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Center for Faculty Excellence

Using Laptops in the Classroom:  Faculty Experiences
Laptops in the Classroom - More Work than You Think

by COL Thomas Lainis
Professor of Physics,
United States Military Academy


In Fall 2000 and Spring 2001, I introduced, or tried to introduce, laptop computers into the classroom in two different physics courses, Classical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics. The student composition of the courses was the same. I had thought about the action for quite some time and had decided early on that I would allocate preparation time for this endeavor. Unfortunately, during the summer and winter breaks before classes, I became involved in other more urgent missions and the end results were the same: I began the semester without a coordinated preplanned laptop curriculum. I had a curriculum designed without laptops. These had been written before I knew that laptops were available for the study. I had even taught Quantum Mechanics twice before. To my surprise, I did not achieve the effective incorporation of laptops into the curriculum. I have reflected upon the shortfalls and difficulties that I encountered and would like to share lesson learned with the faculty.

Lesson 1 – Preparation

Instructors should incorporate the use of laptops into a mapping of the course content and curriculum before the semester begins.

I knew the material that I wanted to teach and would spend time, one or two days before the class, trying to find or develop WWW sites, programs, or exercises that would support the learning objectives. Inevitably, by the time I had what I wanted, the preliminary instruction that would have seamlessly melded the use of the computer into the instruction had not been accomplished. Hence, I would either drop the use of the laptop for that period or throw it into the instruction in such a patchy manner that it did seem ad hoc. It takes more time than you think to properly plan the use of laptops/computers into the class curriculum. I believe that instructors will need to double the preparation time in order to effectively meld the computer into the daily classroom instruction.

Lesson 2 – Time

Plan and allocate time to teach or review the cadet computer skills needed.

The use of computers at USMA is not as seamless or complete as some advocates believe. There are enough group projects that utilize computers that the program challenged cadet can avoid learning common software: Excel, Word (equations), and MathCAD. The result is that you will end-up stopping the class to bring individuals into the discussion. The allocated time might be homework time to find and experiment with programs or self-paced instruction might accomplish the preliminary guidance. Remember there is no professional expertise available at the library or via the gold coats after duty hours. Hence, the bottom line is that the instructor is the source of expertise in the use of the specific program.

Lesson 3 – Standardize Pre-Class Time

Require the laptops to be turned-on and the software called up or downloaded prior to start of class.

As we all know, 55 minutes passes quickly – too quickly to be waiting for 16 laptops to enter the network, WWW pages found, and programs downloaded. There were days that I had not planned to use the laptops, and discussions led me to want to use them. A teaching moment was offered to me and I did not take it because I was not willing to wait for 16 laptops to be uncased and made operational!

Lesson 4 – Software Shortfalls

The windows based projection and monitoring software that I was given was incompatible with the DOS based software.

I used several software programs including tim-buk-two to monitor cadets and to select which cadet’s software to project onto the screen. The students could not project the older DOS programs with which I had rehearsed and was completely prepared to seamlessly blend into the instruction. Their screens would show the DOS routine with the anticipated results. The projected screen showed the windows screen still behind the DOS program. The DOS routine bypassed the windows based communications software. I was not prepared to allocate more time to finding a software patch to correct the programming shortfall.

Lesson 5 – Infra Red Software is Slow

Infrared communications may be too slow for simulations.

One of my more talented students wrote a program to demonstrate the motion of two planets when external forces perturbed the system. His laptop program smoothly showed the orbital transitions. When his screen was projected via both infrared and projection softwares, the motion was jagged and discrete. It became painful and time consuming to observe the final results.

Lesson 6 – File Management

Standardize Your Students' folder and file names.

I can remember three occasions when I would refer to a previous program, WWW page, or software program that we had used. It was not a planned reference but one to which the class discussions had logically brought us. When I asked the students to open their laptops to that referenced file, there were several students that could not remember where they had stored the file, what they had called the file, or whether they had deleted the file. The learning involved in allowing students to develop their own system of folder and file management is not worth the price of not being able to move the class seamlessly from blackboard, to laptop, to discussion. I would argue that the students will learn folder and file management by observing how well organized you have forced them to become in your class as compared to the problems they encounter in either other classes or through their personal use of the lap top.

Concluding Remarks

As you can see, I have not presented startling or revolutionary ideas. In some cases, one might say that I reinvented basic teaching suggestions. The use of the laptop can facilitate instruction and assist the student in visualizing physical phenomena and in organizing information. I believe that it can do even more. However, it takes teacher time to prepare, organize, and utilize. The solutions to most of these lessons may lie in maximizing centralized (department or course) assistance because individual instructors may already have maximized the use of their time. A full plate is still a full plate!

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