Tablet PCs and Collaboration Software Improve Classroom Engagement at Cabrillo High School


For teachers at Cabrillo High School in Lompoc, Calif., enticing students to participate in class was about as fun as pulling teeth. Many teachers had experimented with a host of newfangled technology tools designed to capture students’ attention and hold it long enough to improve their learning. But students simply weren’t impressed when they compared the school’s desktop computing environment to the computers, software and video game systems that they used outside of school.

Nevertheless, teachers at Cabrillo used all kinds of awkward tools in an effort to engage an especially diverse group of 1,400 students. Some programs were simply inadequate, while others were just too difficult to learn. While Cabrillo wasn’t ahead of the educational technology curve, the high school is unique in its affiliation with a one-of-a-kind aquarium program that gives students hands-on exposure to a working marine laboratory as part of their daily education.

Re-engaging Students

I believed the pen-enabled technology inherent in video tablets and tablet PCs might provide the perfect solution for empowering students to participate in less exciting subjects like mathematics. One of the worst experiences in a math class for students is writing a wrong answer on the chalkboard in front of the whole class. I thought that if I could get tablet PCs into a math classroom, students would use the intuitive pen interface to solve problems and somehow submit answers to the teacher from the security of their own desk. However, as can be expected, a few problems arose such as cost and complexity, not to mention that existing software solutions such as Microsoft PowerPoint were too limiting.

In 2003, I read an article about the use of video tablets in conjunction with an educational collaboration software called DyKnow VISION ( ) at DePauw University in Indiana. Using the system, DePauw professors were able to instantly transmit an instructor’s handwriting, text, images and dynamic Web content to students’ computer workstation, where they could then annotate and exchange the material. This gave students the ability to deconstruct and replay material either in class or remotely from home. I was mainly attracted to DyKnow VISION’s collaboration features that allow teachers to isolate a student’s work in class and “broadcast” it to the screen at the front of the classroom. I was very impressed with the DePauw story and found a professor from the university who had been using the system. He gave it rave reviews and offered useful advice on how Cabrillo might integrate VISION into its curriculum. Our first hurdle, however, was finding a way to purchase the necessary hardware and software.

That opportunity came as Cabrillo formed a “school within a school” called the Marine Technology Institute. The theory behind the new program was to teach math, science and English in a way that would use technology to focus on the ocean, while allowing us to incorporate the aquarium and its resources into our lesson plans. It was all part of a plan to inject excitement and interest into the classroom; ultimately, to re-engage our students. To take the program a step further, we leveraged a portion of a four-year California education grant to purchase 15 Toshiba Portégé 3500 Series tablet PCs and DyKnow VISION version 3.1.

These Toshiba tablets were the perfect complement for the DyKnow system. DyKnow VISION transfers information between teachers and students using Internet protocols via our computer network. Microsoft SQL Server is the storehouse for DyKnow VISION documents saved on the system. And because the DyKnow system utilizes user-based profiles, students are able to use any PC in the school. This feature allowed us to house tablet PCs on a Bretford mobile recharging cart in order to use DyKnow VISION in any Internet-connected classroom.

Promising Results

Since implementing DyKnow VISION, Cabrillo has received positive feedback from teachers and students alike. Our ability to captivate students with dynamic content; empower them through collaboration and feedback tools; and send them away with a set of personal, archived notes has proved to be invaluable. I often ask students to come up with solutions on their tablets and then pull individual panels to the main projected computer. This allows me to show how students arrived at their conclusions, as well as points out where they went right or wrong. At other times, I’ll let students lead the class from their own tablets and direct the solution themselves. This system has fostered a classroom dialogue that didn’t exist before. In addition, parents have been appreciative because they can now easily look at course material with their children year-round.

DyKnow VISION seems to have had a positive effect - at least anecdotally - on grades as well. I used DyKnow VISION on the tablet PCs in my Math II class, a two-semester mathematics course, during the 2003-2004 academic year. Mainly geared toward sophomores, the course becomes progressively harder by the second semester as more abstract topics are introduced. Using DyKnow VISION in Math II, second-semester final exam averages improved from 72% to 82% between the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 academic years.

While the tablet PC and VISION initiatives are still in their infancy, we’ve been pleased with our first-year results. We’re hoping to retool an entire year’s worth of lesson plans to maximize the functionality of the DyKnow VISION platform during 2004-2005 academic year. Our goal is to purchase more tablets and expose more students to the system this year.

- David Schr'eder, Cabrillo High School

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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