Monday, August 11, 2014

Technology for Student Learning and Student Engagement

I have been involved in multiple educational activities at the University of Michigan, some more successful than others, but my favorites include applications of information and technologies in the student learning environment.  They also feed the gadget geek in me.  Being asked to provide a summary for an internal document, I wrote a brief narrative of several activities, which is structured around hotlinked reports by local writers. 

In the mid 1990’s, when websites were still relatively rare and webpage creation as part of course work was even less common, I offered a webbased project in one of my intro level classes, GS 265 "How to Build a Habitable Planet.  A 1996 write-up in the UM News describes the, then, novel use of the internet as a learning and student research tool.  Students said, "It was exciting to find out we would be incorporating the World Wide Web into our class. It was really beneficial because we learned how to use the Web to search for information while at the same time make our own home page." and, "It gave me a chance to learn more about the Internet, so I looked at the course with enthusiasm." (  Encouraged by the responses, I continued development of web-based learning in the Global Change courses that annually involved 200+ students, which was highlighted in a 2000 UM News write-up titled “Global change sequence: ‘A different type of course” (  These activities and the design of the ‘front-loaded’ Global Change Minor (UM’s first minor, I recall) were funded by grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the U-M Provost office, supporting course development for faculty and TAs over a period of several years.  Meanwhile, I used my experiences with interdisciplinary education on the committee that designed a new major, the Program in the Environment (

As the internet use quickly became more common, I started to explore the use of in-class activities to improve the large-classroom experience in collaboration with AOSS colleague Perry Samson.  Basic ‘clickers’ had just arrived on campus, but more sophisticated interactivity and image-based response systems that went beyond multiuple choice answers were nonexistent.  At the time we called our first effort “ImageQuiz”, which received funding from various university sources and major equipment gifts from Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft (hundreds of IPAQ handhelds and a couple of dozen windows-based TabletPCs, all then new form-factors that were later re-invented by Apple).  The University Record reported on our use of handhelds in 2005, as “GeoPocket: A classroom tool for the GameBoy generation” (  The greater potential of laptops was recognized and we evolved our project into “LectureTools”, which capitalizes on the larger screen real estate and computing power of modern student laptops.  In order to deploy this approach, we build (the first?) wireless classroom system in the college of LSA, using off-the-shelf components from, then,  At the time, wireless was not generally available on our campus, and not at all to LSA undergraduate students, so this was also technologically interesting on a wire-based network.  This project received grant support from the National Science Foundation and extensive LSA-IT support, culminating in a redesign of the IT infrastructure of a new, wireless-enabled classroom that favored Wi-Fi over hardwire connections.  That effort was featured in 2007 Ann Arbor News;  LectureTools became more sophisticated by adding tools such as notetaking and other capabilities.  The main development moved off campus as LectureTools was licensed under a UM start-up agreement and in 2013 it was sold to Echo360 (URecord:   I am still a user, but no longer involved in the development and design.
The potential of mobile computing to offer spatial information also motivated the application of “rugged” TabletPCs in support of geological fieldwork.  A grant from the National Science Foundation supported the acquisition of 20+ outdoor-ready, military grade Xplore units and peripherals (at a whopping cost of $3500+ each) and development support for a small team that included techie Peter Knoop and eduguy Eric Dey.  The units were used in UM’s field camp in Wyoming, where we added a wireless system to the mostly outdoor camp infrastructure and even experimented with a mobile, van-based wireless system.  The rise of today’s GPS-enabled tablets has replaced the need for expensive TabletPCs and we see field computing everywhere.  A 2003 article in the URecord offers an early description of the development and first application of the GeoPad project;

With hardware fully matured, I am now (re)turning to software applications.  I introduced the use of Prezis as a more engaging research and presentation tool for undergraduate students.  This project received TA development support from LSA-IT, following my successful experiment in a first-year-seminar; see, 2012 URecord write up, provocatively titled, “Students go beyond platitudes to examine sustainability” (  Currently underway is a pre-class experience that asks students to answer a small set of relevant questions before each lecture block, so that they are perhaps more tuned to the upcoming material and so that the instructor gets a sense of base knowledge and interests.  The answers to these questions are available to the instructor and teaching assistants, but, given the added load for 100+ student classes, the approach would benefit students from feedback using word clouds and keyword tracking.  The key words search or are linked to relevant reading materials on the web (yes, including Wikipedia) or in electronic textbooks.  This has interest from several publishers and I’ll try an in-house experiment this coming winter.

Do the students learn more with these approaches?  Hard to measure quantitatively, but the feedback is always positive.  Nearly all students bring their laptops for notetaking and most participate in pre-class and in-class activities (not for points).  During lecture, they seem more engaged and connected with the material, which addresses some of the greatest criticisms of the “sage-on-stage” lecture model.  The instances where metrics were applied (e.g., ), the students did as well and often better with the material, which provides added motivation to continue the quest.  Wearables anyone ?

1 comment:

Student Engagement said...

I have heard about digital libraries. In taiwan Ipads are given to Students. This is indeed good for them to learn effectively in this modern era but Student Engagement in the class should also be given equal importance in order to complete the mission of Effective Teaching and Learning