The Classroom of Tomorrow

““HP has been a great partner,” Roldan says. “They really understand all the elements of a project like this– the technology and education pieces, but also the social benefit, which HP always values.”

Imagine a classroom bound not by walls, but only by the imagination of students and instructors. That vision describes the sort of learning that makes innovative use of today’s hottest mobile devices—from wireless tablet PCs and sophisticated handheld PDAs that also act as phones and cameras, to mobile wireless color printers that can be taken into the field.

Given that sort of mobility, the optimal learning environment becomes not the classroom, but the real world. A wired or unwired classroom, or a server in a computer room, is no longer the center of computing. Today, students form the hub of learning and communication, whether they’re surveying an archeology site with wireless tools, studying and photographing a wetlands area in person, or developing wireless programs for a neighborhood social services agency.

Herein, we look at two California universities each combining innovative ideas about learning with special technology grants from Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com) that move learning out of the classroom and into the field. But that’s not all. These projects also incorporate social service elements, so that students are learning about the power of mobile technologies to enhance service to surrounding communities.

It’s all made possible by technology—and the imagination of students, instructors and administrators. Here is how two universities are furthering these efforts via mobile technologies in real-world applications.

Giving Mobile Technologies a Social Focus

At San Jose State University (CA), students are learning not just about the power of mobile technologies, but also about how that power can help people in the surrounding communities. Working in the hotbed of Silicon Valley—which nonetheless includes pockets of very real social need—SJSU Management Information Systems (MIS) Professor Malu Roldan heads up an HP-funded program that is using tablet PCs to teach undergraduate management and engineering students the impact of combining technology with social outreach.

The project began in late 2002, when the university applied for an applied mobile technologies grant from HP for equipment including tablet PCs, notebook computers, and PDAs. In April 2003, SJSU was awarded a sizable grant of $225,000; the university pitched in an additional $50,000. In December of that year, the school applied for an extension grant from HP and was awarded another $120,000, which included a new generation of tablet computers, the HP TC 1100 Tablet PC.

About 50 students per semester use the tablet PCs on two levels. First, the tablets are used outside Roldan’s class for note-taking, presentations, word processing, and other standard student uses. Second, students do software development work in two computer courses, which form the core of the project. Those core courses include Roldan’s MIS course on project management, and another professor’s course on wireless mobile software engineering. Another 60 or so students from other areas of the school—health science, for example—participate in the projects in teams, sharing tablets among themselves as they use applications built by their MIS and computer-engineering peers.

The community outreach part of the program comes into play in the types of projects students work on each semester. Various non-profit organizations in the local community participate in the selection and development of appropriate wireless mobility projects. For example, students have worked with staff at a community Meals on Wheels program in various ways: One project involved developing a distributed software application that would allow the program to more efficiently deliver meals during holidays.

Another Meals on Wheels project, running over two semesters and handed off to a new group of students for additional development each semester, involves helping grade-school children communicate with elderly meal recipients via multimedia letters written on tablet PCs.

There are other elements to the mobility grant as well. “One of the program’s goals,” Roldan explains, “is to disseminate technology across campus.” To that end, she is working with SJSU’s Center for Faculty Development to conduct a “tablet PC test drive” program this semester in which faculty from departments as diverse as Linguistics, Art and Design, Journalism, Engineering, and Child Development are loaned a tablet PC, shown how to use it, and encouraged to develop programs for their classrooms using the device.

Reaction is typically enthusiastic. After experiencing only part of a short introductory training session, Roldan says, participants immediately see how they can use the new technology. Instructors who develop a tablet PC application (say, a Flash demonstration that graphically displays how a semiconductor is structured) can keep the tablet for classroom and research use going forward.

Roldan is clearly convinced of the value of the wireless tablet PC. “It has features that really can transform how you teach,” she says. Because the tablet runs the Windows XP platform, materials can be created using software familiar to faculty, such as Adobe Photoshop (www.adobe.com), Microsoft PowerPoint (www.microsoft.com), and Microsoft Visual Studio .NET. Those materials can then be projected onto a classroom screen via the VGA connection, annotated with the pen, and saved and distributed electronically. “It’s [normally] very hard to do that, even with projected slides on a white board,” Roldan says.

But, using a wireless tablet, an instructor can project the tablet image on a classroom screen, can walk around the room with the tablet and show students an image or feedback on their work, and can send material to students either there in the classroom, or later, using peer-to-peer or wireless or wired LAN connections. The tablets are equipped with a number of communication protocols, including wireless 802.11b, wired Ethernet, infrared, and Bluetooth.

After working closely on the mobility project for almost three years, Roldan values HP’s contribution, and not just monetarily. “They’ve been a great partner,” she says. “They really understand all the elements of a project like this—the technology and education pieces, but also the social benefit, which HP always values.”

The social aspect of the program helps stoke student enthusiasm. “I can see the students’ eyes light up,” Roldan says, when they realize that they’ll be going out into the community and seeing their project in use. That also changes the focus of many projects for the better. While lab-developed projects tend to focus on how far technology can be pushed, projects driven by real-world use “become very user-focused. Students realize that [a product] can be simple, and yet can still have great impact.” The whole point, Roldan stresses, isn’t complexity—it’s making something user-centric and useful, a lesson of great value to future software development professionals.

One invaluable technique she’s learned, Roldan says, is having students complete their software projects, at least to the test phase, in the first half of the semester. “With the [software development] tools available now,” she says, students “can develop and prototype very quickly.” Setting a mid-semester deadline is motivating, and gives students the second half of the semester to work further with project users in the community. That allows them to receive feedback and tweak the prototype—and to receive the genuine admiration and appreciation of users. “It’s the key to success,” Roldan says. “Participation and recognition from community members and clients is invaluable.”

Out of the Classroom and into the Field

Finding ways to take wireless tools and technologies out of the classroom and into the real world is the focus of the Wireless Education and Technology Center, an innovative center at California State University at Monterey Bay. WeTEC Director Arlene Krebs says that too many campus wireless programs focus mostly on conventional uses of wireless. Her interest: How mobile technologies can transform both teaching and learning.

Krebs has earned her distance learning credentials over time: She first began studying the potential of distance learning in the early 1980s, when such learning meant live satellite videoconferences and seminars. She is also highly experienced in securing funding via grants and is the author of a popular handbook on fundraising and grant writing called “The Distance Learning Funding $ourcebook: A Guide to Foundation, Government, and Corporate Support for Telecommunications and the New Media,” now in its fourth edition.

Her focus at WeTEC is pushing mobile devices out into real-world uses—both to benefit students and the larger community. To do so, she’s become an expert at cobbling together funding from both corporations and government.

Krebs currently oversees 20 projects underway at CSUMB, most of them paid for through HP grants in the form of both equipment and cash. The projects involve some 1,400 students (out of a student body of 3,700) and 28 faculty, along with about 50 HP Tablet PC computers, another 50 or so handheld HP iPAQ Pocket PCs, and an array of other wireless and electronic devices including digital printers, cameras, and wireless access points.

The director sees her program and perspective as different from many wireless initiatives on campus in that she focuses on how wireless can “serve as an enabler to extend the classroom out into the field.” That fits well with CSUMB’s historic mission to reach out to the underserved, she says: “We’re using technology as a catalyst to change people’s lives and to serve the community.”

Some examples of the unusual projects underway at CSUMB illustrate Krebs’ philosophy. In one project, geology students and faculty use wireless tablet PCs in the field: A student assistant built a battery-powered wireless access point that can be carried in a backpack; students take digital photos of a site, and make field observations right on the photo, on their tablets while they’re still on-site. “This kind of real-time data collection and analysis,” Krebs says, “has enormous implications—and not just for geology or archeology.”

In another project, schoolteachers and children visited a local wetland and set crab traps. Later, using a voice-over-IP connection and a wireless camera, students back in the classroom watched as a wetlands education coordinator returned to the area and opened the crab trap, identifying what he found. Students then shared their journal notes with the field scientist via their wireless devices.

In another example, CSUMB professors using iPAQs took a group of students to the Antarctic on a National Science Foundation project with international scientists. They used a Wi-Fi network to map the sea floor and send GPS data to research ships.

Krebs’ next project: WeTEC is poised to launch an online repository to help schools nationwide share advice and information on mobility projects. Faculty members will be able to contribute curricula, create objects, share information and advice, and search on key words. “I’ve found two things from speaking at conferences,” Krebs says. “One: faculty, provost and deans [in the audience] are amazed. Two: they want examples. There’s definitely a need for a national repository on mobility and curriculum resources.”

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