Classroom Focus

Software Aids Collaborative Teaching and Learning at U Georgia

Active, collaborative learning is a laudable goal in the classroom, but with individual students at computers throughout the room, it's not always easy to achieve.

At the University of Georgia, an engineering professor is fostering a collaborative teaching and learning environment through an innovative setup of PCs with pen tablets and a combination of multimedia software. Associate Professor Chi Thai is using several classroom collaboration tools, including NetSupport Manager and NetSupport School, along with TechSmith's Camtasia Studio and PCs with pen tablets, to allow students and the instructor to share information with each other during class.

NetSupport Manager is a multi-platform remote control and desktop management software suite. It comes with NetSupport School, which is computer lab instruction and monitoring software designed to allow instructors to monitor and collaborate with students. The software allows real-time interaction in class, which can be with a single student, a designated group, or the entire classroom. Camtasia is recording software that allows the capture of actions on the screen as well as audio and video.

Collaborative Learning
The result of Thai's setup is two classrooms in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department that allow both instructor-centric modes of computer use and student to student and student to teacher collaborative modes. Using NetSupport, which is running on Windows Vista, Thai can control the classroom in several different ways from his own computer at the front of the class, as well as allowing students to share their own work individually with Thai via the classroom network or to share community work with the entire class--or selected segments of it--during collaborative sessions.

Thai began setting up the classroom to promote active learning for engineering students during classroom lectures as well as lab experiments. He said he believes that learning tools like hand-written notes, which are possible with pen-enabled desktops or tablet PCs, and personal spoken narrations are "the most natural tools to record, review, integrate, and develop [students'] own learning processes." Using student fees and funding from other sources, his department created two collaborative classrooms, one with 35 workstations and an instructor station, the other with 12 student workstations.

The networked setup allows the instructor, using a tablet PC (or a pen-enabled desktop PC) running the NetSupport tools to develop and deliver materials that are best created during class time, such as  developing computer algorithms interactively with students during class or showing how to operate lab equipment that's remotely located. This can be done using the instructor's tablet computers and the students' pen-enabled desktop computers.

The two classrooms' collaborative capabilities can be used in a wide variety of ways. For example, the classes might be divided into students who are willing to showcase what they are working on and students who simply want to observe or add modifications to their peers' work. The instructor can use NetSupport to set each showcase student's computer into a demo mode, leaving the remainder in view-only or in share modes. At the front of the class, the instructor can control each student's desktop in a separate window, and can choose when to share a student desktop with all or some of the class, and when to interact with any student desktop himself via pen or keyboard.

Capturing the Lecture
Meanwhile, Camtasia Studio can be running to record what is happening on the desktop, as well as anything spoken by the instructor. The classroom configuration also allows interactive student input, such as a group review of test solutions during class.

Because of cost, Thai elected to use pen-enabled desktop computers for the students, in which a pen tablet connects to a standard PC via a USB port. The instructor uses a tablet PC and another pen-enabled desktop PC. The pen tablets also allow the university to continue using existing desktop PCs. The collaborative classrooms were upgraded to Windows Vista, Thai said, because he found it to be "the only [Windows operating system] that would allow full digital ink capabilities for pen tablets" at this time.

Thai is also experimenting with a new idea--providing each student PC with dual graphics displays. That allows the student to use one display for his or her personal workspace, while the second display can display information from the instructor desktop, or share other students' work during collaborative sessions. Thai said he also hopes to begin using microphones dropped from the ceiling in each classroom in order to pick up student questions for Camtasia recordings. Currently, the instructor must repeat student questions in order to have them recorded in Camtasia Studio.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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