Implementing a Mobile Lab in a Faculty of Education

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University of Alberta Makes Technology More Accessible Through Advancing Integration

Information and communications technology (ICT) pervades most aspects of contemporary civilization and will undoubtedly influence our near future to an even greater extent (Robertson 1998; Tapscott 1997) by "significantly enhancing and altering human activity, and enabling us to live, work and think in ways that most of us never thought possible" (Alberta Learning 2000). Wireless networks and mobile computers are two ICTs that are currently impacting educational institutions worldwide (Charp 2002, 2003; Varvel and Harnisch 2001).

The University of Alberta in Canada has embraced this mobile computing wave with wired laptop network connections and wireless network access points available in many locations across campus. For example, in our student union building, users can sit in a relaxed area with their laptops and access the Internet. In the faculty of education building, we have an experimental wireless access point in place and implemented a wireless mobile computer lab in January. The "Mobile Lab," as we call it, is helping to circumvent the problem of overbooked standard labs, and has introduced a new level of computing flexibility and comfort to our classrooms. Compared to the standard labs, the Mobile Lab facilitates a more natural teaching environment and reduces learner apprehension concerning the use of technology.

The implementation of the Mobile Lab was not an isolated project in our faculty. Rather, it was part of a larger ongoing effort to advance technology integration in our faculty, which involved multiple facets, including planning, leadership, development of a shared vision, curriculum enrichment, professional development, technical support and infrastructure enhancement. A major priority is to improve technology integration throughout our undergraduate teacher-education program, focusing on existing subject-based courses as opposed to stand-alone computer courses.

The faculty administration was able to obtain funding for technology infrastructure enhancements targeted at mobile computing. There were various possibilities examined for fruitful ways of applying these funds such as obtaining a collection of laptops, PDAs or tablet PCs. Since computer lab bookings were a critical problem, a solution that would improve accessibility to a class set of computers appeared to be one that would have a strong impact. Research on mobile computing at other educational institutions and within local school districts indicated that a wireless portable lab offered the most cost-effective solution (Olsen 1998; Varvel and Harnisch 2001).

The Setup

The equipment we chose was the Apple iBook Wireless Mobile Lab, which consists of a movable cart that stores laptop computers, a printer, a network base station and other devices such as projectors. The lab can be used in any class since all of the rooms in our building have a network port and power available. When the lab is booked, a proctor handles the equipment transportation and set up, as well as assists instructors and students in using the computers.

Hardware. The hardware components in our configuration included a Bretford mobile cart, which has slots to store and recharge up to 32 laptops, as well as a six-wheel design that is easy to move from room to room. The cart is loaded with 32 Apple iBooks that have AirPort cards for wireless networking.The laptops are fully charged overnight, and as long as we allocate at least one hour of charging midday, we can use the cart throughout an eight-hour day.

The Mobile Lab features an 802.11b-compliant Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station, which provides wireless network access within a perimeter of about 150' - more than adequate for any classroom in our building. Our network security is configured in such a way that it is virtually impossible for anyone else except those with laptops associated with the cart to gain access. Finally, our lab includes an HP LaserJet 1200n Ethernet laser printer and an NEC LT260 projector.

Software. The software installed on the iBooks is a set of multipurpose tools commonly used in education: Microsoft Office for Mac OS X, Internet Explorer and Netscape Web browsers and plug-ins, Adobe Acrobat Reader, telnet and FTP programs, Inspiration software and LXR*Test. In addition, the laptops came standard with AppleWorks, QuickTime, iMovie, iPhoto and iTunes.

Currently, we maintain an extra iBook as a software master image, and periodically (when updates are required) we manually re-image the set of laptops. In the future, we plan to put a method into place for re-imaging all the laptops simultaneously over a wired network - the process would be much too slow over the wireless network. When students or instructors use the laptops, they logon with a default user account that prevents them from permanently altering the disk image, except for a "scratch" hard drive partition in which they can save files on a temporary basis. For long-term storage, students are required to FTP or e-mail their files to another location.

Physical and network security. When not in use, we keep the mobile cart in a locked secure area. The proctors help ensure the physical security of the Mobile Lab by monitoring its equipment when it is in a classroom. As the laptops are signed out to students in a class, we record their student ID information. At first, we were using a manual log sheet to do this, but we are now implementing the use of a mobile barcode scanner to streamline the process by scanning the barcode-enabled student ID cards, which are standard for all students at this university. All students are required to enter their university login ID and password to authenticate their access to the Internet, as is the case in the fixed labs.

Classroom Integration

The Mobile Lab has been used in a variety of situations with our faculty, mainly in undergraduate classes, but there has also been some use in graduate studies and for meetings. This lab is just one aspect of the overall technology plan for the faculty, and a critical component is that we have resources in place for supporting instructional use of the lab.

As Varvel and Harnisch (2001) said, it is essential to have a support system to ensure technical functionality and provide instructional support for instructors and students so that the computing environment is used effectively. We were careful to have those elements in place before the Mobile Lab was used in classrooms. The following sections describe some of the recent uses of this technology.

Secondary science. Our first use of the Mobile Lab in actual classroom trials was in the secondary science curriculum area of the faculty. In this situation, use of the Mobile Lab occurred as an extension of a technology professional development effort that had begun several months earlier. We had been working with a cohort of instructors to get them started with integrating and modeling technology by creating Web sites for their courses.

At our institution we use the WebCT system in which instructors can get course sites up quickly, incorporating such features as an online class calendar and lecture documents; hyperlinks to resource Web sites; a searchable glossary; text-based messaging with attachments so students can share documents; electronic assignment submission; and grading that allows students to view exam and assignment marks privately, as well as see group statistics.

Several undergraduate secondary science classes have now used the Mobile Lab. The instructors felt that it has been very beneficial to be able to model technology use in their regular classroom setting with all of their other resources still nearby. They were able to facilitate hands-on practice in a variety of situations such as a discussion on using Microsoft PowerPoint to manage and provide resources in the middle or high school classroom, exploration of a WebCT site from both an instructor and student viewpoint, an interactive Web-based virtual frog dissection, working with provincial exam test banks, as well as trying an online learning styles inventory and printing their results with the printer available on the wireless network.

After having experienced the Mobile Lab in instructor-led sessions, students in several secondary science classes asked their instructors to book it for their use during student presentations. The students used the technology at particular points in their presentation to facilitate hands-on demonstrations of a science lesson that incorporated the use of Web-based resources. It was extremely convenient in this situation to bring the technology into the regular classroom, because the students also needed access to various lab materials available in the room for physical demonstrations that were also part of their presentations.

Elementary mathematics. We had undertaken a technology integration initiative with the cohort of elementary math education instructors the year before the Mobile Lab was implemented. These instructors required at least one or two computer lab sessions with their classes each term. With a large student population, the basic math methods course had on average 10 sections per term. It was difficult to schedule all of these sections into our regular computer labs, because there were always conflicts with other courses that had full-term bookings. Scheduling is now going more smoothly for the math group with the arrival of the Mobile Lab.

Undergraduate elementary mathematics education classes have now used the Mobile Lab on several occasions to access Web sites related to teaching math. In one class, the students sat in small groups to complete an assignment in which they were asked to examine various questions appearing on a sample provincial achievement test and discuss implications on math teaching. The instructors have commented that the Mobile Lab facilitates small group work and discussions much better than working in a regular computer lab.

Elementary social studies. We had also undertaken a technology integration initiative with the cohort of elementary social studies instructors the year before the Mobile Lab was implemented. As with the math group, this cohort teaches a large student population, usually about 10 sections per term. A common technology assignment for all the sections was defined and implemented. The assignment involved integrating the use of Inspiration Software's concept-mapping software into a lesson plan.

The student teachers use concept- mapping software to design a lesson plan. They must describe and provide an actual example, using Inspiration, of how K-6 students would use concept-mapping software in a social studies learning activity. Various professional development and technical support activities facilitated this increased technology integration, including investigation and creation of training materials, development and delivery of workshops for instructors and students, development of a resource Web site, software upgrades, and implementation of a teacher software take-home program.

Again, problems with lab scheduling for this group were alleviated by the Mobile Lab. It has now been used in several undergraduate elementary social studies methods classes when the regular education labs were not available at the desired times. The Mobile Lab also offered the advantage of enabling the classes to have a concept-mapping computer lab session in their regular classroom, with all of their books and other resources close by.

Impact on Learning

Although our evaluations of the Mobile Lab have been very informal to date, most of the feedback we have received has been very positive. Our classroom observations indicate that the Mobile Lab has improved the learning situation compared with the use of standard computer labs. These results concur with Varvel and Harnisch's (2001) learning environment model, which shows that a wireless mobile lab enhances student mobility and motivation. The computers went to the natural place of learning, instead of the students being removed from their normal environment and placed in a computer lab.

Bringing the technology into the classroom was no more invasive than putting another textbook on the desk, because it blended seamlessly into the environment. Exploiting the flexibility of wireless technology, instructors found it easier to implement a collaborative student-centered classroom compared with using a conventional computer lab. This is a result of the classroom becoming more of a community in which all members could interact more effectively.

The wireless Mobile Lab has been a tremendous success among our faculty thus far. From a technical viewpoint, the technology has been relatively easy to set up and support, while the sophisticated technology has been mostly transparent to the users. The Mobile Lab has made technology more accessible to more people. It has also helped us further our efforts of integrating technology in our faculty, particularly in improving our undergraduate teacher-education program. In addition, we look forward to an increased use of the existing Mobile Lab and possible expansion with the purchase of additional lab units.

References

Alberta Learning. 2000. "Information and Communication Technology." Online: www.learning.gov.ab.ca/ict/pofs.pdf.

Charp, S. 2002. "Wireless vs. Hard-Wired Network Use in Education." T.H.E. Journal. October.

Charp, S. 2003. "Technology for All Students." T.H.E. Journal. April.

Olsen, J. 1998. "Computer Lab on Wheels." Online: www.wiu.edu/users/mfjro1/wiu/clow/thepaper.htm.

Robertson, D. 1998. The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tapscott, D. 1997. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Varvel, V., and D. Harnisch. "The Modern Classroom: Using Portable Wireless Computer Networking in the Classroom." Proceedings of SITE 2001.


Advantages of the Mobile Lab

The Mobile Lab meets various needs of our faculty. First, it makes it possible for some classes to get computer access when it otherwise might have been impossible since the regular computer labs are heavily used, especially by classes that book for an entire term. The lab is primarily aimed at occasional bookings; we normally don't allow full-term or other extensive bookings of this facility. The Mobile Lab also enables instructors to incorporate technology into their regular classroom setting, which often results in a more relaxed, flexible learning environment, enhanced communications and simpler planning - compared with bringing the class into a computer lab.

Instructors use the laptops in their classrooms as an additional resource along with all of the usual materials, such as textbooks or lab supplies, that may already be there. Students move around with the computers or sit in whatever seating arrangement is desired - such as in small groups that may facilitate collaborative learning. But, the focus always remains on teaching and learning, not on the technology. In addition, the Mobile Lab saves instructors the intervention of notifying students of a room change, which they would have to do when booking a regular lab.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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