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Using Technology to Enhance the Classroom Environment

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Much is being written about the use of technology as a teaching and 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 my experience stems from teaching mathematics at the undergraduate level, the approaches described can be utilized in the teaching of other subjects as well.

Classroom Setups

The most basic classroom setup, which allows instructors to use technology as part of their teaching, is one in which there is a computer, a network connection (either wired or wireless) and a projection system. This allows instructors to perform demonstrations, present material, illustrate how to use software, show Web sites, etc. However, this setup has an inherent disadvantage, that is, 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 needs conflict, and it will be necessary for an instructor to set up the machine before each use, which is time-consuming and tedious.

A better setup is one in which instructors can bring their own laptop to the classroom and connect to the network and a projection system. This way everything that the instructor wants to do with the laptop can be prepared in advance. Also, it isn't necessary to reset the equipment after each use, which is a great time-saver. It is best if such classrooms have a lectern near the network on which instructors can place their laptops as well as other materials, such as notes, textbooks or a projection system.

Unfortunately, there is little student participation in both of the setups described above. To have real participation and interaction, students need to have computers with network and power connections 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 setup is one in which the students have laptops they bring to and use in class. And 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 wireless classroom that uses laptops, instructors can reconfigure seating arrangements as desired by simply moving the students' tables. There are also other technological resources that an instructor might want to have available, such as an overhead projector, a VCR, a document camera, software that allows instructors to monitor students' laptops, etc.

Utilizing Your Resources

Having a technological setup in a classroom is just the beginning. The real question is what d'es an instructor do with all of these resources? There are many answers. All are very much a function of the material that instructors are presenting and what they want to accomplish. Here are just a few uses drawn from my own experiences teaching in such environments:

Lecture Notes. The simplest use is to present notes the instructor has prepared. Lecture notes should also be made available to students either as handouts or downloads from the instructor's Web site. Of course, instructors can do this with slides and an overhead projector, but it is usually easier when done with a computer. My experience has been that this approach is most effective when dealing with a topic that requires the presentation of a large number of formulas. Though, a word of caution is appropriate here. Instructors can easily cover a great deal of material using this method of presentation. But there is a tendency to present more material than the students can absorb, so instructors must keep this in mind. Also, while students may be satisfied with this mode of teaching when it is done occasionally, they tend to dislike it if it is done too often.

Software Demonstrations. If instructors are using particular software in a course, then a computer projection setup allows them to show students how to do various things with the software. In a classroom setup where students have laptops, instructors can also have students practice the concepts being presented right in class. There is no substitute for this sort of on-the-spot reinforcement.

Demonstrations and Simul-ations. Having a computer connected to the Internet and a projection system allows instructors to do demonstrations and present simulations that can make a topic come alive. Finding such demonstrations and simulations often involves a Web search.

A Laptop Classroom

A wide variety of uses exist in classrooms where each students' laptop is connected to the Internet. It is also helpful to use a monitoring program, such as NetOp School or SyncronEyes, which allows the instructor to oversee all of the machines. Such classroom control software not only allows instructors to monitor a student laptop, but also to take control of a student's laptop and run it if necessary.

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

This can be demonstrated in the following example in which an instructor 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 are built in at appropriate points within the material to be presented. At the beginning of class, students are told to download the notes for the class from the course Web site. After presenting and discussing a topic, students are told to open their laptops and begin working on a problem in the notes related to the concept discussed. The instructor uses a computer-monitoring program to see what each student is doing. If appropriate, the instructor can take control of a student's machine and point out errors. At times, it is appropriate for the instructor to project a student's screen to discuss their work with the entire class. And if students are required to make presentations to the entire class, they can do so from where they're seated. The classroom control software allows the instructor to project each student's computer screen for all to see.

This interlacing of computer work with lecture presentation is an excellent way to engage students 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. And that flexibility accommodates unexpected turns in classes. If a student asks a "what if" question, it can be pursued on the spot. Indeed, if appropriate, both the instructor and the students can conduct investigations using the course software, thereby lending more authenticity to the learning experience.

Perfecting Approaches

Initially it takes more time to prepare to teach in a class in which technology is utilized. Educators are constantly facing the question of what they should or should not do with the technology. This question is far from trivial and there are no definitive answers. Trial and error seem to be the only ways to proceed. After some time, instructors get a feel for what will work well. In addition, preparing exams that require students to use technology can be a formidable task. In mathematics, most of the standard types of problems fall by the wayside because they can be solved easily using something like Scientific Notebook. Coming up with good questions that require the use of software and solutions that amount to more than just a series of clicks are most challenging. Instructors tend to spend much more time than usual when it comes to creating such exams.

Given today's increasingly technological world, educational institutions must produce students who are able to function comfortably in this world. Failure to do so is to produce a worker who will not be able to compete in the job market, which is simply not acceptable. One way to foster 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.

Technology in a Computerless Environment

The following are two examples of technological uses that were both presented in a classroom setup in which students did not have access to computers.

  • In presenting the topic of projectile motion, several Web sites proved useful in demonstrating how changing the initial angle and velocity affects the distance a projectile travels. The sites were also helpful in demonstrating the effects of air resistance on the flight path. Thus, once the parametric equations of motion had been derived for a case in which friction is neglected and these were shown to determine parabolic motion, the Java applet at www.phys.virginia.edu/classes/109N/more_stuff/Applets/ProjectileMotion/applet.html was used to demonstrate the concept in class. Students were sent the Web site and encouraged to try the applet. Many later agreed that it made the concept more authentic.
  • The QuickTime videos at http://attila.stevens-tech.edu/llevine1/visual_calc/ were used to illustrate topics in multivariable calculus, such as functions of two variables and surfaces. Material was presented and then interspersed with the appropriate video. I have found that this sort of back-and-forth instruction between the lecture and demonstration is an effective method of presentation.

Points to Ponder Regarding Laptop Classrooms

  • Students sitting in front of machines that are connected to the Internet have a tendency to do everything except pay attention to what is going on in class. With laptops there is a simple solution to this problem. Specifically, while material is being presented, require that laptop covers be down.
  • Students using laptops during exams should not have access to the Internet.
  • Laptops are ideally suited for use in small classes of no more than 20 students. Instructors must be able to assist those students who are having trouble, and doing so in a large class would be difficult without a teacher's aide.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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