Leveraging the Interplay Between a Grassroots Pen-Based Computing Pilot and an Institutional Laptop Initiative

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Key Takeaways

  • A decade-long case study involving mobile and pen computing at DePauw University demonstrates the synergy possible from simultaneously supporting grassroots initiatives and institutional programs.
  • While running the two projects in parallel, DePauw faculty and IT staff began considering how to apply lessons learned from each program to the other to increase flexibility and impact in teaching and learning.
  • Presentations on effective use of tablet PCs in the classroom, which were first explored in a pilot project as an alternative to fixed location pen-based computers, encouraged more instructors to begin using them.
  • The clear benefits of instructor and student use of tablet PCs led to adoption of a tablet PC option as part of the institutional laptop initiative.

DePauw University has a technology vision called 361 Degrees1 that is guided by the philosophy that pedagogy should always drive technological choices, never vice versa. The vision is grounded in the belief that the connections technology enables, not necessarily the technology itself, are most important to students, faculty, and staff.

Executing an institution's instructional technology vision in a stable, sustainable, yet flexible manner that serves the institution's greater mission is an established challenge.2 To meet this challenge, technology initiatives at DePauw are nurtured by the Faculty Instructional Technology Support (FITS) program, which implements DePauw's institutional technology vision in service of the broader university mission by focusing on the pedagogical applications of technology. As technologies emerge and are adapted to play a role in teaching and learning, FITS assists with their integration to support the curriculum. The FITS staff consists of experienced instructional technologists who provide consulting and technical support for faculty who wish to explore and develop uses of instructional technology in their teaching. Within this general context, FITS provides support for instructional uses of technologies that enhance clearly articulated pedagogical goals that vary by discipline, teaching style, and course level.

The 2007 EQ article on the top-ten teaching and learning issues stresses the importance of "moving beyond the early stages of providing novel implementations and random acts of progress" to becoming more "systematic and reflective in our approaches to transforming and assessing teaching and learning."3 While some institutions view grassroots "random acts" of technology innovation as conflicting with more "systematic" approaches, our experience shows that supporting both approaches simultaneously can lead to synergistic gains. We have found that nurturing both bottom-up grassroots technology projects and providing resources for university-wide technology projects that take advantage of economies of scale can systematically support the university's goals.

FITS originated more than 10 years ago as a faculty-led grassroots initiative and now serves as a bridge in some ways between the bottom-up and top-down approaches by:

  • Helping faculty members with grassroots pilot programs but also supporting university initiatives
  • Developing communication strategies that enable the two approaches to inform each other in synergistic ways

The case study presented in this article illustrates how DePauw's two-pronged approach has played out from fall 1999 through fall 2009. Over this decade, a pen-based computing project originally launched as a grassroots undertaking and a systematic institution-wide laptop initiative have repeatedly informed each other with support from FITS. Today, each program is stronger because of the other, with benefits stemming from viewing the bottom-up and top-down approaches as friends rather than foes.

The Institutional Laptop Program

Office computers for faculty members at DePauw University are updated on a four- to five-year replacement cycle. Eligible instructors can choose a desktop or laptop machine with the operating system of their choice as part of the university's institutional laptop program. Approximately 60 percent use a laptop as their primary computer.

During the 2004 academic year, based on campus survey data we determined that 95 percent of our first-year students were bringing computers to campus — mostly laptops — with many having received them as gifts during their senior year in high school. These data were consistent with trends occurring at other undergraduate institutions.4 In the fall of 2005 DePauw began requiring all entering students to purchase a laptop computer that met university specifications for use in course and campus activities.

Among the many reasons for launching this program, which supported the university's mission and technology vision, were the following factors:

  • Technology played an increasing role in life at DePauw.
  • More than half of classrooms were technology enabled. With every student bringing a laptop, instructors could maximize those tools and know that every student could participate fully.
  • Because mobile computers had great potential to extend the classroom by facilitating social learning and learning communities, we believed students with standardized laptop computers would be better able to work together and assist each other in and out of the classroom.
  • The institutional laptop initiative sought to make computing ubiquitous in order to support collaboration in a variety of settings and contexts.
  • The laptop initiative also enabled the institution to systematically leverage the technology investments that parents and students were already making to improve the learning environment at DePauw.

The laptop program has now been in place for five years. Every entering student is required to purchase one of three designated DePauw program laptop computers with a specific software bundle identified by the university. The university entered into partnerships with HP, Dell, and Apple to customize systems that provide a minimum configuration that students may expand if desired (for example, by adding more memory or selecting a larger disk drive). The package also includes a custom bundle of software and specialized on-campus support services. This standardization helps bring equity to the students at large and helps faculty members most effectively employ the technology in the classroom.

Students have found that the required laptops are an integral part of their studies and daily life. In one recent survey nearly 60 percent of the 2007 freshman class reported having instructors who asked them to bring their laptops to class during their first year. In addition, essentially all students make heavy use of their laptops for academic and personal work outside of class, whether they are working in the library, in a residence hall, or at an off-campus location such as traveling as part of an athletic team.

The Grassroots Pen Computing Initiative

In the DePauw context, pen-based computing refers to the use of Windows-based desktop or laptop computers augmented with pen input devices in addition to more traditional input devices such as keyboards, mice, and touch pads. With a pen-based input device the user can draw directly on the computer's display using a digital pen. Although these annotations are typically left in a native ink format, they can typically be searched. Alternatively, many software applications allow the ink to be converted to typed text. While the tactile feel of an electronic pen on a glass screen differs from that of a traditional pen on paper, most users adjust to the difference easily.

DePauw was a pioneer in instructional uses of fixed-seat desktop pen-based computing classrooms, with early work predating the institutional laptop program. Instructional uses of pen-based computing began at the university in the fall of 1999, when a single faculty member completed a sabbatical project that led to the design of a new 20-seat pen-enabled computer classroom. Each computer used a pen-enabled Wacom display (similar to those shown in Figure 1) and locally developed supporting software that enabled instructors and students to share digital ink during class. One of the reasons for developing this computer classroom was that many disciplines rely on content that cannot easily be communicated with the typed word. Examples include molecules in a chemistry class, graphs in an economics class, finite state machines in a computer science class, timelines in a history class, and writing critiques in an English class. Our early experimental work centered upon enabling teachers and students to seamlessly share this type of content during class while also making the content available for review after class.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Fixed-Seat Pen-Based Desktop Computers

Initially, only computer science courses were offered in the pen-based classroom, but the approach began to spread to other disciplines, partly due to student initiative. In one case, a student who was studying both computer science and Japanese language observed that the pen-based computer science classroom might be useful to students learning how to draw Japanese Kanji characters, so he convinced his Japanese language professor to incorporate the approach into her courses. As interest grew, the pen-based computing project expanded beyond a grassroots initiative, and the FITS program became involved in assisting additional faculty members with using pen-based pedagogies. By spring 2005, as DePauw prepared to launch the institution-wide student laptop program, the university had assimilated the pen-based classroom into the institutional equipment replacement cycle, added three more of these classrooms, and moved from using home-grown software to using DyKnow software to support instruction in these facilities. During the 2004–2005 academic year alone, 43 courses in several disciplines, including computer science, economics and management, Japanese language, English, and communications, were taught in those four classrooms.

As the project grew, FITS surveyed faculty and students about their experiences to better support them. Since the computer science department had made the heaviest use of the pen-based classrooms, surveying began with computer science majors. Collectively, the 81 students who participated in the survey had taken computer science courses using pen-based computing. The broadest assessment questions explored the extent to which students valued their use of the pen-based computing approach. Fifty-nine (73 percent) of the students strongly agreed that the approach had a positive impact on what they had learned as a computer science major, 20 (25 percent) agreed somewhat, one student was neutral, one student disagreed somewhat, and no students strongly disagreed.5 Of the 10 faculty members (six computer scientists and four from other disciplines) also surveyed who had taught 90 courses using pen-based computing, all agreed or strongly agreed that the approach had a positive impact on their experience as a teacher and that it had a positive impact on student learning in their classes.

Despite these positive results, our prototype pen-computing project was not without challenges. DePauw's student laptop initiative, now running in parallel with the pen-based experiment, demonstrated many ways that laptops could facilitate in-class group work by enabling students to rearrange their seating to comfortably work together while still having access to their electronic resources. In contrast to this, our fixed-seat pen-based desktop computers impeded this type of group work, as illustrated by the rigid row of computers shown in Figure 1.

To infuse DePauw's pen-based computing pilot programs with the lessons learned from the institutional laptop initiative, a small team of faculty members and FITS instructional technologists applied for an HP Technology for Teaching grant in 2006. The grant provided 21 tablet PCs (essentially pen-based laptops, as shown in Figure 2) that were intended to support a course redesign project for a single introductory computer science course. The resulting redesigned course used in-class group problem solving, collaborative note taking, and other active-learning activities enabled by the tablet PCs to increase student collaboration and engagement. (See the next section and the project website for additional information on redesigned courses.) As shown in Figure 2, the flexibility provided by the tablet PCs supports group work more readily than the fixed-seat pen-based computers shown in Figure 1. The tablet PC screens can also be rotated to expose a traditional keyboard (not pictured).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Tablet PCs Used to Facilitate Group Work

Throughout the HP grant project, FITS showcased the grant activities broadly across campus through a variety of hands-on workshops and presentations for faculty members. The project team also collaborated with campus administrative offices to increase campus awareness, partnering with the admission office to offer tablet PC-enabled "mock classes" for prospective students visiting campus and with the alumni office to engage members of the 50th year reunion class in the same way during reunion weekend. Each of these events broadened campus interest, leading to the expansion of the project from focusing on one computer science course to supporting several course redesigns in Arabic, biology, chemistry, economics, education, geosciences, Japanese language, physics, and psychology. By this point FITS was fully engaged in supporting faculty members with pen-based computing projects in a variety of disciplines, including Japanese language (Figure 3) and chemistry (Figure 4).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Pen-Based Japanese Language Instruction

Figure 4

Figure 4. Pen-Based Chemistry Instruction


A Video Demonstration

A student-produced video shows some of the ways tablet PCs are used to support instruction in chemistry, Japanese language, and computer science classes.

While initial usage of tablet PCs focused on in-class activities, as faculty members became familiar with the technology, they began exploring other ways of using them to enhance learning, even in cases where the students did not have access to tablet PCs during class. Ideas ranged across disciplines and included providing feedback on student writing assignments, marking up PowerPoint presentations during class, and using discipline-specific tablet PC software (such as Physics Illustrator) to demonstrate course concepts.

Major Uses of Tablet PCs by DePauw Faculty
  • Giving students feedback on writing assignments using Microsoft Word and PDF Annotator
  • Annotating research papers with PDF Annotator before assigning them to students to read
  • Supporting interactive note taking, classroom interaction, classroom capture, computer monitoring, and after-class review using DyKnow
  • Annotating PowerPointslides during class
  • Taking notes on Microsoft Office OneNoteand Windows Journal
  • Making instructional videos using Camtasia and DyKnow

Further support for expanded use of tablet PCs, coupled with broader evaluation activities, came in 2007 from a follow-up HP Technology for Teaching Leadership Grant supplemented by an institutionally funded two-year pilot.6 During the first year of this pilot study, FITS supported 30 faculty by loaning each a tablet PC to experiment with in their teaching. An additional 15 faculty joined the pilot in the second year.

FITS offered several Tablet User Group (TUG) sessions to provide the opportunity for instructors using tablet PCs to exchange ideas about using the devices effectively. Faculty who were not currently using tablet PCs were encouraged to attend so that they could learn about the technology. In these sessions, typically one or two faculty members gave short demonstrations of ways they were using the tablet PCs and software, then participants engaged in open discussion. In several cases these presentations led to faculty adopting a new technique. In one session, for example, a chemistry professor demonstrated how he used Camtasia to help students understand course principles; from that presentation a professor of classical studies realized that this tool would be extremely helpful in teaching students Latin.

Evaluating Tablet PCs in Support of Teaching and Learning

The tablet PC project team carefully studied the extent to which tablet PCs, coupled with appropriate software and pedagogy, could improve teaching and learning. To strengthen our understanding of their impact on specific classes, we evaluated the use of tablet PCs through three systematic classroom studies in computer science, psychology, and education studies, all supported through the HP grants.

First Study: Group Work

The first study was conducted in an introductory computer science course with 20 students and began approximately four weeks into the semester. Each student was assigned a partner to work with on group problems at various times during the course. For each problem, approximately half of the pairs were assigned to use a low-technology approach (transparency and wet-erase markers), while the other half were assigned to use networked tablet PCs and DyKnow software. The teams rotated regularly so that each team experienced each condition multiple times. After each problem session, answers were collected from each team, and students individually completed a rating scale to indicate their level of satisfaction with the group problem-solving experience. After completing a series of five problems over the course of several weeks, each student was allowed to select a medium of choice (transparencies and wet-erase markers versus tablet PCs and DyKnow software) to use for solving group problems during the remainder of the semester.7

The data show a consistent student preference for using tablet PCs and DyKnow software to solve group problems compared to using transparencies and wet-erase markers. At the end of the laboratory study, for example, students were asked to respond to the statement "On the scale below, please circle your level of satisfaction with using a shared writing surface to solve problems when you worked with your partner." Participants responded using a scale that ran from 1 = very dissatisfied through 5 = very satisfied. The mean response for participants assigned to the tablet PC condition was higher (M = 4.0) compared to the transparency condition (M = 3.4). Perhaps most dramatically, when students in the classroom study were asked to select a shared problem-solving medium for the remainder of the semester, 75 percent indicated a preference for using the tablet PCs and DyKnow software, 10 percent were neutral, and 5 percent indicated a preference for using transparencies (data is missing for two students). It is important to note that although these results were statistically significant, it is not clear that they will generalize to other classes due to the small number of students in the study.

Second Study: Graph Interpretation and Production

The second study examined how technology might assist students in learning to interpret and produce graphs in a Cognitive Psychology course. One of the primary goals of this course is to improve each student's ability to reason scientifically and to think like a scientist, and using graphs is an important skill involved in this process. We were particularly interested in investigating learning gains that extended beyond the end of the course. Students in the spring 2007 section were taught using the standard course materials, which included graphs in the textbook. They were then invited in fall 2007 to complete an assessment instrument on interpreting graphs. The results of these baseline data were compared with the student data from the redesigned fall 2007 class, who took the same assessment at the end of spring semester 2008. These students had graphing and data interpretation exercises both in class, using the tablet PCs, and in homework assignments, using paper and pencil. A faculty member in the psychology department who did not know in which course the students had been enrolled scored the assessment data. Results showed that students in the course that had additional graph instruction with the tablet PCs scored on average 6 points higher on the assessment instrument; however, these results should be interpreted with caution due to the small number of students in each group (13 from the spring 2007 section and 17 from the fall 2007 section). However, these results are consistent with the results from the first study and thus provide confirmatory evidence that the technology was having a positive impact on learning.

Third Study: Providing Feedback on Student Writing

A third study took place in two sections of a Foundations of Education course and one section of a Cognitive Psychology course. This study focused on evaluating the use of tablet PCs to provide students with rich, timely feedback on writing assignments. The feedback included a mixture of ink annotations and audio commentary as deemed appropriate by the instructor.

The Foundations of Education and Cognitive Psychology courses satisfy DePauw's writing requirement, thus students do significant amounts of writing outside of class. Using traditional paper-based markup, instructors can experience difficulty providing students with the detailed feedback they need in order to improve the quality of their writing and their underlying arguments. It was hoped that using a tablet PC would assist with this process and provide additional resources for the student and instructor. For example, the instructor might circle a section of text, embed a link to an article on the web, add an audio track that explained that the circled text could be strengthened by incorporating ideas from the article, and return the work electronically without having to wait until the next class session. Both the instructor and the student would then be able to archive the student's work electronically, leading to better understanding of individual student progress for both parties.

The instructors had their students fill out a pre-course survey designed to provide them with information about what students find helpful in feedback on writing assignments. Using a 5-point scale (1 = no use to 5 = very useful), students rated specific types of feedback. They reported that the most useful comments were related to the coherence of the argument and the structure of their writing. Comments about grammar issues, understanding of the topic, and comparisons with previous drafts or assignments were found somewhat less helpful, although the means for all the responses was 4 or above on the rating scale. For specific mechanisms of providing feedback, students reported that written comments on the text and face-to-face meetings were most helpful. Finally, when reporting which techniques they used for writing papers, students indicated that they composed on a word processor and made edits using previous copies; they found student peer review helpful in this process.

The instructors used this information to assist them in providing good feedback on assignments, which were all submitted and returned electronically using Moodle. The comments from the post-course surveys revealed that students felt electronic feedback was faster, more accessible, easier to organize, and environmentally friendly. The few disadvantages reported by some students included that the handwriting using electronic ink could be difficult to read and that there were occasionally problems with the server. When asked if they would prefer to receive only typed feedback, students noted that it depended on the type of assignment and type of feedback. For example, one student noted that "ink and highlighting allows me to see exactly which part of the paper the professor was referring to in the typed comments," while another commented that "ink and highlighting make the typed comments appear more personal." Overall, 90 percent of the students believed that electronic feedback was superior to paper feedback, and 75 percent felt that a combination of typed and inked comments was the most effective.

Evaluations of Additional Tablet PC Deployments

Listening to Our Faculty

As the results of our studies continued to point to positive impacts of tablet PCs on student learning, the tablet PC project team and FITS were inspired to believe that these pen-based pilot programs could be leveraged by more systematic campus-wide adoption. To reinforce our case, we gathered feedback from instructors using electronic surveys, discussions at TUG meetings, and one-on-one consultations.

At the conclusion of the second year of the pilot program we collected survey responses from 36 faculty members who were using tablet PCs to support their teaching. Highlights of the survey responses are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Faculty Rating Scale Responses

Statement Strongly Agree Agree Somewhat Neutral Disagree Somewhat Strongly Disagree
Using a tablet PC has been valuable to my teaching 28 5 3 0 0
It is important to me to continue to use a tablet PC next year 28 2 6 0 0

Faculty also provided the following open-ended responses to the survey:

"I can monitor the shapes and stroke order of Kanji characters that each student writes."

"I have had students spontaneously volunteer to share the way they annotated something to understand it, so my 100-level class has more camaraderie than usually develops."

"I have used more visual materials than I ever have before, even when I could load them into PowerPoint as an option in the past."

"By collecting student work and looking at the process by which they have solved a problem, using the playback feature [of DyKnow], I have been able to provide a different kind of feedback to [the students] about how to logically approach problems."

"I have incorporated more group problem solving into my courses and can easily share solutions to group problems with the entire class to promote discussion."

By this point some faculty had already adopted a tablet PC as their permanent computer, while others continued to borrow one to use in addition to their primary computer. Despite the positive results our surveys were reporting, when these faculty were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the statement "I would be willing to permanently exchange my primary DePauw computer for a tablet PC," the results were mixed: 11 agreed or strongly agreed, 2 were neutral, and 19 disagreed or strongly disagreed. The most common objection raised to making a permanent exchange came from faculty whose primary computer was an Apple Macintosh. While those instructors found value in the inking capabilities of the tablet PC, they also often had discipline-specific software needed for their research or classroom that only ran on the Mac OS platform.

The Projects Converge: The Institutional Laptop Program Version 2.0

We acknowledge that three small classroom studies cannot provide conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of tablet PC usage for student learning. However, when considered in conjunction with the positive experiences reported by our faculty through formal surveys and informal discussions, the results trend in a positive direction. This convergence of evidence from multiple aspects of our pen-based pilot programs convinced DePauw to add a tablet PC option to its institutional laptop program — both for students and for faculty members.

To support student use of tablet PCs more systematically, in 2008 the university added an HP Tablet PC option for students in the laptop program and for faculty members eligible for a replacement desktop or laptop computer as part of our normal upgrade cycle. Since not all students have tablet PCs, classes that require each student to use pen-based technology during class are still conducted in classrooms outfitted with either pen-enabled Wacom displays or tablet PCs that are delivered on carts. A small number of tablet PCs are also on reserve at the library for students to check out for several hours at a time.

Adding a third option for faculty members and students initially presented some challenges to DePauw's Information Services (IS) department. The tablet PCs cost about 15 percent more than a traditional laptop, and IS had concerns about the budgetary impact of offering this option. In addition, IS had to broaden technical expertise in order to support the tablets. However, because of DePauw's philosophy that pedagogy should drive technology adoption, the evidence gathered from our tablet PC pilot programs convinced the university that the potential benefits to teaching and learning made up for the need to address these issues.

In fall 2008 approximately 35 students selected the tablet PC option. FITS formed a Student Tablet PC User Group (STUG) to support these students and provide us with feedback about how they used their tablet PCs. STUG groups met three times during the 2008–2009 school year. Although attendance at these meetings was limited because of the small number of students with tablet PCs, feedback was positive. Students shared tablet PC stories to help each other see how different pen-based applications could be used in student-centered contexts, and instructional technologists answered questions about using OneNote, DyKnow, PDF Annotator, and Ink Flash Cards. The tablet PC option was again offered for students entering DePauw in fall 2009, and interest has grown, with approximately 120 students having an tablet PC, more than 35 faculty using tablet PCs from our pilot program, and 12 faculty and 6 instructional technologists who carry a tablet PC as a permanent computing option.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Through experience with these projects over the past 10 years, DePauw has adopted a number of guiding principles about how to effectively leverage change in the use of technology in teaching on our campus.

  • First, we have come to understand that grass-roots projects and systematic top-down projects need not compete, but can inform each other when appropriate communication strategies are in place. Engaging a broad set of stakeholders (faculty, students, key departments, and alumni) will help build support for changes in systemic technology initiatives.
  • Second, just because someone likes a new technology does not mean he or she will be willing to leave an old technology behind. There are clearly situations in which access to multiple platforms offers people the necessary flexibility to do all the different types of tasks they need to do for their careers. The institution must carefully balance standardization with providing options to affordably embrace those needs.
  • Third, careful evaluations of the impact of technology on teaching and learning, whether large or small, can and will support institutional change. Even a number of small evaluation projects with complementary results can establish a persuasive evidence base.
  • Finally, pedagogical needs should always drive technology choices and not vice versa. In the case of laptops and pen-based computing, we learned that mobility plus pens is more effective than mobility alone or pens alone and that the pen is not a replacement for the keyboard but rather a supplement to it.

This last lesson reinforced DePauw's core instructional technology philosophy — which prioritizes teaching over technology and empowers faculty members to shape decisions about institutional technologies — and enabled us to unite the good ideas learned from the pilot tablet PC project with the benefits of the campus-wide laptop program in ways that support teaching and learning more effectively than either program could do alone.

  1. The 361 Degrees program has been recognized nationally; in fact, DePauw received the 2003 EDUCAUSE Award for Systemic Progress in Teaching and Learning for this approach. A prior EDUCAUSE Quarterly article describes 361 Degrees in detail; see Dennis A. Trinkle, "The 361° Model for Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology," EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 4 (2005), pp. 18–25.
  2. Diane Balestri, "Stability and Transformation: Information Technology in Liberal Arts Colleges," in Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges, Steven Koblik and Stephen R. Graubard, eds. (Edison, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000), pp. 293–319.
  3. John P. Campbell, Diana G. Oblinger, and Colleagues, "Top-Ten Teaching and Learning Issues, 2007," EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3 (2007), pp. 15–22.
  4. Judith Borreson Caruso, "Key Findings: ECAR Study of Students and Information Technology, 2004: Convenience, Connection, and Control," EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, September 2004.
  5. Dave Berque, "An Evaluation of a Broad Deployment of DyKnow Software to Support Note Taking and Interaction using Pen-Based Computers," CCSCNE-2006/Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, vol. 21, no. 6 (2006), pp. 204–216.
  6. We acknowledge the generous support of HP's higher education grant programs, which provided DePauw University with an HP Technology for Teaching grant in 2006 and a follow-up leadership grant in 2007.
  7. Dave Berque, Terri Bonebright, Joel Dart, Zachary Koch, and Shawn O'Banion, "Using DyKnow Software to Support Group Work: A Mixed-method Evaluation," in The Impact of Tablet PCs and Pen-Based Computing on Education: Beyond the Tipping Point, Jane C. Prey, Robert H. Reed, and Dave A. Berque, eds. (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press), pp. 11–20.