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Partnering for a Wireless Classroom

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->Thomson e-Classroom Enhances University of Connecticut Regional Campus' Use of Technology in TeachingThomson e-Classroom Enhances University of Connecticut Regional Campus' Use of Technology in Teaching

A partnership between the Jeremy Richard Library (JRL) at the Stamford Campus of the University of Connecticut and The Thomson Corp. afforded the opportunity for UConn to develop a state-of-the-art wireless classroom. Thomson is a leading global provider of integrated information solutions for business and professional customers. The company also publishes several electronic products that the UConn libraries subscribe to, including InfoTrac Expanded Academic Index, Gale Literary Databases, Health Reference Center and Web of Science. Knowing that librarians play an increasingly important role in teaching students and faculty how to access and use electronic resources effectively, Thomson provided a grant to the UConn libraries that enabled the JRL to expand its information technology and literacy education programs by creating The Thomson Corporation e-Classroom (online at www.lib.uconn.edu/campuses/stamford/about/eclass.htm)
With the Thomson gift, the library transformed an underutilized audiovisual room - equipped with VCRs, TV monitors and cassette players - into a high-demand, high-tech e-learning environment. The focal points of The Thomson e-Classroom are its wireless laptops, two LCD projectors and flexible seating arrangements. The laptops are Dell Latitude C800 notebooks with MiniPCI TrueMobile wireless cards. They are stored and recharged in a mobile laptop storage cart. The ORiNOCO AP-1000 access point provides wireless access to the campus's hard-wired network. A custom-built instructor's station has a Dell OptiPlex GX400 minitower computer, desk space for two additional laptops and an overhead projector. The room also has two ceiling-mounted LCD projectors. In addition, external mice were purchased to overcome student difficulties with the built-in touch pads on the laptops.
Instructors are able to choose between two projection surfaces: two motorized projection screens for applications needing a high-quality reflective surface or whiteboard wallpaper for applications where the instructors need to write comments on the projected images. The entire front wall (behind the projection screens) is covered with Marsh Industries Inc. Poly-Rite whiteboard wallpaper (www.marsh-ind.com/visual/poly-rite.html) and on the sidewalls are four whiteboards. The room is furnished with trapezoid tables and ergonomic chairs, which seat up to 22 students. In addition, the tables and chairs are mounted on rollers so that the classroom can quickly be rearranged for a lab, a lecture or small-group activities.


Multimedia Capabilities

The Thomson e-Classroom has the audiovisual equipment and computer software to support a wide range of multimedia capabilities. This equipment includes VHS and DVD players, Internet access, the libraries' online catalog and network databases, WebCT course management software, a PC-Duo remote-control teaching system, Microsoft Office, Macromedia Dreamweaver, and Adobe Acrobat PDF Writer. The presentation equipment allows instructors to simultaneously project two applications at one time. For example, library instructors can display a PowerPoint presentation on how to search the online catalog on one screen, while the other screen displays a live online OPAC catalog search.

Interdisciplinary Applications

Librarians teach "First Year Experience" classes in The Thomson e-Classroom, as well as course-specific sessions that focus on more sophisticated search methods and the locating of library resources. Other uses of the e-Classroom include:

  • A film instructor uses the room for showing movies on DVD, making it easy to start, stop and select different scenes when necessary for instruction.
  • A developmental psychology instructor plays a video about observations in a day-care center on one screen, while simultaneously displaying her lecture notes from a Word document on the other screen.
  • In an "Information Technology Survival Skills" class, which is developed with WebCT, students use Dreamweaver to create Web pages with links to library and campus resources. They upload these links, as well as citations and article abstracts, from their Internet-connected laptops to free Web space at Yahoo! GeoCities.
  • In an economics class, the instructor follows up a lecture with a hands-on exercise using the laptops. Students work individually or in small groups on Excel-based applications that illustrate economic concepts. The wireless network also allows any screen from a student's desktop to be projected to the rest of the class for discussion.

Enhancing the Learning Experience
Four design features of the e-Classroom that enhance the learning experience are:

  1. Wireless laptops for each student;
  2. PC-Duo software that enables projection of student desktops;
  3. Two projectors; and
  4. A whiteboard wall onto which computer images are projected and presenters can annotate the images with whiteboard markers.

Students can be divided into small groups for hands-on exercises that reinforce concepts explained in the lecture. Group work and discussions are facilitated because ideas are easily shared by sliding the laptops around the table. The PC-Duo software and the two projectors allow for simultaneous projection of related images. Examples include projection of the exercise questions on one screen and the group response on the other, or the instructor response compared to the group response, or one group response compared to another, etc. The visual comparisons are an effective way to promote class discussion. In addition, students and instructors can easily "mark up" the exhibits to elaborate on the discussion since the images are projected onto a whiteboard.
These enhancements promote peer-to-peer learning and instructor-directed interactive learning. As an example of peer-to peer learning, a group can present their response spreadsheet or diagram, via PC-Duo, to the entire class. As an example of instructor-directed interactive learning, an instructor can talk a student through appropriate keystrokes with the student typing at his or her laptop and the instructor pointing to the correct location on the spreadsheet as it is displayed, via PC-Duo, to the entire class.
Questions that often dig at instructors as they gaze out on their attentive students are: Which students have mastered the material and which have not? And, how do we inform students that what they haven't yet mastered can be mastered? The methodology of student presentations of hands-on exercises can provide an efficient way of confirming answers to these questions.
The successful implementation of the active learning model in a traditional desktop computer lab was described by Cudiner and Harmon (2000) in a previous issue of T.H.E. Journal (http://www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A3223.cfm). Using similar hands-on-exercises, we find that the new wireless lab has several advantages relative to the traditional desktop computer lab in promoting peer-to-peer collaborative learning. Whereas the rigid setup of a desktop lab tends to steer the student in the direction of solo work, the inherent mobility of the laptop lab tends to steer students into assisting one another with problem solving. Our experience is that these peer-to-peer exchanges enrich the classroom experience because: (1) they elevate and sustain student interest in the exercise, and (2) the shared experience of a successful problem-solving experience increases student self-esteem and confidence. These benefits are similar to those Meyer (2003) described as: "improved confidence expressing oneself, learning from others, and feeling connected and accepted."

Portable Classroom

The Thomson grant also allowed for the purchase of an additional laptop storage cart and 18 more notebook computers. A total of seven access points are installed in the two-floor library (more than 35,000 square feet) to provide wireless access throughout the JRL. The 18 laptops are kept in the storage cart in the circulation area and are checked out to students for use within the library. With wireless laptops and increased access to Web-based applications and word processing software, students can now move freely among the brick-and-mortar resources of the library to complete assignments and conduct research (Tolson 2001). For example, students can use their laptops in group study rooms to work collaboratively on presentations, group projects and study for exams. Students with their own laptops and wireless cards will soon be able to be authenticated for the library's wireless network.
Because of the limitations of the e-Classroom's size, it has sometimes been necessary to move the classroom to a larger room. Both of the wireless carts, 40 laptop computers and two access points are transported to classrooms equipped with an instructor's workstation and projection equipment. The access points (two for all 40 computers) need to be plugged into the campus network before the laptops are turned on and charged up. This mobility enables librarians and other instructors to accommodate larger classes of students when group work is not necessary.

Technical Problems

The technical problems we encountered were not as simple as hard drive crashes or improperly installed components. Our technical problems arose out of the discrepancy between what the machines were ordinarily used for and how teachers usually teach. For example, the innovative arrangement of using a whiteboard on the wall to double as a projection surface when the projection screen is closed looked great on paper but could not be optimally implemented. This is because the images from the projector are projected at a level that is too high for the average instructor to reach. Also, a major technical problem concerned the laptop sleep cycle. It was set at the factory to maximize battery life, but in a teaching environment, instructor explanations may take 20 minutes or more. The result is that the laptop went to sleep after less than five minutes and disconnected from PC-Duo, eventually shutting down the laptop. Solving this problem was not a simple exercise. First we had to determine that it was the sleep problem that was causing PC-Duo to drop the laptops. Then, we thought that the BIOS (basic input/output system) setting in the power manager of each machine needed to be changed. However, our Windows 2000 operating system had different settings that it received from the profile setup by our main campus Information Technology Systems (ITS) staff, so the BIOS changes didn't work.In addition, since this profile was designed for workstations and not laptops, there were no settings for each laptop's power manager in the profile and it couldn't be altered. After ITS staff created a new profile, we had to delete the old one from each machine. Thereafter, logging on allowed the new profile to take effect. The power manager in the laptops was set up with the value of "Never" for sleep. A remaining outstanding problem was how to reduce the time for the wireless laptop to connect to the library server, which currently takes nearly five minutes. With these types of problems, it was our experience that the help desk, "which many think is so secretive, remote and bureaucratic that it might as well be the National Security Agency," was not a source for solutions (Sandberg 2003).

Conclusion

Partnering with The Thomson Corp. and the campus faculty is a win-win situation. The Thomson e-Classroom allows instructors of all disciplines to develop ways to integrate the products (hardware, software, electronic databases, etc.), which are developed by technology companies into the curriculum of college courses. The lessons learned through experimentation and resulting innovative applications are potentially helpful in further development and refinement of e-learning products. Students at UConn are the beneficiaries of an enhanced set of instructional options that accommodate an enlarged set of learning styles and teaching methods. Finally, this has, in turn, enabled the JRL to be at the forefront of educating our students in the concepts of information literacy and in assisting our faculty in developing effective uses of information technology in teaching.

References

Cudiner, S. and O. Harmon. 2000. "An Active Learning Approach to Teaching Effective Online Search Strategies." T.H.E. Journal, December. Online: www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A3223.cfm.

Meyer, K. 2003. "The Web's Impact On Student Learning," T.H.E. Journal, May. Online: www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A4401.cfm.

Sandberg, J. 2003. "Unofficial Techies Fix Gizmos When Office Help Desks Don't." The Wall Street Journal, 28 May.

Tolson, S. 2001. "Wireless Laptops and Local Area Networks." T.H.E. Journal, June. Online: www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A3536.cfm.

* Example Module of Hands-On Learning

In a lecture on inflation, the formulas for calculating the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and concepts relating to mathematical properties of the index are explained. In a follow-up hands-on module, students work in Excel on an exercise that drills them in using these formulas and explores concepts taught in the lecture. In the example shown below, the student calculates the CPI for the data in the example by entering the appropriate formulas to calculate the cost of the CPI Basket in the green columns "D" and "G" (this involves calculating the cost of each item in rows 6 to 9, calculating the item total in row 10) and finally in purple cell "B3" entering the formula "=G10/D10" 6*C6", which completes the calculation.

Next, the student responds to questions that explore what is known as the "substitution bias." The CPI measures the amount that the cost of consumption in the current year exceeds the cost in the base year. However, the numerator of the index uses a hypothetical market basket of current price times last year's actual purchases instead of the actual consumption basket (current price of current purchases), which costs less than the hypothetical basket and therefore overstates inflation. These questions are shown below, with the correct responses in red. Student responses are entered on their laptops, displayed to the class on one screen, and compared to the correct answers displayed on the other screen.

  1. How do actual expenditures in 2000 (yellow column) compare to the amount calculated using the CPI formula? Actual are less than the amount calculated by the CPI formula.
  2. Why are they different than the amount calculated in the numerator of the CPI formula? Because the CPI formula uses the quantities purchased in 1990, which, because of inflation, is a larger amount than actually purchased in 2000.
  3. What d'es this imply for the calculated inflation rate by the CPI formula? It implies that the CPI formula overstates inflation.The flexible set up of the room (as the tables are on rollers) and the small footprint of the laptops allow the instructor to easily "float" among the groups offering assistance as needed.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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