Hardware & Software

Note-taking Cleans the Slate

When it comes to classroom collaboration, instructors are turning to new note-taking tools that free them to present dynamically while allowing their students to listen and interact, instead of scribble.

Wireless: New and Improved! TIME WAS, THE ONLY WAY a student could obtain her instructor's class notes was to furiously copy them off the board before they were erased— or else procure them from a classmate, a questionable practice at best.

Fortunately, times have changed, and classroom collaboration— wherein teachers and professors actually seek out ways to share their class notes with their students— is now the norm rather than the exception. Hardware and software offerings from vendors such as Tegrity and Smart Technologies are making the access to and exchange of information a good deal easier.

Better Teaching, Better Listening

At Northern Illinois University, instructors and technologists are testing the classroom collaboration waters with the Smart Sympodium interactive pen display products. The DeKalb-based state university last year made the decision to upgrade its "intelligent" classrooms (which featured standard multimedia offerings such as projection systems, CD and DVD players, and document viewers) to include the interactive Sympodium displays, reports James Bollenbach, media technical services head at NIU.

"We wanted to expand the use of our presentation tools, and so we queried the instructors to see what they wanted," he explains. "One of the things they asked for was additional annotative capability." Simply put, the instructors wanted to build upon their existing "static" Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, or create altogether new learning plans with the use of class notes and information collected on the fly.

In response to that need, technologists installed eight Sympodium tablets in the spring of 2006, with a plan to install a total of 106 campuswide by the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year. The installations are part of the NIU provost's Smart Classroom Initiative, which was designed to provide classrooms with advanced technology for the enhancement of students' education.

Now, instructor notes can be saved and sent to the class, allowing students to focus on listening, questioning, and interacting.

So far, says Bollenbach, instructors have expressed their enthusiasm for the new note-taking capability; they are generally thrilled with the ability to quickly and cleanly annotate pre-developed lectures, and then send out the annotated class material to the students. "Many are simply using it to pull up a white page and utilize that the way they used to use a chalkboard," says Bollenbach, pointing to a simpler yet effective method of classroom collaboration.

Smart Sympodium

THE SMART SYMPODIUM enables NIU faculty to annotate lectures with information collected on the fly.

Janet Giesen, instructional design coordinator for NIU's Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, agrees that, for the most part, instructors across the campus are viewing the new classroom collaboration tool with interest. Though many of them may not have access to the equipment for a while, says Giesen, they are already seeing the opportunities for sharing and enhancing communication with their students.

"They recognize that this brings another dimension to their teaching," she offers, pointing out that although the majority of faculty on campus are already using some form of interactive software, next to the new breed of tools, "it's becoming static."

The ability to save their class notes is a feature instructors are particularly excited about, Giesen says. "Often, [because a whiteboard or chalkboard has limited space], the instructor is writing things down and erasing as he goes. But the fact that the notes can be saved and sent to the students is really dynamic," she declares. "It also lessens the necessity of students to take notes quickly. Now they can listen and question more, and generally be more interactive with the instructor and their peers."

Still, she points out, she has had to caution overly zealous instructors about the dangers of jumping into the new technology feet first. When they are training on the tools, "I ask the faculty to first think about whether they really want to use it, and whether they can [commit to] learning to use it seamlessly and effectively. Winging it doesn't work with technology," she insists.

Clarity Before Discussion

At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Stan Lindsey, professor of engineering, is using collaborative note-taking tools not only to enhance his instruction during class, but before class, as well. Lindsey, who teachers senior- and graduate-level design courses, uses the Tegrity Notes product in conjunction with the Tegrity Campus class capture system, to record a streaming lecture that students must view prior to class. They then take a timed quiz online before class begins. He uses the tools in this manner, he says, because "then class is more interactive, and students don't have to concentrate so much on taking notes. They can focus more on being a part of the discussion."

The professor's approach may be unique, but there's a method behind it: Lindsey acquired his knowledge of collaborative learning in the business world as owner of a structural engineering firm— a career he pursued before becoming a professor in the discipline.

"I had a lot of experience teaching people, and I found that they liked streaming lectures. They could see them whenever they wanted to," he explains.

Hardware & Software

AT GEORGIA TECH, instructors can record a streaming lecture for students to view prior to class; then using Tegrity Notes, students can attach their own notes to the lecture both prior to and during the actual class.

Now in class, "Rather than furiously taking notes while I stand up and lecture," Lindsey says, "students can attach their notes and my own to the lecture, in their own time. That way, during class they can ask about the things they didn't understand in the streaming lecture, and once they've gotten the answers they need, they can attach those notes as well, so that the part of the lecture that confused them previously now makes sense. They come in prepared and I can then quiz them before we even get started on the lesson. And that really gets their attention, because the online tests count for a substantial portion of their grades."

While it may seem like a lot of pressure, Lindsey says the students like the setup. "They love it, actually. They can view the lesson multiple times, at their convenience, and they're not pressed to take tough notes."

Note-taking and testing designed to leave the academic forum open for free exploration? What a novel idea.

About the Author

Charlene O’Hanlon specializes in technology reporting and is based in the New York area.

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