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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2007 / 03 

Wireless technology, new teaching practices creates enhanced learning environment for engineering students

March 8, 2007

Virginia Tech is once again an education pioneer, linking more than 250 engineering freshmen on wireless Tablet PCs to provide an interactive environment between the professor and the students.

The students, owners of the college’s new 2006-07 computer requirement, a Tablet PC, are enrolled in an introductory level engineering class taught by Tom Walker, professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering. Walker is revamping his teaching methods in order to take advantage of the new technology, and using a new software teaching package called DyKnow that provides unique interactivity between the instructor and the class via the Tablet PC.

DyKnow software allows a professor to write on his Tablet PC, using words similar to what he would have written on a conventional blackboard or an overhead transparency. But as Walker places the text on his computer, his words automatically appear on each of the students’ wireless machines, also equipped with the software package. The students are then able to add notes as the professor lectures, and save them for future reference.

The combination of the visual, the auditory and the actual note-taking combine to increase the students’ retention capabilities.

“We are not the first to use DyKnow, but we are the first to implement this interactive note-taking tool in a large wireless classroom,” said Glenda Scales, associate dean for distance learning and computing in the College of Engineering. “Professor Walker is one of the pioneering faculty members who is critically rethinking his teaching methods to incorporate more active learning strategies in his course.”

When Walker elaborates on an engineering principle, stimulating questions from the class, he is able to add to their note-taking by immediately writing on his own computer which then appears on the students’ machines in real time. DyKnow provides an intuitive interface to transmit teacher content to student computers for annotation. This eliminates manual copying and gives students more time to focus on understanding concepts. Additionally, he can poll the students, receiving instant feedback and even collect student work written in class on their tablets.

“When some 250 students are in a wireless equipped classroom, they have a responsibility to use their Internet resources appropriately,” Scales said. “In this class they have access to the web, similar to an employee in a workplace during a meeting. The responsibility is placed back on the student to focus on the class, and not some other location on the web.”

Increased student participation in the classroom is a major goal with the introduction of Tablet PCs and the DyKnow software.

“This problem of distractions will never completely go away because students today have grown up multi-tasking,” Walker said. “I realize that some can be playing games, instant messaging, or watching videos. As I get used to taking steps to keep the students involved in the class by requesting instant feedback on certain questions and by collecting material in real time from them, I hope to resolve most of the problems of students using their machines inappropriately.”

Virginia Tech’s Alliance partnership with Fujitsu Computer Systems and Microsoft Research Corporation continues to support its Tablet PC initiatives. Most recently Microsoft Corporation is funding the Tablet PC Assessment team, lead by Deborah Olsen, associate professor of learning science and technology, and Kim Filer, A Ph.D student working with Olsen, to investigate the integration of Tablets PCs into the engineering curriculum.

This educational project will provide insight to designing Virginia Tech’s next generation network and is lead by a small university team comprised of Walker, Scales, Kimberly Gausepohl, manager of Online Course Systems, Learning Technology, Steven Lee, Communications Research Engineering, Communications Network Services, and several representatives from the Office of Distance Learning and Computing in the College of Engineering.