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From the Student’s View: Laptops In (and Outside) the Classroom

This article was originally published in the Fall 2002 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Derek Bruff

In this column, we feature the perspectives of Vanderbilt students, focusing particularly on what they find effective in their coursework experiences. In this issue, we interview a number of students at the Owen Graduate School of Management and the School of Engineering. Both of these schools now require each incoming student to purchase a laptop computer, and both schools have equipped buildings (Management and Featheringill Halls) to provide wireless Internet access to laptop users. We asked the students to comment on how these technologies have affected their education at Vanderbilt.

How do these technologies affect student/faculty interaction?

Kendall Cruickshanks, Owen MBA Student: I think one of the most valuable things about everyone not only having a laptop, but also being familiar with how it works and using it as a mode of communication, is that professors and students can correspond at any time of the day or night. Since we operate on seven-week modules at Owen, things move pretty quickly, and assignments are due fairly soon after a class is taught. It’s really valuable to have professors and students able to communicate and interact at all times of the day or night, even if they’re not in the same building. I don’t think it removes one of what I consider to be the best elements of Owen, namely the student-faculty interaction. We have small classes. Professors’ doors are always open. It’s nice to be able to go upstairs and speak to professors and know that they’re available. I don’t think having a laptop detracts from that. I don’t think it removes the element of personal interaction that you get with professors, but it’s nice to be able to communicate if they’re at home or if you’re at home.

In what ways do these technologies facilitate in-class group work?

Alan Loprete, Engineering Senior: One of the courses is using this new kind of teaching style called the studio classroom. We’ve split into groups, and each group has chosen a certain technology or company to represent. We’re developing marketing plans for a product or company. At the start of class, the professor gives an overview of the lecture. Since he makes his annotated PowerPoint presentations available online, he expects us to have read the lecture before class. After the overview, we start working on particular assignments. In that time we research about companies or work as a group to write up the assignments. The laptops are handy for this. Since our work is done on the computer, having the computers right there to work on in our groups in class speeds up the problem resolution. You’re don’t come up with questions until you start working on something. Since we work on our assignments in class, these questions come up earlier and so the professor can address them in class with us.

How do laptops assist with out-of-class group work?

Todd Garlitz, Owen MBA Student: One thing about the laptop set-up here at Owen is how it facilitates communication. Given that we are always trying to coordinate schedules for our group work, editing papers at the last minute, bouncing ideas off each other, and so on, having a laptop with wireless network access makes this communication process very easy and quick. Not having this or having to run to a desktop computer all the time would be very inconvenient.

Cruickshanks: The majority of the work I do here is in groups. Coordinating four or five people is a mess, so most of us use scheduling calendars on Microsoft Outlook. You can see what other people’s schedules look like, and it enables you to schedule meetings and find common times when people are available. Since the members of my group are in their second year, we have gotten pretty efficient. We’ll meet for fifteen minutes to divvy out an assignment, and the rest of the assignment will be completed over email. We’ll all respond to the questions that we were assigned, send drafts back and forth to each other, and do final editing all through Word and through email, which is great.

Trisha Gramata, Owen MBA Student: I think the main purpose of laptops with wireless access is not so much for classroom learning, as for enhancing team-based activities, such as case projects. The wireless laptops make it easier to facilitate group meetings, as one group member can be the scribe who types up notes during the meeting, then can send them out immediately afterwards. Also, Microsoft NetMeeting is quite effective for times that require many group members to work on a single problem that may have many quantitative facets, such as a challenging accounting or finance problem. By using NetMeeting, all group members can follow along with the progress on a problem in real time, using their own laptops. This is a popular application within Owen.

Does having a laptop help you make better use of your time?

Niels Hauff, Engineering Freshman: It saves a lot of time since I don’t have to go back to my room to do things. If I get out of a class early and I have my laptop, I can do something productive, especially over near Stevenson Center and Featheringill. Those places have a lot of wireless connections, so you can always be more productive and not have to just sit there for thirty minutes with nothing to do between classes. A lot times I’m doing things for different classes that I couldn’t do unless I had the laptop with me. It helps out with time efficiency.

In what ways are laptops helpful in classes focusing on software applications?

Gramata: One of my classes was about analyzing financial and operational models, and finding ways to implement the models in a variety of situations; it made sense for students to follow along with Microsoft Excel on their laptops while the professor was running through the exercises.

Rhiannon Ervin, Engineering Freshman: Having laptops in class does make you more engaged with the material if you want to be. Having my laptop allows me to follow along with the teacher. This helps me remember the different ways to solve the problems because, not only do I see how to do it, I actually do it. I feel that if I were just sitting there watching, or even taking notes, I would not remember what I learned as well. I would be more likely to zone out or just not remember it later. For me, being able to follow along with my laptop has helped a great deal.