Students bringing PDAs to class? Few teachers would relish the thought. But two professors at Kansas State University are actually supplying their students with top-of-the-line personal digital assistants, thanks to a grant provided by Hewlett-Packard.
Physicists Dean Zollman and Sanjay Rebello have found that the communication devices improve classroom interaction and textually reinforce auditory information. “The students get a social interaction in the classroom about the topic rather than just having me sit there and talk about it,” Zollman states.
Because the system is Web based, the students can also use their own laptop computers or Web-enabled cell phones to interact in class. Zollman and Rebello are also able to quiz every student in real time, gauge how effectively the students are absorbing information, and then alter lesson plans accordingly.
“If the student has a problem and isn’t quite comprehending the material, sometimes it’s something I’ve seen before and so I know how to respond to it,” says Zollman. “Other times I have to throw it [the lesson] out. In a recent class session I got going, I asked a couple of questions and suddenly I’m headed in a different direction than my game plan for the day. But that’s what I’ve got to do, I’ve got to respond to them.”
The advantages of the system are obvious: Students who learn better with textual aids now have an interactive tool rather than a static textbook. Socially self-conscious or inhibited students will feel suddenly empowered to share comments and questions. And teachers will be better equipped to distinguish between the attentive students and the slackers.
“In a class as small as 12, you can get a lot of interaction going, but you can still have two or three students who are sitting back and letting the other people do the interacting. I find that even in a small class it can give me a feeling for how this silent majority or silent minority of students is thinking about things that I wouldn’t [normally] get,” says Rebello.
Already, the program’s architects are thinking about its applications in noncollegiate classroom settings. “We are somewhat obliged under the grant to try to get other people outside of physics involved,” Rebello confesses. Perhaps the day of thirdgraders carrying PDAs is fast approaching. -Patrick Tucker
Source: Kansas State University, Media Relations and Marketing, 9 Anderson Hall, Manhattan, Kansas 66506. Telephone 1 -785-5326011; Web site www.k-state.edu.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2005