Virginia Tech's College of Engineering has garnered a 2007 Laureate Medal at Computerworld's Honors Program for the development of its tablet PC-based learning environment.

In 2006, the college became the first and largest public college of engineering to require all of its 1,400 incoming freshmen to purchase tablet PCs. When announcing this requirement, Glenda Scales, associate dean for computing and distance learning in the College of Engineering, also reported the college had negotiated an industry alliance with Fujitsu Computer Systems and Microsoft to support the new tablet PC computing requirement for incoming freshmen.

After the announcement was made, the American Society of Engineering Education published an article in its December issue of Prism about the Virginia Tech decision, saying “tablet computers have the potential to redefine the way engineering is taught.”

Virginia Tech engineering professors Joe Tront and Tom Walker were among the leaders of this change. During the 2006-07 academic year, they and others used their tablet PCs to make their lectures more interactive and to encourage more participation in the classroom.

The features of the tablet PCs have helped the engineering faculty introduce students to the countless diagrams, drawings, and equations that are integral to the discipline’s study. Students are using the tablet PCs for collaboration purposes, working on group sketches and sharing diagrams and notes with individual markups.

“Tablet PCs have transformed classrooms into active learning environments with student/instructor interaction, student participation, and student creativity all improving since its introduction. Students are also getting industry leading technology experience,” said Tront, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

A considerable networking challenge arose with the need to accommodate the university’s large freshman level engineering classes, due in no small part to the limited available radio spectrum. Typical wireless networks are generally capable of supporting client demands in small classrooms. However, there are no published case studies or industry accepted guidelines that describe a system to effectively connect 300 clients in a comparatively constrained space.

The “live” test bed of 250-300 clients provided a unique opportunity for research and development of the network. University Information Technology (IT) engineers leveraged this resource to design and implement a robust wireless network infrastructure that accommodates the high-density requirement for bandwidth within a lecture facility. The resulting specifications are a valuable resource for advancement of both a standard architecture for wireless networks, supporting synchronous and collaborative computer learning in lecture halls, and guidelines for related applications development and implementation.

Additionally, Learning Technologies provided technical support for the DyKnow software along with the in-class technical support for the faculty and students. This level of support from the IT organization was invaluable to the project, Scales said..

Walker taught some 250 freshman-level engineering students in the upgraded wireless classroom. “Professor Walker is one of the pioneering faculty members who is critically rethinking his teaching methods to incorporate more active learning strategies in his course,” Scales said.

Beyond the freshman year, students will use Tablet PCs to actively participate in classroom presentations and exercises by drawing responses to queries and sending them to the instructor for public display and further discussion. “The ability to receive a copy of the instructor’s notes, including in-class electronic ink annotations, and to add personal notes gives the student a very powerful tool for both classroom participation and after class study,” added Tront. For the past three years, Tront has been working with groups of 15 to 20 students who use Tablet PCs in his ECE classes.

“Each year, the Computerworld Honors Program seeks to recognize organizations, from a variety of sectors, for their ongoing efforts to utilize technology in order to benefit society,” said Ron Milton, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Computerworld Information Technology Awards Foundation and executive vice president of Computerworld. “We are proud to provide a platform to publicly acknowledge these contributions.”

“With our decision to move to Tablet PCs, our College of Engineering continues to illustrate its leadership in technology for engineering education,” said Richard Benson, dean of the College of Engineering. “The overall engineering community will benefit from the scientific studies of the effectiveness of this program.”

The award was presented at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

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