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Enhancing Learning with Laptops in the Classroom

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The real question requires more elaboration: What can we do with laptops in class that (1) has genuine learning value for students (is interactive, participatory, experiential, or hands-on) and (2) cannot be done as well or at all without a laptop, at least not in class? In fact, many of the laptop activities suggested here could be done as homework on any kind of Internet linked computer. So why not just assign computer activities to be done out of class and forget about laptops?


The posting below looks at a variety of learning activities that can be done with laptops in the classroom. It is from Chapter 1: Laptops in the Class: What Are They Good For? What Can You Do with Them?, Barbara E. Weaver, Linda B. Nilson in New Directions for Teaching and Learning no. 101: Enhancing Learning with Laptops in the Classroom, Linda B. Nilson, at Barbara E. Weaver, editors. Copyright ? 2005 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 []. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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What Can We Do with Laptops in Class?


The real question requires more elaboration: What can we do with laptops in class that (1) has genuine learning value for students (is interactive, participatory, experiential, or hands-on) and (2) cannot be done as well or at all without a laptop, at least not in class? In fact, many of the laptop activities suggested here could be done as homework on any kind of Internet linked computer. So why not just assign computer activities to be done out of class and forget about laptops?

According to Walvoord and Anderson (1998), one guaranteed way to enhance students' understanding is to use homework as their first exposure to new material, typically in a reading assignment, and then focus class time on the interactive-processing part of the learning, during which students apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the material. Laptops lend themselves well to such activities. In-class computing activities bring other learning opportunities as well: students working under the instructor's guidance; small groups working under controlled conditions; synchronous, whole-class activities (for example, a simulation); active-learning experiences that would be impossible in reality (dangerous or costly labs); and immediate exchange of and feedback on answers, solutions, and information.

Eight categories of in-class laptop activities meet both the conditions we have set. Where appropriate, we mention which chapter(s) in this volume illustrate the application. Many of the proposed activities are just obvious possibilities that reflect general best practices in teaching.

Student-Data Collection. Laptops make it easier to collect information and responses from students in a variety of ways, and to display them to the class if desired. The survey tool on any of the leading course management systems (CMS) allows anonymous collection. If students identity is useful or relevant, an instructor can choose from e-mail; a CMS testing or assignment collecting tool; or, to make student postings public, a CMS discussion board.

What data might be worth gathering? * Virtual first-day index cards with personal information, major, career aspiration, reason for taking the course, expectations of the course, and so on * Class survey of opinions, attitudes, beliefs, experiences, reactions to the readings, and so forth * Classroom assessment data, such as ungraded quizzes, the Muddiest Point, the One-Minute Paper, and the like * Reactions or questions as they arise during a video, demonstration, lecture, guest speaker, or class activity * Student feedback on peer presentations * Midsemester feedback on the course or teaching methods

The many institutions that have placed forms for student assessment of instructor online (Sorenson and Johnson, 2003) also stand to benefit. Laptops in the classroom promise to restore the high student response rate found with paper forms.

Student Assessment. Objective in-class tests given on laptops encourage electronic cheating unless we can monitor students judiciously. This means having plenty of proctors or a network computer environment with sophisticated security software. However, it is safe and convenient to administer some online forms of student assessment in class (practice test, low-stakes quiz, open-book or open-note test, collaborative group quiz, nonformulaic essay test). Low-stakes quizzes, especially if given daily, help ensure the students do the assigned reading for the day. For such accountability purposes, an "essay test" can mean just a short paragraph summarizing, reacting to, or answering a question on the readings. Group quizzes not only assess but also make students think and talk about the material. These forms of assessment render cheating unnecessary, too difficult, or not worth the effort.

Student Self-Assessment. The Web offers a variety of instruments measuring personal characteristics, abilities, and preferences, not all of which are fanciful time-wasters. Some may actually increase student self-understanding and complement the subject matter of the course. Here are just a few respectable instruments that are free (unless otherwise indicated):

* Learning styles and preferences (go to for links to a variety of such instruments) * Personality and temperament, using the Keirsey Temperament Sorter ( * Career-relevant aptitudes * IQ ( * Political ideology ( * Leadership ( has links to several such instruments, most of which involve an expense)

Student Research. With the resources of the Internet at the fingers-tips students can conduct documentary, experimental, and survey analysis and even do field research using laptops in class; a number of Clemson University faculty have used laptops this way. History professor James Burns breaks his western Civilization classes into small groups that research topics on the Web and report their major findings to the rest of the class. He defines the topics and, for the sake of efficiency, suggests high-quality scholarly Web sites for the students to explore. In their General Engineering course (see Chapter Eight in the volume), Matthew W. Ohland and Elizabeth A. Stephan send their students to the Web to research physical parameters and the effect of problem constraints. Their students also use motion sensors to collect data on vibration, pH response, force versus displacement, and other phenomena in real time; they then use Microsoft Excel to analyze the data.

In his Advanced Experimental Psychology course (see Chapter Two), Benjamin R. Stephens has his students use customized online systems to design and execute their own experimental research projects, using themselves as subjects. They then write up their results and electronically exchange papers, serving as reviewers for on another. In Ellen Granberg's Introductory Sociology (see Chapter Six), students access and analyze General Social Survey data, made available in the Web by the National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC) at The site even offers statistical applets for easy analysis. Finally, biology professor William M. Surver and his colleagues are redesigning several courses so that students will research solutions to complex real-world problems on their laptops, as well as collect and analyze data from laboratories broadcast live from remote locations.

Faculty in any discipline will find scholarly research resources in the collections as these sites:,, and

Before seeking their own web resources for in-class or out-of-class research, students may do well to learn first how to evaluate them. A site that links to ways to assess Web sites for scientific value and validity is

Field research is yet another activity that laptops make easier, more efficient, and more immediate. This volume has chapters on two such examples. Glenn Birrenkott, Jean A. Bertrand, and Brian Bolt pride themselves in giving their Animal and Veterinary Sciences students a hands-on education, so they conduct many of their classes at various university farms. It has been a challenge to figure out how to carry and use a laptop in such dusty, wet, and remote locations, but they have succeeded, allowing their students to measure and evaluate the growth, milk production, economic value, and income-production points of various animals, all on location (see Chapter Seven). Although normally in the classroom, Barbara E. Weaver ahs taken her English classes to the South Carolina Botanical Garden; students identify and chronicle locations where nature and technology collide (see Chapter Nine). Finally, in Applied Economics and Statistics Rose Martinez-Dawson has sent her students into local supermarkets to conduct price-comparison research. Simulated Experiences. Laptops make it easy to give students a virtual learning experience under the instructor's guidance. An example featured in this volume is Paul Hyden's application of Excel simulations and demonstrations to illustrate abstract concepts in his business statistics class (see Chapter Four). Instructors can find elaborate computer simulators on CD-ROM or the Web in many disciplines: the Business Strategy Game, Decide, Marketplace, the Global Supply Chain Management Lab (developed by Clemson University professor Larry LaForge;, all for business; SimCity for urban planning; Whose Mummy Is It? for ancient history; Unnatural Selection for biology and environmental studies; and SimIls and SimWorld for political science and environmental studies, to name just a few.

Virtual science laboratories are also available on CD-ROM and the Web (for example, for biology and geography; and for physics, with advice on developing labs for one's own course).

Analysis of Digitized Performances. Although other technologies can be used to play music and to view dance, dramatic, acrobatic, and athletic performances, digital technologies offer a definite advantage for the instructor-most prominently, precise control over exactly what is played or shown when-and for the students, especially regarding the quality of the recording. In his music appreciation course, Andrew Levin adds some distinct learning advantages to going digital with laptops (see his coauthored Chapter Three). Small student groups listen to selected compositions played on laptops with an ear toward answering several interpretive and analytical questions. The students discuss the music, replaying it as needed, and discover its distinctive qualities on their own. Using customized software, they upload their responses to the Web; then Levine projects all their answers to the entire class. During the discussion that follows, he can correct any faculty responses before storing them for students' future reference.

Student Collaboration. Laptops allow students to collaborate in class on assignments and problems that require them to use the Web or special software, such as an HTML/Web editor, Microsoft Word, Publisher, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, SAS, AutoCAD, Matlab, and Maple. We have already seen examples under "student research": Burns's Western Civ students conducting Web research in small groups; Stephens's Advanced Experimental Psychology students reviewing and improving each other's research papers; and Ohland and Stephan's General Engineering students working in pairs to collect and analyze data. One more Clemson example is William Moss's Advance Calculus and Differential Equations course. He runs it as a "studio" course in which student groups spend all but the first fifteen minutes class time solving problems in Maple. Moreover, laptops allow students to exchange and collaborate on all manner of multimedia presentations, portfolios, and other projects.

Learning Exercises. When students have laptops, the instructor is free to design or find online exercises (individual or small-group) that reinforce and apply the material. Perhaps the pervious seven categories of activities qualify as valuable online exercises as well, but we have something more specific in mind here: a form of interactive practice by which students can learn on their own both during and outside of class. The clearest example in this volume comes from Roy P. Pargas's course in computer data structures. Laptops have allowed him and colleague Kenneth A. Weaver to redesign it to approximate the master-apprentice model (see Chapter Five). Pargas has his students download and manipulate applets of various data structures so they can observe and test each structure's dynamic behavior-a far better way to learn than watching the professor sketch static segments of the process on the board. Being a computer scientist, Pargas can program whatever applets he deems helpful to his students' learning. What about the rest of us?

In fact, hundreds and perhaps thousands of these learning exercises are available free on the Web. They are usually called learning objects (LO), a relatively new term for a variety of online learning tools and aids. They are formally defined as digital instructional resources that are reusable in a number of learning contexts. Most definitions also include the criteria that a learning contexts. Most definitions also include the criteria that a learning object present a discrete, self-contained lesson that requires three to fifteen minutes to complete and that it contain its own learning objectives, directions, author, and date of creation (Ip, Morrison, and Currie, 2001; Beck, 2002). The most discriminating standards also require that the object be interactive (Wisconsin Online Resource Center, n.d.), a criterion that Pargas's applets meet. Within there parameters, a learning object may be quantitative or qualitative; text-based, auditory, or graphic (static or animated); or any combination thereof.

Learning objects for just about every discipline can be found in designated LO repositories. Perhaps the most famous ones are MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) at and the Wisconsin Online Resource Center at Project Interactive offers a rich variety of learning objects for the sciences and mathematics; it is at Information Technology Services at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, displays its in-house-created learning objects at There are repositories of repositories, hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio at and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee at Learning objects are also scattered around the Web for specialized topics, such as biology, nursing, and bioengineering, at and optics at