Today’s college kids arrive on campus armed with an array of electronic gadgets. Cell phones, iPods and digital cameras are no longer luxuries but near necessities for staying well connected and adequately entertained. This fall, incoming freshmen at
Virginia Tech added one particular gadget to their back-to-school shopping list: a tablet PC. The university required all 1,400 of its new students to buy one. The tablets look much like regular laptop computers, except their digitized screens can be swiveled around, folded over and written on with a stylus.
But these computers aren’t just high-tech notepads, a 21st century replacement for pen and paper. Engineering faculty members around the country have recognized that this simple write-on feature allows them the opportunity to radically change the way they run their classrooms. Instead of writing on a board or an overhead transparency, they write on a tablet PC over their PowerPoint slides. The students, outfitted with their own tablets (all connected via a wireless network), see the instructor’s writing appear on their computers in real time and can add their own notes on top. Students can also send documents to the instructor for instant feedback.
With support from the National Science Foundation, Microsoft and tablet manufacturers like Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard, university engineers have been developing software and teaching methods that take advantage of the tablet PC’s unique capabilities. By blending the old and the new, they aim to improve both the way students learn and how engineering is taught.
Virginia Tech’s new tablet PC requirement may seem unusual, but the school has a tradition of asking its students to embrace new technology. In 1984, it became the first public university to require each of its incoming students to own a desktop computer. In 2002, as wireless networks became commonplace, that requirement became a laptop. In March 2006, the school announced that entering freshmen would need to purchase a tablet, since their introductory engineering classes would make liberal use of them.
Tablets have caught on in the medical profession, where doctors use them to take notes and update patients’ charts. But they’re especially handy for engineers, says Joseph Tront, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech. “Engineering involves a lot of visual information. You have to be able to communicate from one person to the next in some drawn or written form.”
Before the school-wide tablet requirement, Tront had been exploring the potential of the PCs for about three years, trying them out in his own courses. He received a grant from Microsoft to purchase 25 computers and had students pair up to share them in class. Fujitsu has also given 63 tablets to the faculty members to get them used to the technology.
Tablet users now have a choice of many programs that take advantage of the digitized screen. For example, the program called OneNote, part of the Microsoft Office bundle, employs handwriting recognition to allow users to search for words they write with the stylus. OneNote also has a voice recorder with a time stamp, so it can synchronize the recording with the written notes. A student might use those two functions, for example, to record a lecture, then later search the notes for a key term and relisten to that part.
Engineers and computer scientists have also developed their own tools to exploit the tablets’ features, and most of the programs are available as free downloads. For lectures, Tront and other instructors use a program called Classroom Presenter, developed by Richard Anderson of the University of Washington in Seattle. It allows them to mark up PowerPoint slides and send them to the students dynamically. In PowerPoint, slides can be printed out and photocopied for students to write on, but Classroom Presenter lets students layer their own notes on to the instructor’s annotated version.
Tront and a graduate student developed a tool called WriteOn that does pretty much what the name implies: It allows the user to write on the screen display of any application—putting a “virtual transparency over the surface.” Tront has used WriteOn with simulation programs, drawing on the screen as they run. “I can then click on one of the buttons on the tool and save a snapshot and collect a notebook of images,” he explains. “I can have it generate a movie for me, and I can see how the development went for running this simulator.” And most important, the students can easily get a copy of the snapshots to study later.
Classroom Presenter and WriteOn make presentations much livelier even if only the lecturer has a tablet PC on hand. Students with conventional laptops can simply type on the documents and save them. But when students are also equipped with tablets, it offers a unique opportunity to assess how well they understand the concept being taught. In an electrical engineering class, for example, the faculty member can draw a partially completed circuit and ask the students to draw the rest. The students can submit their solutions wirelessly back to the instructor, who “has a chance to preview what students have sent in and then choose the ones to display and talk about,” Anderson says. “This aspect of having students’ work displayed is very powerful and also really motivates the students.”
It hearkens back to the familiar technique of calling students to the blackboard to work out a problem, but with one important difference: It’s anonymous. “I know most of my students would be absolutely petrified if I called them up to the blackboard,” Anderson says. The anonymity encourages more students to participate since they don’t have to risk the embarrassment of being wrong in front of their peers. The instructor can show correct and incorrect solutions to the whole class without singling anyone out. At the University of Washington, they see an 80 to 100 percent participation rate in these activities, even though submission of answers is completely voluntary.
At Virginia Tech, Tront has noticed that the tablet-based feedback could be helping to build confidence in shy students. “One of things we’ve found is that these students really get into participating in the class,” he says. “And they eventually seem to come out of their shell a little bit more.” After seeing a few of their successful solutions displayed on the screen, they start adorning the page with an icon to let everyone know their identity.
Tablet PCs are not only changing life in the lecture hall but also in the lab. The electrical engineering department at Howard University has adopted a system called Mobile Studio developed by Don Millard at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “The main idea is to replace current lab space and equipment—heavy equipment—with a computer with software and a small interface,” explains professor Charles Kim. “We can do everything we do currently in a traditional laboratory—providing a power source, getting information, getting data, displaying the measurement.”
Kim has been developing Mobile Studio activities for Howard’s junior-level electronics lab, a sophomore-level electrical engineering lab and a microcomputer course. The work was supported by a grant from Hewlett-Packard, and Lockheed Martin provided money to purchase tablets for all of the sophomores majoring in electrical and computer engineering. The best thing, Kim says, is that Mobile Studio breaks down the barrier between classroom and lab. The students can learn the theory and test it right away. With a tablet and software, the students can carry the lab with them—to the dorm, to the lounge, to the library—learning anytime, anywhere.
At Cornell University, Mark Masry and Hod Lipson of the Computational Synthesis Lab are working on sketching tools for tablet PCs, which would translate a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional representation of that object. “There’s been a lot of work done on other forms of natural languages, like handwriting and speech,” Lipson says. “Understanding sketching, especially 3D sketching, is something that only recently has become an option because of tablet PCs.” So far, their software can handle simple shapes, allowing users to sketch an object, grab it and spin it around in three dimensions. They can perform a kinematic analysis on the object to see how it moves or a finite element analysis to see how it deflects under stress.
Graphic design programs that do similar things currently exist, but they take a long time to learn, Lipson says. With a tablet-based application, students can do a crude sketch and see results without going through a long modeling process.
All of the tablet PC projects have tried to assess whether students are actually benefiting from the changes, but not much is known yet, according to Jane Chu Prey of Microsoft Research, who manages the initiative to integrate tablet PCs into educational settings. Surveys taken by researchers at Howard University’s School of Education have found positive results, with 70 percent of students indicating that they wanted to see tablet PCs integrated into other courses in the department. For many of the instructors who use them, the increased student participation they experience in their classrooms is enough incentive to keep going. And if digitized screens become as commonplace as the mouse, lectures may never be the same again.
Corinna Wu is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.