The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday December 5th

Connecting to the Classroom

Educational activity slow to incorporate CCI program.

The IBM-made laptop computers introduced to campus as part of the Carolina Computing Initiative program almost five years ago have undoubtedly made an impression on the University.

But is this how innovators of CCI envisioned the computers being used? Although campus officials are quick to point out how eagerly students and most faculty have embraced the new technology, they acknowledge that classroom instruction has not fundamentally changed as a result of the program.

Marian Moore, former vice chancellor for information technology who now holds a similar position at Boston College, said the main goal of the program when conceived was not to integrate laptops into classrooms but simply to make sure students have access to technology. "Although (technology and the classroom) go hand in hand, it's not up to us to make that decision (if the computers are used)," she said.

Provost Robert Shelton said CCI will, ideally, result in classroom integration of laptops -- a process he said is progressing slowly. "The ultimate goal is the broader use of computing in the classroom."

But many officials stressed that even equipping students with the most modern technology won't automatically improve in-class education.

CCI laptops offer only one method of quality teaching, said Risa Palm, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She added that traditional techniques can also be effective. "The computer can be a tool for education, but the tool doesn't necessarily cause a better education," she said.

Steve Jarrell, interim vice chancellor for information technology, said his office is in place to help implement technology for professors who want it -- not to push them to introduce it. But Shelton said meeting the goal for classroom use of the CCI laptops is important for modernizing the University and lies in the hands of UNC professors. "Getting (the laptops) into the classroom is the responsibility of the faculty."

Only some classes are showing signs of this laptop integration. A survey taken last semester coordinated by Rick Peterson, director of information services for the College of Arts and Sciences, showed that the CCI laptops rarely find their way into the classroom. Only 36 of the 729 classes offered through the the College of Arts and Sciences required students to bring them.

But professors still are taking advantage of the technology. Of the 729 classes, 396 classes had a course Web page and 410 have assignments that require using the Internet, Peterson said.

Beyond classroom use, the biggest impact of the program has been an increase in communication between professor and student, said Sue Estroff, a medical school professor and Faculty Council chairwoman.

"My sense is that (CCI) does make it easier for students to have access to materials," she said. "If it makes it easier, they're going to be more likely to use them -- that means more learning is going on."

Palm noted that although some departments are behind in incorporating the laptops, the departments of Chemistry, English and Biology have shown the most initiative. But she stressed that individual classes outside those departments are using the technology as well.

In the Physics 24 Lab, students use the CCI laptops for an experiment called "Collisions in One Dimension."

Duane Deardorff, director of undergraduate labs for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said the technology is key. "It's something that cannot be done by hand," he said. "It's not just something to make (students') lives easier."

Junior Max Dayvault said that while his chemistry lab work has been enhanced by the laptops, the technical nuances of the program make the work slower and more laborious. He also said carrying around the laptop is annoying. "I don't look forward to lab days because I have to pack everything up," he said.

In the English department, professors are incorporating the CCI laptops in low-level composition classes. Using software called FACET, students in the classes submit their papers, have them revised by other students and then by the professor for grading -- all without printing a page.

Todd Taylor, a professor of English, said using laptops isn't necessarily easier than using traditional by-hand techniques, but he said, "It really encourages people to make revisions."

In some classes, CCI laptops seem to have taken a back seat to other forms of technology. History Professor Melissa Bullard uses a laptop in her classroom to display a digital library, use a document camera and outfit students with Microsoft Powerpoint for presentations.

Though she has a CCI laptop and most of her students do too, students have yet to use laptops in her classroom. She said using the computer is easier for her and her students but added that there seem to be no specific educational benefits. "I'm not sure, except for the convenience, of the extent to which it enhances learning."

Shelton attributed some of this reluctance to a knowledge gap in faculty's ability to incorporate technology. "You've got faculty who are taking to this like fish to water," he said. "There are some who are learning to swim."

He acknowledged that there are never enough resources to keep professors' knowledge up-to-date but said he is confident they will learn how to use the technology. "Faculty are smart people."

Because only three-fourths of the student body are required to have a laptop, many professors are reluctant to plan class activities that require the computers, Peterson said.

Palm said another faculty concern is that students abuse the wireless technology by using programs in class other than those intended. "It's going to be a continuing challenge to make sure laptops are used for the educational purpose they were intended for," she said.

In spite of all the limitations and concerns, officials say there is evidence that students are using the laptops outside of class for Internet access to Blackboard or Student Central or word processing.

Peterson's computer use survey in the College of Arts and Sciences also included numbers for student laptop use. He said he was not ready to release the figures, but he said, "Students are using their laptops to an incredible degree outside of class."

Estroff said the original intent and goals of the program have been misconstrued by the University community. "I think there was some misunderstanding that computers would magically transform education," she said, noting that CCI has not been given enough time to take effect. "We're just starting this."

Shelton said he believes the program is constantly improving the teaching process. "I sense they are improving education," but he reiterated that classroom integration is key to improving the program.

Regardless of the classroom function, the CCI laptops are, by all indications, here to stay. Shelton said, "It'd be pretty hard to imagine this place without them."

The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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