Using Tablet PCs in Math, Engineering, Nursing, and English Courses

Editor's Note: Clemson faculty became interested in tablet PCs as early as 2003 and by 2005 a small group of faculty were beginning to use them in class to enhance their teaching. Unfortunately. not many Clemson students purchase a tablet PC, so the ability to make use of tablets in assignments has been limited. Through grants and other departmental funding, faculty have found ways to provide the use of tablet PCs during class. Currently, carts of tablets are available for selected math courses in Martin Hall, for students who have a class in the Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom, and for nursing students in selected courses in Edwards Hall. Recently, HP funded a short video about the use of tablet PCs on Clemson's campus. All aspects of the video were created by Clemson students. The video is on iTunes U at Clemson and on YouTube. For YouTube, go to

Using Tablet PCs in Math
Math students using tablet PCsBy Marilyn Reba

The Department of Mathematical Sciences, in collaboration with the Department of Computer Science, has been using Hewlett-Packard tablet PCs with web-based software since 2006. Sixty tablet PCs, acquired through two Hewlett-Packard grants, are now located in the SCALE-UP Classrooms in Martin Hall and in the Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom. So far, eight mathematics faculty members have used tablet PCs and web-based software, Ubiquitous Presenter (from UCSD) and Roy Pargas' MessageGrid, in 29 sections of three different math courses in both locations.

Classroom pedagogy using pen-technology energizes the classroom and enables communication with students otherwise reluctant to participate.MessageGrid allows the instructor to create a grid before class or spontaneously in class, with questions in columns and a location for student answers in rows.  The instructor in class can quickly scroll through "anonymous" student submissions and choose a few to project and discuss (e.g., those with interesting errors or notational issues). When explaining a concept in the context of correcting a student mistake, the instructor taps into students' natural curiosity about how their peers are doing.  Instructional techniques with pen-technology have included: (1) lectures punctuated with inked submissions of student work that are projected, discussed and annotated; (2) student work on group activities submitted by alternating student "recorders" and graded on the tablet PCs to provide instructor feedback before the next class; and (3) audio-video podcasts posted on the web that students ink and record via Brian Dean's LectureScribe.  

A recent innovation to MessageGrid, labeled Mathpad, allows quick remediation for at-risk students through instructor-generated on-line inked quizzes that are automatically graded. The instructor inks questions (one per column), and then enters an answer key for each question using a MathType equation editor which produces a MathML format for efficient comparison of the answer key and the student solution. A class report is generated.

Given a recent NSF grant, we will analyze student errors in our growing database of digitally-inked student submissions by applying MessageGrid's new "replay" and "tagging" features. MessageGrid preserves the sequence of the student's ink submissions, allowing the instructor to replay, rewind, fast-forward, and pause the student's ink, in a manner similar to a video tape recorder. We will mark/tag specific locations on a student's ink submission. For example, if a student is trying to solve a related rates problem and fails to implicitly differentiate the equation properly, the instructor may mark that error with tag "T1" where T1 is defined "Ignored Chain Rule." Using an EM-algorithm-clustering analysis and other categorical data analysis methods, we will be able to cluster these error categories into target teaching areas. The target areas will help improve teaching emphasis and technique. Within a semester, adjustments may be made to improve a particular section's error tendencies.

We now are collaborating with others across campus to create a classroom that will combine pen-technology with smart screen technology and provide connection to the Access Grid. While on sabbatical at Dalhousie University, Neil Calkin (also in Clemson's Department of Mathematical Sciences) experienced teaching mathematics with multiple Smart Boards™ where one classroom allows six different projections (including student work) and where the instructor can annotate these projections by touching the various screens.

We're Better Together: Engineering Students Work in Pairs on Tablet PCsEngineering student working on tablet PC
By Lisa Benson

Tablet PCs are powerful tools in engineering and science education, as they allow students to write freeform symbols, structures and equations. Students can work through problems, take notes, organize class materials, and store these materials electronically for future use or for submission to the instructor. Students in General Engineering have created concept maps, sketches, and problem solutions without the constraints of typing equations or using a drawing program to express their ideas. 

Educational theories show that when students verbalize their thinking while working through problems in groups, they are more conscious of their own understanding, and are able to identify inconsistencies in their problem-solving strategies. Students negotiate the meaning of concepts that are being taught, and come away with a deeper understanding of the material than if they had "crammed" the material on their own in dorm rooms.  For this reason, General Engineering encourages students to work through in-class problems in pairs or small teams of 3-4 students. When working in pairs, we encourage students to switch off playing the roles of "thinkers" and "inkers" so both students are actively involved in solving problems. During a typical class period, a problem is introduced, and students are given time to discuss and work through it. With the ability to make graphical representations on the tablet PCs, students can display their understanding of problem solving skills such as problem definition and execution, recalling basic skills such as unit conversions and appropriate use of equations. Students submit their work to MessageGrid, and the instructor displays responses anonymously. Students are provided with immediate feedback on their techniques for solving problems, and can view other students' submissions, with the instructor pointing out correct and incorrect approaches. This takes advantage of the all-important part of learning that occurs when students "go public" with their work, committing their knowledge to the outside world and testing what they know (How People Learn, National Academies Press, 1999). This also allows instructors to provide feedback to students, quickly determine points of confusion, and assess in real time how many students fully comprehend the material.

We are conducting ongoing studies to examine the effects of tablet PC use on the interaction between students when working in pairs, and in particular, the effects of shared tablet PC use on learning.  In a pilot study of four sections of a General Engineering course, we observed significant differences between students working on paper and tablet PCs in terms of how often students were actually focused on each other rather than working alone (36% for Paper vs. 50% for Tablet).  The predominant activity for both groups was talking, followed by writing, reading and listening; no significant differences were observed for frequency of these actions. Scores on relevant test questions and in-class assignments were not significantly different between the two groups. However, students in the tablet group agreed more strongly with the statements, "Collaborating with a partner on problems helps me understand concepts in this class," and "I paid attention most of the time," compared to students in the paper group.  This pilot study was presented at the Annual ASEE Conference in June 2009.

Tablet PCs effectively increased interaction between students working in pairs, and appear to promote positive interdependence for our students.  More long-term studies are being conducted to assess effects on learning and student attitudes over time. 

Using Tablet PCs in NursingNursing student using tablet PC
By Nancy Meehan

The School of Nursing is using tablet PCs to practice electronic documentation of patient care. Students benefit from the combination of handwritten notes with text entry. Nursing faculty currently introduce first-year nursing students to tablet PCs in the classroom where they get acquainted with electronic documentation. 

In their junior and senior nursing clinical classes, students use tablet PCs n the CLRC (Clinical Learning and Research Center) to simulate electronic documentation. The goal is to mimic regional hospital documentation. Students gain confidence with electronic documentation while becoming familiar with regional hospital documentation procedures. Currently, students record observations of a simulated patient such as Intake-Output, Vital Signs, and Nurses Notes.

Future plans include the creation of an instructional EHR (electronic health record). Students would document care in an EHR using a tablet computer and a simulated patient or case study. The faculty would then respond to the students' documentation. The instructional EHR will allow the faculty to analyze, critique, annotate and grade students' electronic documentation. The instructional EHR will also change the way electronic documentation is taught from a place of observation with documentation to a place of observation, analysis, evaluation and discussion.

Using Tablet PCs in an English ClassSandbox classroom where tablet PCs are used
By Barbara Weaver

In 1998 when I taught my first laptop class, I wanted students to submit their work online and I planned to grade their work online. I used the Insert Comment and Track Changes features in MS Word, and I devised my own conventions with highlighted text in brackets. To my dismay, I hated grading papers that way. By the time I finished one five-page literary analysis paper online, I could have graded two or three on paper. Grading a web-based ePortfolio was even more daunting. I would open a Word document where I kept track of comments to the student as I reviewed the ePortfolio. My comments took even more time to write as I toggled back and forth from Word to Internet Explorer. And my comments were difficult to write for me and to understand for the student. For example, a comment might read: "The third sentence in the fourth paragraph needs restructuring and you need to correct the spelling of xxx."

I also had students exchanging their work digitally for peer reviews. The best students managed fine and would spend time thinking about the comments and changes their peers had suggested. Then they revised their assignment to reflect their own best work and submitted the assignment. Unfortunately, some of my poorer students figured their peer reviewers knew more about writing and the topic than they did, so they simply accepted all changes, deleted the comments, and submitted the assignment with as little thought as possible. I was close to giving up online grading and peer review in favor of requiring students to print their assignments. That's when I learned about tablet PCs.

Now I grade students' work online very much like I used to grade printed papers. I have my pen in my hand (a comfort to a writer) and can circle misspelled words, write comments in the margins, maybe draw arrows to suggest better organization; really whatever mark I want to make I can make. I can use digital ink to grade students' work in Word, in PowerPoint, on the web, on anything that I can print to MS Journal (similar to Adobe Acrobat). By teaching in the Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom, my students have access to carts of HP tablets during class. They have used them for several semesters now and I am delighted with the results. Students have to retain authorship of their own papers and can't just accept changes made by a peer reviewer. My students also report that they like using the tablets. They often comment that, if they had known what they could do with a tablet PC, they would have purchased a tablet instead of the laptop they own.

Marilyn Reba is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Clemson University.

Lisa Benson is assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Science Education at Clemson University.

Nancy Meehan is associate professor in the School of Nursing at Clemson University.

Barbara Weaver is Senior Consultant for Faculty Relations and Innovation for CCIT and usually teaches one class each semester in the Department of English at Clemson University.