Wireless Computing in the Classroom
Second Quarter Progress Report

Jim Griffioen
W. Brent Seales

Computer Science Department
University of Kentucky,
Lexington, Kentucky 40506

Jim Lumpp

Department of Electrical Engineering
University of Kentucky,
Lexington, Kentucky 40506

Project Activities and Accomplishments

The goal of this project is to investigate ways in which new and emerging technologies, such as multimedia laptop computers and wireless networking, can be used to improve teaching in the classroom. In particular, we are developing a wireless classroom environment in which each student is equipped with a laptop computer and a wireless network connection to the Internet. We are investigating the technical challenges of developing this environment. We are also exploring and developing new teaching techniques that use the environment to enhance the educational process.

During the second quarter of the grant period the hardware environment has been fully deployed and debugged. Specifically, each of the 20 laptops has been configured to run both Windows '95 and Linux, with appropriate software compiled and installed for each platform. The wireless network interface (PCMCIA cards) for each laptop has been configured to run under either operating system. The wireless network is now completely installed, debugged, and thoroughly stress tested. The wireless network covers the classrooms in Anderson Hall as well as the conference rooms and labs in CRMS and ASTeCC. The wireless network has been used daily for the last two months, and we have had no problems with the network after the initial set of bugs were found and eliminated. Thus, the mobile classroom can be deployed from the mobile storage cart in a matter of minutes in any classroom, lab, or conference room covered by the wireless network.

Each of the three Principal Investigators has been using the environment in our daily lecture periods with class sizes of up to 40 students. We now have the software and hardware environment configured so that laptop setup and usage is straightforward and can be quickly learned by students at any level in our program (i.e., they don't need to be a computer expert to participate in the class and benefit from the laptops). A typical class period begins with the students picking up their assigned laptop from the mobile storage cart, installing the wireless antenna, booting the system, and then joining the advertised interactive class session.

The instructor laptops are now fully operational and include video (QuickCam) and audio hardware as well as presentation tools. In addition, each instructor machine is equipped with a tablet and stylus (Wacom) which provide the ability to write free-hand notes on top of previously prepared material. The laptops also connect to a portable overhead projection device that displays the instructor's screen.

Live/interactive transmission of class materials for the session requires the appropriate software tools to send and receive data across the network. We are evaluating two primary software environments for this task: the freely-available MBONE tools (whiteboard, vic, vat, etc.) available for UNIX and Windows '95, and the commercially-available distance learning server for Windows by Databeam. We have been using the MBONE tools during class with great success for quite some time and are about to begin testing the Databeam distance-learning software.

The MBONE tools provide multicasting capability of video, audio and whiteboard information. The live video and audio streams are multicast across the wireless network to the Internet, reaching students in distant sites across campus and have even been viewed live by students at other universities. The collaborative whiteboard and network text packages provided with the MBONE tools have been successfully use to efficiently multicast instructor notes and free-hand notes written during class. The whiteboard application allows course notes, which have been preformatted as postscript pages, to be typeset and displayed on each student machine. The instructor can then dynamically write on the notes using the Wacom pad and stylus. As the whiteboard sessions progress through the course material, students have the ability to annotate the notes on their personal pages to be saved for review later. In addition, the entire session is recorded and stored for the purpose of future playback and review.

Other network tools have also been successfully used to enhance class presentations. For example, we have used video clips and animations to demonstrate algorithms and network protocols. Pictures and images viewed via web browsers have also proven useful to illustrate topics being discussed. We have also written a collaborative web browsing application that uses multicast communication to support collaborative web browsing.

On-line demonstrations have also been used during class and have proven very helpful. Students are able to download programs and modify/test them during class. In the networking class, students examined network routing tables, ARP caches, etc as the topics were being discussed. Pointers to interesting URLs mentioned during class were often investigated immediately by students.

In summary, the hardware and software environment is now operational, appears to be quite stable, and is being used on a daily basis in class lectures with success.

Problems, Issues, and Actions

The following issues are being addressed:

Bandwidth restrictions of the network
Software tools for presentation and interaction
Instructor preparation of materials to be presented
New teaching techniques that effectively utilize the environment
Dealing with educational realities. For example, color notes with images/graphs are very educational, but students have difficulty locating color printers or accessing them from home.

Projected Tasks and Activities for the Next Quarter

We plan to continue the evaluation of the effectiveness of the environment by monitoring student progress, students' satisfaction with the technology, and the capabilities of the software environment to prepare, present and deliver the data across the network during learning sessions. This process has already lead to changes in our teaching style and will certainly produce other new techniques and methods for delivering education.

Changes in Direction

There have been no significant changes in scope or direction. The hardware platform is operational and is being evaluated during several real class periods each week. We are continuing to evaluate hardware performance and suitability, software alternatives and usability, and new teaching techniques to improve the quality of instruction in the testbed environment.

Budget Issues

The only change in the budget has been the purchase of several critical software packages to aid in the preparation and presentation of lecture materials. The money for the software (totalling approximately $800) was reallocated from savings on hardware purchases.

Jim Griffioen