little River for days. We're looking at adopting a 9 week old husky pup ourselves and seeing your little buddy just about put us over the edge.

Kae said...

Mmn, I know what you mean about the campus alerts. The initial tests bogged down the phone system and it took hours and hours for everyone to get the message. I'm not sure where it's at right now, but a mass text to a whole campus of students and staff of a huge university isn't something most systems are prepared to handle.

In an ideal world... well, we wouldn't even have a need for an emergency alert system.

Puppy: I have a photo to post tomorrow ;) River's so photogenic. She's a Malamute, herself... I love the personality, even if it is a stubborn one!

Dr. Cynicism said...

I also work at a major university... and I think the phone idea would be unfair to say the least. Hell, we still catch !@#$ for mandating that all students must have readily accessible internet access (the truth is that not all students are privileged or wealthy enough). But data plans?? How unfair is that?! In my opinion, the step that should be taken PRIOR to demanding such nonsense is to offer course materials via the internet. Books, content, and class materials via interactive web site, PDFs, or other various applications. Fight it Kae!

Mark said...

That's ridiculous. I'm not sure what data plan prices are like in the US, but in Canada, it's a good 80% increase over the basic phone plans ($40/month to $70+/month).

Really, to me, the only point of data plans are if you're in a profession that requires time sensitive information and/or do not have reliable access to an internet connection throughout the day. What could possibly be so time sensitive for a university class that couldn't wait until the student could check his or her e-mail at home? If it's needed *during* the class, it should either be scheduled in a lab in the first place, or at least give students the option of using their own laptop.

Seriously, that's just dumb. I'd either drop the class or request to be compensated if it was made a requirement for any of my classes.

Mark said...

Also, I'm not sure the answer to this, but is it even possible to get a short-term data plan? The requirement may be forcing students to pay more even after the class is done due to contracts.

Rhii said...

@Rul - I used to work for a cell phone company and the data plans were not under a particular contract, only the phone line itself. It was however, required to have a data plan for the duration of the time that you used a smartphone... but if you, say, dropped your smartphone down a hole in the field and switched over to a standard phone, you weren't obligated to keep the data package.

And @Kae - as a result of working for the cell company I owned a blackberry (which I would not have bought otherwise) and it was FAR FAR FAR more durable than any standard phone I've had before or since. That thing was practically indestructible. The only reason I no longer have it is because I lost it in the woods during a somewhat strenuous camping weekend about a year ago. ;) Give the blackberry its due, it's rugged.

Rhii said...

Er, also, I think it's a terrible idea to mandate data plans for college students. I don't wanna come across as pro-mandate. Just I liked my blackberry, and didn't want to see it made out to be a delicate flower when the reality was that I probably could have done anything to it short of running it over with my car and still had a functional phone.

Kae said...

Is it waterproof? :) If so, I stand corrected! I recently got a new waterproof camera phone, which I didn't think was possible; it is my first "new phone" since my first cell phone, as all my others were hand-me-downs from my husband. It's (iirc) a Casio? Verizon thingy? I can't check because.... I left it at home >_>

I wondered the same thing about the lock-ins on data plans, but I don't think they're all incredibly strict. Kit and I recently killed his data plan when we realized how little we actually made use of it (compared to price), and I don't recall us having any trouble turning it off. A lock-in problem *would* occur, though, when the campus is in an area not covered by the student's current network, especially for international students, forcing them to get a new phone plan.

@Dr. Cynicism:
Indeed :) Of course, I do work in distance learning, and part of my job is all about making websites and digitizing content/class presentations, and scheduling online meeting spaces. The biggest stumbling block is instructors themselves who are either technologically illiterate or stubbornly insist that posting their course content online means that the university is going to replace them with a computer.

Dr. Cynicism said...

"The biggest stumbling block is instructors themselves who are either technologically illiterate or stubbornly insist that posting their course content online means that the university is going to replace them with a computer."

Then those are the instructors that NEED to get replaced :-) Many of us have worked long and hard to provide our students with the very best teaching/learning opportunities. To think that a "teacher" would stifle a student's opportunity for FREELY available materials and content is absurd. Again, those are the ones that very well COULD be replaced by robots.

Kae said...

Tenure ;)

Mark said...

You know what, I stand corrected on the price:

That's cheaper than what I pay currently. I actually need to look into whether my current provider will match that deal now, heh.