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Managing a Mobile Mix

Laptops and Tablet PCs enjoy widespread use on college campuses. Here are practical tips on incorporating them into the fabric of the institution.
University Business, Nov 2005

Dave Berque, a computer science professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., got an odd wake-up call years ago when he was teaching a large class at an East Coast institution. He tried to get the class involved in the lesson; he tried asking questions; he tried urging them to ask questions. For the first four weeks, no interaction from students.

Then, one day in the fifth week, he had five or six people raise their hands. Unfortunately, it was not to ask questions, but to tell him the ceiling lights had caught fire.

"I realized how bad the situation was," remembers Berque. "I was in a room with 100 people, the lights were on fire, and only six people noticed it--and I wasn't one of them!"

The rest of his students didn't have a death wish; they were just too busy trying to copy down his lecture notes to take notice of the burning electrical system. Needless to say, they were also too busy to ask questions, annotate their notes, or think about what it was that they were speedily scribbling in their notebooks.

That experience made Berque start to think about ways to replace frantic note taking--which doesn't add anything to the students' education or efficiency in the classroom--with opportunities for teacher-led interaction and collaboration.

The search for an answer would lead him to the world of pen-based computing (that's tablet PCs to you and me). Tablet PCs allow users with electronic "pens" to draw on them, annotate electronic documents, and even just take notes in class. Tablets are becoming a popular campus tool and, in some cases, even becoming a student's primary computer. Laptops, too, are growing in popularity. For students and faculty today, it's all about being well connected, both in class and while on the go.

Last year, the University of Virginia teamed up with Microsoft, HP, and Thomson Learning to test the acceptance among students of digital-learning technologies such as tablets. The first phase of the project had 362 students in UVa's College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences' biochemistry, psychology, and statistics classes give their feedback on various tools.

Of those asked to report on their use of Microsoft OneNote note-taking software and an HP Tablet PC 1100, 67 percent said they had an increased interest in the course as a result of using the digital tools.

In addition:

About 66 percent of the students said the combination of the technology and the course content helped their comprehension.

62 percent believed the technology helped them remember the content.

71 percent said their understanding, retention, and review of materials was helped by using the note-taking software.

83 percent liked the tablet PC, and about 80 percent went on to use the tablet in other classes.

The experiences of Berque and the UVa pilot point to a growing acceptance of tablet PCs in classroom settings--for that matter, they point to a growing acceptance of interactive technology of many kinds on campuses. After all, the many institutions of higher education that have instituted distribution programs for portable computers are expecting those devices to be taken to libraries, student unions, and, of course, classrooms.

In some cases, schools are providing students with mobile computers, or requiring them to come to campus with their own.

Denison University in Granville, Ohio, provides laptops for lab sciences in biology and chemistry classes. The campus has supported wireless computing in its science labs for the past seven years, and it is now rolling out ubiquitous wireless on the campus.

The computer initiative at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., started in 1993, equipping each incoming freshman with a laptop. Since then, the program has remained largely unchanged, apart from a switchover to HP Compaq nx6110 Notebook computers in 1998.

When Hartwick's program began, computers were not connected to networks, much less to the World Wide Web, so there were less challenges for Director of Technology Services Bill Beyer to handle. Today, "it's become even more important to standardize the software and lock things down, not only for the faculty and students but to protect the students' software itself," Beyer says.

Whereas students once arrived on campus in the fall toting TVs and stereos, today they are also likely to bring along a desktop computer. However, according to Beyer, most do not have laptops, so the campus distribution effort hasn't proven redundant.

St. John's University's laptop program includes customized
add-ons that help automate the support process.

"A lot of it comes down to communication--how well the campus or school communicates with the students in advance," says Greg Peters, education program manager at HP. "A lot of the time, students get new technology when they leave home for college, so by communicating [about the laptop program] long in advance, there's not likely to be much of a problem." Besides, he adds, an incoming student's older equipment often gets passed down to other members of the family. What are little brothers for, after all, if not receiving hand-me-downs?

The desktops brought to campus are another matter, because Hartwick's IT staff needs to be aware of those machines and make sure they don't introduce problems into the system once they are connected to the campus network.

Mobile computing technology is integrated throughout the Hartwick campus--from classrooms and residence halls to the great outdoors itself through wireless hotspots.

The laptops provided by the school are preconfigured by the campus IT department with standard applications (such as Microsoft Office, statistical analytical software from SPSS, and anti-virus software). The college uses Sygate Secure Enterprise to track all machines connected to the network and ensure they are not infected with any viruses.

The laptop program has made student computers ubiquitous enough that the school needs relatively few computer labs for students to do homework, access the web, or check e-mail. "We're a much leaner organization in some ways because we don't need to have staff that specialize in Macintosh or other [computer systems]," says Beyer.

He adds that the laptop program is a competitive need for Hartwick, with students and parents expecting computer-savvy campuses with 24/7 support. "You need to back it up with staffing and services," Beyer says.

The Academic Computing Initiative (ACI), the laptop program at St. John's University in New York City, began in fall 2003 with the distribution of more than 3,000 laptops. To simplify the provision of support services, custom add-ons were created for the institution's administrative system from SCT Banner.

"Because of the project's scope, it was critical to automate as much of the support process as possible and to leverage existing information assets," says Maura Woods, director of applications. By using scanners connected in real time to the administrative system, St. John's "could determine a student's eligibility to receive a laptop, link a specific laptop to a student [during] distribution, register the laptop on the wireless network, and provide the student with a login and password to St. John's Central [web portal]--all within minutes."

The primary goal of the ACI was "to give all students, irrespective of their background and prior experience with computers, equal opportunity to use leading-edge technology in their everyday activities," says Woods.

The laptop program, which initially covered only incoming freshmen and full-time faculty, was expanded in 2004 to include transfer students. The university began training users on the St. John's Central portal, where students and faculty can communicate, collaborate, and perform functions ranging from registration to grading. There also are separate training programs for students and faculty for using the laptops and computer-based learning (see sidebar).

Woods says the laptop program improves the academic experience by providing additional teaching options in and out of the classroom and by allowing students to access extensive resources on the web and the university's own online offerings.

DePauw's Berque has spent a lot of time since his experience with the burning classroom coming up with ways to enable classroom education. He is currently working with DyKnow, a company that provides classroom-teaching technology based on tablet computers.

DyKnow's technology, which grew out of Berque's research, helps teachers incorporate interactive teaching into their classes. The main functions include collaborative note taking (in which anything the teacher draws or writes into her machine gets sent in real time to the students' screens, and the students can add their own private notations on top of her notes); classroom interaction (the teacher poses a challenge or question to his students, who each enter their responses on their screens and send the information back to his computer); out-of-class interaction (students access and replay the classroom session); and in-class monitoring and control (teachers can control what students do during class by disabling web browsing or disabling keyboards).

The control feature grew out of worries expressed by other teachers. "The biggest concern with any kind of technology in the classroom, where students will have access to the technology, is distraction," says Berque.

Berque and other apostles of mobile computing in the classroom see the next logical step to be enhancing distance learning, and even distance teaching, which has a guest lecturer in a remote location teaching students in a classroom located elsewhere.

In the end, he doesn't see the technology he's working on to offer a radical change in the education environment, but rather a way of helping the education process function better. "We're not trying to eliminate student note taking," he says. He just wants the students to spend less time copying notes and more time thinking about what they're hearing and seeing.