Monday, April 4, 2005

Do You See What I See?

When I think about the benefits that the Tablet can bring to a school, I tend to view them in three categories: benefits to the student, benefits to the teacher, and benefits to the class (and other collaborative groups) as a whole. While each category brings strong arguments in favor of Tablets over notebooks, for now I want to begin looking at some of the benefits in class.

Vermont Academy has never been particularly flush with classroom technology. Each of our classrooms has a computer on the faculty desk, and we have always had one or two portable projectors that could float between classrooms and attach to these computers or to a notebook. In addition, we have a computer lab with a permanently mounted projector and screen.

Although the number has fluctuated over time, there have always been some teachers who made regular use of these projectors to present material. It has generally come at the cost, though, of a poor strategic placement of the teacher. Usually the teacher has to sit behind the students during this presentation because the computer needs to be close to the projector which needs to be relatively far from the screen. We've tried some things to get around this, such as a USB wireless remote to advance PowerPoint slides, but these have always felt like workarounds at best.

We are now working with two technologies that show strong promise for not only addressing all of the shortcomings of our wired projectors but potentially bringing additional gains to the classroom as well.

As part of our Tablet PC pilot, we have purchased several Epson wireless projectors. The current model is the 745c though we also have the older 735c. Both come with a wireless network card, 802.11b in the 735C and 802.11b/g in the 745c, and software that allows our Tablets to send the screen image to the projector via wireless. We have added the projectors as devices on our network, but they can work in peer-to-peer mode as well.

With the wireless units, the only constraint on placement of the projector itself is the availability of power and a projection surface. Since our classrooms are generally small, we don't need a lot of wall space as long as it is free from windows, pictures, etc. The real freedom, though, is given to the teacher who can now sit or stand anywhere in the classroom (or technically, I guess, anywhere on campus) and display the Tablet screen for the class. This arrangement allows for face-to-face communication during the presentation--much better than talking to the back of a bunch of heads. While this could also be done with a notebook, the Tablet removes the social barrier of the computer screen standing between teacher and class. The teacher is free to walk around during the presentation and even give the Tablet to a student for her to interact with the materials. Eventually, when all students have Tablets, the instructor can even allow a student to take control of the projector from his Tablet.

Another technology we are exploring is collaborative software. We cut our teeth on this with OneNote shared sessions but are also exploring other tools.

OneNote allows a user to start a shared session, essentially opening up his current page for others to see and work on. The page can be shared read-only or read-write, depending on the need. Other users connect to the machine by IP address and port number. This is a rather cumbersome means of connecting, but it is helped somewhat by OneNote's display of the required connection information on the sharing machine. Outlook users can also send an invitation which makes connecting as simple as a pen tap or mouse click. Users work together, each seeing everyone else's ink or text if the session is read-write or just the host's if read-only. The finished page is left on each individual machine when the session is ended, so everyone walks away with a copy.

We have just recently begun a pilot using DyKnow. DyKnow, which requires a server to operate, likewise allows for shared workspaces, but the control of the space is more granular than what OneNote offers. An administrator sets up classes, with users designated as faculty or students. The faculty member will start the session and students will join in, selecting the class from a pick list of accessible classes.

Sessions are seen as a series of pages, much like slides in PowerPoint. These pages can contain text, drawings, written notes, images, web pages (live), media, etc. To some extent the teacher will control the access to the pages, though students can pause on a screen or scroll backward at will. Students can write notes on the pages as they are displayed, but unless the instructor shares control others generally do not see these notes. There is also a separate space for private typed or written notes associated with each slide. This is particularly useful as pages can be submitted to the instructor or collected by the instructor. Any notes on the pages themselves go to the instructor, but private notes do not. The presentation can be prepared ahead of time or created or modified on the fly. There is more to DyKnow than this, and if it proves out I'll talk more about it later on. For now, it looks like a good way to eliminate projectors altogether plus giving some good classroom collaboration tools.

There is other software that seems to offer some at least of what DyKnow offers. Groove is one. It will be especially interesting to watch Groove now that Microsoft has bought the company. Another package that might be of interest is Classroom Presenter, being developed at the University of Washington. It bills itself as a "distributed presentation system" and uses PowerPoint slides and real-time ink for presentation. The price is certainly right (free), whereas both Groove and DyKnow charge per seat.

This is an area where I expect to see a lot of developments in the near future. It is a natural use of the Tablet in a classroom setting and in other types of collaborative groups. It will be exciting to work with this technology and to see the developments that will be forthcoming. Let me know if you have found something useful in this area.


  1. Thanks for the link to DyKnow (I don't know how I missed that one).

    I am especially interested in the "g" epson as I've seen "b" bog down on some videos... wireless would be sooo much nicer than the "really long" vga cable I've been using.

    I hope that there are more developments in thsi area in the near future also!

  2. I haven't found g to be particularly worthwhile with video in the limited testing I've done, Scott. It could probably stand some more, but since our infratructure is still b, there is no pressure to try it right now. It works with a wire, and since video is a time of little interaction, it seems like being wired during a video is of small consequence.

    I'm liking DyKnow more and more as I work with it. I'll probably write a more detailed report after we've tried a few classes with it.

  3. Long VGA Cables are cheap, too! (well, cheaper than wireless!)

    You know I'll be watching <g>

  4. Keep up the good work, Mark. Your and others' comments seem to lead toward a practical how-to guidebook for educators considering increased use of Tablet PCs and other advacing technologies in schools. I hope you consider writing it, at least for online distribution. Bob

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Bob. (And the ;), Scott!) If I didn't already have a day job, I would probably jump on that. As it is, maybe we'll get enough stuff here that we can put something like that together in a short while...

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