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Center for Faculty Excellence


Using Laptops in the Classroom:  Faculty Experiences
Using Technology in the Classroom

by Lawrence E. Levine
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, NJ 07030
llevine@stevens-tech.edu

Introduction

Much is being written today about the use of technology as a teaching/learning tool. However, much of the focus is on distance learning. This article deals with another aspect of this topic, namely, the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning in a classroom environment. While the writer’s experience has been with the teaching of mathematics on the undergraduate level, the approaches described can be utilized in the teaching of other subjects.

Classroom Setups

The most basic classroom set-up that allows an instructor to use technology as art of his/her teaching is one in which there is a computer, a network connection (either wired or wireless), and a projection system. This allows one to do demonstrations, present material, illustrate how to use software, show web sites, etc. However, this set-up has an inherent disadvantage, namely, each instructor must come into the classroom in advance and spend time setting up the machine. Since different instructors usually have different needs, it is quite possible that these will conflict, and it will be necessary for an instructor to set-up the machine before each use, something that is time consuming and tedious.

A better set-up is one in which an instructor can bring his/her laptop to the classroom and connect to the network and a projection system. Everything that the instructor wants to do with the laptop can be prepared in advance. There will also be no need to reset things as a result of other users, and this is a great time saver. It is best if such classrooms have a podium near the network and projection system connection on which the instructor can place the laptop as well as other materials such as notes or a text.

However, in both of the set-ups described above, there is little student participation aside from viewing what is projected. In order to have real participation and interaction, the students need to have computers with network and power connections that they can use in the classroom. At one time this meant a "lab" with PCs. However, PCs are big and tend to "get in the way". A better set-up is one in which the students have laptops that they bring to class and use there. As wireless technology improves, it is becoming increasingly clear that such Internet connections are the most cost effective and allow for the most flexibility. For example, in a laptop, wireless classroom one can reconfigure seating arrangements as desired by simply moving the tables at which the students sit.

There are other technological resources that an instructor might want to have available such as an overhead projector, a VCR, a document camera, software that allows one to monitor the laptop of a student, etc.

What One Does With All of This

Having a technology set-up in a classroom is just the beginning. The real question is what does an instructor do with all of these resources. There is no one answer, and the answers are very much a function of the material that the instructor is presenting and what s/he wants to accomplish. Here the writer describes some of the things that he has done while teaching in such environments. What is described below is by no means exhaustive. It is simply some of the things that this writer has done while using technology in the classroom. There are certainly many other valid approaches. However, many of us tend to get ideas from learning about what others have done, and it is with this in mind that the approaches below are outlined.

Here a few examples that the writer has recently used are given. They were all presented in a classroom set-up in which students did not have access to computers. When presenting the topic of projectile motion several web sites were located that allow one to see a simulation of how changing the initial angle and velocity effect the distance that the projectile travels. They also allow one to demonstrate how air resistance affects the flight path. Thus, once the parametric equations of motion had been derived for the case in which friction is neglected and these were shown to determine parabolic motion, the java applet at http://galileo.phys.virginia.edu/classes/109N/more_stuff/Applets/ProjectileMotion/applet.html was demonstrated in class. Students were sent the web site and encouraged to try the applet. Many later agreed that the applet made things "real".

The concept of the gradient is one which many students find difficult. In particular, the physical significance of the gradient can be hard to grasp. After a web search the writer came across the site http://links.math.rpi.edu/devmodules/gradient/index.html. This site contains extensive material on the gradient and related topics. There are discussions of the concepts as well as a number of java applets that illustrate them. The material at this site was used in class in conjunction with standard lecture material to illustrate and reinforce concepts. In addition, a couple of students volunteered (were coaxed into volunteering) to try the applet that illustrates the gradient as a normal vector to level curves. (This is accessible by clicking on the link Normal to Level Curves.) Again, students were sent the web site and encouraged to use it. The feedback was positive.

Teaching In A Laptop Classroom

If one is teaching in a laptop classroom in which each student has his/her laptop connected to the Internet, there are a wide variety of things that one can to. It is also helpful to have a program installed on the instructor and student machines that allows the instructor to monitor all of the student machines. This writer has used two software packages that do this: NetOp School and SyncronEyes. Such classroom control software not only allows one to monitor a student laptop, but also to take control of a student’s laptop and run it.

Some important points before we proceed:

  1. Students who are sitting in front of machines that are connected to the Internet have a tendency to be doing everything except paying attention to what is going on in class. With laptops there is a simple solution to this problem. Namely, while material is being presented require that the laptop covers be down. When it is time for the students to do something with the laptops, they are told that the covers are to be lifted.
  2. If students are expected to use their laptops during exams, then they should not have access to an Internet connection while taking the test. There is simply too much temptation to share one’s work with others via email.
  3. A laptop classroom is suitable only for small classes, since the instructor has to be able to help those who have trouble with their laptop and the software being used. This writer does not see how one could use a laptop environment is a class of say 100 students. The ideal class size is probably no more than twenty. This writer has taught in a laptop classroom that had thirty students in it, but he needed a teaching assistant to help keep the class running when students encountered technical problems.

Of course, all of the things described above concerning the projection of lecture notes and the presentation of demonstrations and simulations can be done in a laptop classroom. But there is so much more that one can do when students have laptops in class that are connected to the Internet.

The first thing to realize is that a laptop classroom is actually two facilities in one. With the covers of the laptops down, it is an ordinary classroom; with the covers up, it is a computer laboratory. One can move seamlessly between these two scenarios and exploit each to advantage.

For example, this writer has used the following approach when teaching in a laptop classroom. He has prepared a complete set of notes for a given class in Scientific Notebook, a technical word processing program that incorporates a Maple computer algebra system. Problems that reinforce concepts presented are built in at appropriate points within the material to be presented. At the beginning of a class students are told to download the notes for the class from the course web site.

After presentation and discussion of a topic during which laptop covers are down, students are then told to open their laptop covers and begin working on a problem in the notes related to the concept just discussed. The instructor, using a program such as NetOp School or SyncronEyes that allows him to monitor the machines of the students, can then see what each student is doing. If appropriate, he will take control of a student machine and point out errors. At times, it is appropriate for the instructor to project the screen of a student and discuss what the student has been doing with the entire class.

This interlacing of computer work with lecture presentation is an excellent way to engage the student during the learning experience. Students cannot sit passively and just take notes. Knowing that they will be expected to work on examples related to the material encourages them to be involved in what is going on in class. This is a real advantage of teaching in a laptop classroom.

If students are required to make presentations to the entire class, these can be made from where the student giving the presentation is sitting. The classroom control software allows the instructor to project the screen of a particular student for all to see. The student making his/her presentation then can do it from his/her machine.

In my experience classes from time to time take unexpected turns. A student will ask a "what if" question which can be pursued on the spot. Indeed, if appropriate, both the instructor and the students can make investigations using the course software. This also tends to make the learning experience "more alive".

Preparation

This writer has found that initially it takes more time to prepare for the teaching of a class in which technology is utilized. One is constantly facing the question of what one should and should not do with the technology. This is a far from trivial question, and there are no definitive answers. Trial and error seem to be the only ways to proceed. After some time one does get a feel for what will work well.

In addition, the preparation of exams that require the student to use technology can be a formidable task. In mathematics most of the standard types of problems fall by the wayside, since they can be solved easily by a click or two using something like Scientific Notebook. Coming up with good questions that require the use of software and whose solutions are more than just clicks is most challenging. This instructor found that he had to spend much more time than usual when it came to making up such exams.

Conclusions

Given today's increasingly technological world, educational institutions must produce students who are able to function comfortably in this world. Not to do so is to produce a product that will not be able to compete in the job market, and this is simply not acceptable.

On way to foster the needed technological expertise is to use technology as part of the teaching and learning experience in the classroom. A number of approaches have been tried by a variety of instructors, a few of which were outlined above. There are surely many others, and the options will most certainly increase as technology advances. The challenge to educators today is to identify approaches, try them and then perfect the ones that work well. This is no small task and requires a great deal of effort. However, the rewards to both students and instructors who are involved in the creative use of technology more than compensate for the efforts expended.

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