May 08, 2003

Chapter 3: Teaching Tech and Loving Learning: Theory and Practice in the Clemson University Laptop Program

By Christa Benton, Vikki Garner, Clarice Green, Joe Hecker, Cristy White


In the current information age, technology has been in the foreground of education. Teachers on many levels, from elementary through postdoctoral, have found the use of technology helpful in creating and implementing lesson plans. The use of laptops at the university level has gained much support in recent years and is now a well sought-after tool in teaching. Hundreds of colleges and universities have begun to utilize laptops in departments ranging from the most liberal of arts to the most technical of the sciences. The growth of laptops in the classrooms has developed hand-in-hand with electronic classrooms, studios of learning that provide students network access and teachers with electronic teaching devices such as digital projectors. Since such a radical change in teaching styles is relatively new, the implications are not yet known. This report on teaching and learning styles on the university level is intended to provide insight as to the advantages and disadvantages of a laptop program from the point of view of both teachers and students.


As society becomes technologically driven, the incorporation of computers into the classroom seems inevitable. As a result, the question then becomes, "What are the benefits of using laptops in the classroom?"


Beginning in the BCE era, humans have had a desire to understand the world around them. This desire is what has driven the human race forward for centuries and enabled it to progress intellectually. Exactly how humans learn is a subject many scientists have been trying to understand for decades.

According to Susan Setly, in analyzing the physical structure of the brain, biologists have found it consists of neurons- electrically charged tissue that routes and reroutes electrical pathways. These pathways are highways for transferring information throughout the brain and enable humans to retain knowledge. As humans mature from infants to adults, these pathways grow and reshape themselves based upon an individual’s genetic structure and the environment in which he or she lives. In an educationally stimulating environment, scientists believe the number of pathways is greatly increased. The more these pathways are used, the more permanent they become and the longer information can be retained (Setley 7).

In schools the challenge presented to teachers is creating teaching methods that will optimize the greatest retention of information. This is difficult since humans learn and think in different manners. Creating a lesson plan to appeal to every student’s individual learning ability is impossible; however, based upon Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, humans are capable of seven independent means of information processing, and any number of those will fall into one or more of the categories. Creating lesson plans according to these categories enables a teacher to appeal to at least a couple of the students’ learning styles. The learning styles are grouped into the following categories: verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, music/rhythmic, body/kinetic, and intrapersonal.

In the verbal/linguistic category information is best absorbed through listening and discussing. Students in this category are good at remembering names, dates and places and enjoy telling stories (Gardner 23). In the logical/mathematical category information is best absorbed when students have opportunities to classify, categorize, and work with abstractions and peers. A student in this category likes to discover things by asking questions, exploring, and doing experiments (Gardner 23). A student in the visual/spatial category learns best through visualization, using the 'mind's eye', and working with pictures and colors. They are often good at drawing, imagining puzzles, and reading charts and maps (Gardner 23). In the next category, music/rhythmic, students usually excel at remembering melody, noticing the rhythms of life, and keeping perfect time. They learn best when information is presented in the form of melodies, musical notation, or rhythm (Gardner 24). Students who are good at playing sports, dancing, and using their hands is grouped into the body/kinetic category. They learn best by doing hands-on activities (Gardner 24). The last two categories are interpersonal and intrapersonal. While students in the former category learn best through working with others and discussing information, students in the later category learn best by working and thinking through difficult problems alone (Gardner 25).

Although these learning styles are different in their nature, students in every category follow the same progression of understanding, meaning that as they mature from children to adults, their brains develop in similar patterns. In two different studies both Susan Setley and William Perry analyze these stages and organize them into categories. In Setley’s study she has broken learning stages into four categories: Exposure Stage, Guided Learning Stage, Independence Stage and Mastery Stage (Setley 9).

In the Exposure Stage students are introduced to new information and concepts for the first time, usually by teachers and parents. Since their knowledge is so limited students at this stage do not question these concepts but accept them as truths (Setley 10). Following the Exposure Stage is the Guided Learning Stage. In this stage, students begin to question concepts and develop original ideas; however, they still depend greatly upon teachers and parents for guidance and direction (Setley10).

With review, guidance, and hard work, a student reaches the third stage called the Independence Stage. At this stage a student learns and performs independently which provides him or her with a greater understanding of information and a sense of accomplishment. With further independent study, a student can master his subjects in the final Mastery Stage. In this stage students have required such a thorough knowledge of certain information is permanently retained (Setley 10).

Anyone who has ever been around a young child has probably at one point or another been bombarded with a million ‘why’s. This is because in the first developmental stage, children are curious to absorb as much information about the new and unfamiliar world as possible. Most information children are taught is factual information, such as historical dates, and multiplication tables. At such a young age, they are not required to give logical reasons to support their answers. Because children are also so innocent, they have an unquestioning faith in their teachers and parents as "the bearers of truth... [M]orality and personal responsibility consists of simple obedience" (Perry 59).

As children mature, they begin to discover that behind events, ideas and facts there are reasons. At some point they also realize that their teachers and parents do not have all the "right answers," and that some "right answers" are debatable, such as in philosophy or literary criticism. This causes students frustration because they are accustomed to having teachers guide them towards finding the right answers. Without definitive answers and clear guidance, students feel lost. The question they ask becomes, "How do I find the right answer when I don’t even know where to start?" At this stage students are most vulnerable. Perry notes that when faced with uncertainty, many students, for a given period of time, "pause…quite unaware of the step that lies ahead of him, as if waiting or gathering his forces"(117). This "temporizing" can occur at any stage of progression, and can lead to other progression obstacles known as "retreating" and "escaping"(Perry 183). Students that retreat use anger, hate, indifference or denial as defense to the now complex and ambiguous world. They recognize that there can be more than one right answer; however, he refuses to accept them and instead views them as "bad". Students who "escape" become dissociated, alienated and relinquish responsibility to fate (Perry 191). Often times this leads them to feel guilty, believing themselves to be "failing…his own life" or to see society "as having failed" (Perry 198, 200).

In the passage to adulthood, temporizing, retreating, and escaping are natural parts of progression and in most cases are not permanent. Although the journey may be difficult, it is not impossible. And because students may feel lonely or lost, it becomes important for teachers and parents to support them in their journey. Perry notes that it is also beneficial for students to know they are not alone. He says that, "A sense that everyone is in the same boat will be of comfort as the student allows himself to see the full implications of this recent learning"(108). To enable students to express their frustration and feelings of uncertainty, it is necessary to create a relaxed community where they feel confident. To do this teachers must become less authoritative. They must help to promote a mutual community where students are not afraid of being wrong or expressing their opinions.

As our society changes, a school’s curriculum must also change in order to prepare students into the technological era. The Pilot Laptop Program provides a great example of how technology is integrated into the classrooms to prepare the students for the technological workforce ahead. By providing such a program, the teachers must decide if they are willing to implement technology into the classroom. In doing this, the traditional role will change from the "sage on the stage to the guide on the side," and these roles are found to be quite different.
The traditional role as the "sage on the stage" portrays the teacher delivering a lecture to an audience using notes, in an oral manner. A "sage" teaches from long-term knowledge. They follow an outline in which they lecture, test, and grade students by using a one-way form of communication. The "sage" approach forces the students to work rationally. Unlike the "sage", the "guide on the side" trains the students by using immediate skills. Instead of following an outline, the "guide" uses a tailored form of delivery. This style allows the "guide" to determine what the students know, what they need to know, and fill in the gaps between. The "guide" allows a student to perform hands-on experiments and demonstrations using a two-way form of communication (Wallace 4-5).

There are countless views about integrating technology into the curriculum. According to The Interim Program of Studies for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) a part of the Alberta educational system in Alberta, Canada ", there is no suggestion that technology should be taught as a subject, [however, they feel that] it should be considered as a tool for learning [and incorporated into the curriculum]"(Knight). In the classroom where computers teach the student, the atmosphere creates a place where they "can learn by doing, practice steps of process, [collaborate] in an encouraging environment to create their own products, and compete more against themselves than other students" (Schoch 1). The "guide on the side" role gives the teachers a chance to engage the student with the use of different modalities (for example power point, Eudora, Microsoft Word, etc.), which help provide the specific ways for the students to learn.

Given that the teachers, as guides, have an assortment of flexible ways to engage the students into their instruction, they primarily need help and assistance in order to enact the various instructional skills. Most teachers find it hard to adapt to the non-traditional role as a trainer, because "of their lack of training skills, and fail to provide the appropriate activities for a successful program" (Larson 5). Unlike the students who are usually somewhat accustomed to the new advancements in technology, most teachers are unfamiliar to it and find adapting to the new steps quite awkward.
Carol Ann Tomlinson conducted a research study in 1999, noted by John H. Holloway in the Association for Suspension and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD) Educational Leadership Journal Volume 58, to determine a method to prepare teachers for differentiated instruction, by varying the method in which instruction is presented. In order to make the technological transition a success, Tomlinson notes that there are four issues that need to be understood and supported.

One factor is administering training in the skills needed to work with the technology. In doing this the teacher can teach on the level where the student can genuinely benefit. Having a good understanding of the technology and applications is the second factor. If the technology is not understood it cannot be accepted and valued for what it is worth. It also will not provide the rewarding performance to make it accepted by others.

There also must be support for experimentation and innovation. This is what produces the success of the program. Most teachers do not have the luxury to redesign their course and don’t want to risk criticism by their peers. It will take time to adjust to the new teaching style, which leads to the last factor. Sufficient time must be allotted to learn and practice innovating technology into the classroom. The steps of studio teaching must be learned and allowed time to progress in order to maintain at a level of success.

In a conducted survey by Christa Benton of those teaching within the Pilot Laptop Program the numerous responses where somewhat similar. Many found themselves attracted to the program because the "concept was a good idea"(Stasiukaitis), they wanted to "try something new"(Kanet), and because they were given their "own personal laptop"(Mack). The collaborative learning environment gives more freedom to access materials, and is taking more seriously by students since the smaller class size gives them the luxury to see and obtain additional materials traditional classes don’t receive. When asking the teachers if they found making the transition from the "sage" to the "guide" hard, the answers varied. Some stated that they found the transition easy because they "had previous experience with using the technology"(Mack, Stasiukaitis). Others commented that the transition was difficult because "it was a lot for them to learn in such a limited time before incorporating it into their curriculum"(Kanet), and that they had to "rethink their entire approach of teaching"(Burns, Weaver).

Even though they found themselves attracted to the Pilot Laptop Program, they noted that this program has its problems as every program does. The main problem they all seemed to touch on was obtaining the full attention of the student. As Professor Priscilla Kanet remarked, "Laptops are like having backs [to the teacher and it is very frustrating trying to teach students that are surfing the web.]" Even though this is a number one problem within the program, it gives the teachers a challenge to keep their students focused to their curriculum. The last question asked if they thought that the role of the "sage on the stage" would permanently change to the "guide on the side." As some answered yes and no, others stated that " it should if the students are willing to take more responsibility for learning"(Mack), " that it [should] already [have taken affect] in most classrooms, laptop or not"(Kanet), or that " it is too soon to tell"(Burns).

The Banking Model of Education is a basis for this change. Education is the subversive force that can be a catalyst for breaking out of this routine, incorporating new ways of learning into teaching styles (Olson 1). The job of the intellectual now becomes humanizing in both classes by accepting limits without complying with its confines. Frieran Pedagogy, an interpretation from the works and research of Paulo Friere, an activist for education, applies well to the integration of the laptop program and its goal of integrating technology. The Frieran Pedagogy illustrates a situation where oppression has divided the world into two statuses; the oppressors and the oppressed (Smith 1).

Friere’s research and plans have evolved from people such as Karl Marx, formulating opinions and expressions that will be used in order to re-create a better education system. According to this book, the most important aspect of education should be our emphasis on dialogue and communication between the teacher and student.

The term alienation, derived from Karl Marx, refers only to the process by which a person’s power to know the world is limited. It is the domination of people by power elites, political structures, and thought itself. Ultimately, alienation is the separation of humankind from its habitual practices. It is the progression through which society will be able to accept change from a "traditional" educational learning environment to that of one including technological interaction (Smith 1).

In order to accomplish this, there first must be a previous understanding of each role.

The oppressors greatly influence economic, social and political domination; the oppressed are victims of their supremacy (Smith 1). In other words, the teachers become the oppressors, and the students the oppressed, involuntarily subjected to learning in one way in order to succeed. According to Friere’s beliefs, dialogue is the process that therefore impedes alienation. By not allowing oneself to be engulfed by defining social classification, the concern should instead lie within the learning process itself. This prohibits concentrating solely on the presenter, but more so on the information that is to be presented.

Within the Laptop Community at Clemson University, there is a continual concern with technological praxis, the practical application or exercise of a new branch of learning with technology (Olson 1). Although the focus of each class is clear, whether it be English or otherwise, is the incorporation of this new way of learning actually detracting from the information we learn? By becoming completely reliant on the computer and its programs, is it possible that the amount of care (concern) focuses more on the maintenance and understanding of this machine rather than the information the students should be absorbing from it?

Although most viewed it as a learning experience, the newest problem became coaxing them into actually teaching the programs themselves. Is it possible that administration became so concerned with finding people already within the system that were willing to participate? Has the administration simply instituted teachers in order to create a pilot program? The program in its entirety would be more effective if it were only administered only at its best. Admission into the Laptop Program is completely voluntary, however if the University had been allowed to pick and choose their participants, would that have been a factor in the information passed on to the students? Could it be that because they were not interested in this method of teaching they are depriving their students of lessons they would have learned?

Praxis comprises a cycle of action and reflection. It involves creativity and homogeneity as well as rationality and the concept of chance (Heaney 1). By becoming fully dependent on the machines operations, the Laptop Program is now voluntarily susceptible to its downfalls. Once students overcome their uncertainty and learn to think logically on their own, they begin to address themselves and their responsibilities in life. As they explore the results of their commitment and responsibilities, students also try to make the best decisions in continuing their personal growth. Finally they discover that to live and grow is to find a balance between values, ideas, choices, and all complexities in life based upon personal preferences, experiences and understanding (Perry 167).

In February of 2000, Dell Computer Corporation sponsored the Laptops in the Classroom Convention at the University of Central Florida; a conference intended to explore the benefits of laptop programs. Fifty colleges and universities sent representatives to the conference.

Prominent institutions in this laptop revolution, one of which is Clemson University, sent delegates to present the cases for promoting technology in the classroom. The goal of these presentations was to delve into the issues of whether or not laptops improve learning and how one teaches and trains teachers for these classes.

Clemson University’s Professor Bill Moss delivered a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Developing and Implementing a Pilot Laptop Program." This lecture highlighted the obstacles found in initializing such pilot programs. The areas of concern addressed by Moss were in developing a new curriculum for current courses, finding the best methods to encourage active learning on the part of the student, creating a sense of "studio" learning as opposed to traditional lectures, and enhancing communication between students and teachers as well as between students in the program itself.

According to Clemson University’s Dr. Bernadette Longo, there is much that is gained as well as much that is lost in programs that extensively use technology.

In defining new curriculum, one must take into consideration what is sacrificed by using technology. On many university campuses, students electronically submit their work to teacher assistants or professors, as seen at Clemson University with its Collaborative Learning Environment and at Wake Forest University with its Computer Enhanced Learning Initiative. Both are electronic hubs for student work. As a result grades are posted almost instantly and electronic mail makes the teachers more approachable to students; therefore, increasing communication between students and teachers. The use of a word processor is also deemed beneficial among students who find editing their writing is simplified and less time consuming. However, in an age where grammar and word spelling are automatically checked, often incorrectly due to the complexities of the English language, it is feared that students loose some of the basic writing skills received in grammar and middle school.

At the Laptops in the Classroom Conference, Clemson’s Dr. Barbara Weaver made the anther point that when teaching with technology one experiences fewer restrictions. A teacher may now diverge away from a mainstream curriculum so focused on traditional knowledge. Such an expanded curriculum could allow for an increased focus on current happenings. Also, as Weaver remarked, there could now be "collaboration among disciplines." In some instances the course syllabus must be completely redesigned, as in the case of freshman and sophomore level English classes at Clemson University. Laurie Sherrod, the Pilot Laptop Program Manager at Clemson University, stated the following in her "Extending Classrooms over Electronic Bridges:"
When the students are asked about their classes, they typically rave about their laptop English classes.

In the first two years of the program, all students involved had majors in the College of Engineering and Science. These were students who typically do not enjoy English.

However, nearly all of our laptop students said that they loved their laptop English classes. The laptop English professors were able to assign topics that involved technology and they enjoyed that much more than their previous English classes. They also enjoyed the creative projects that the English classes used. They did such things as learn to use the campus bus system, visit the S.C. Botanical Garden, help with a Habitat for Humanity house, participate in CommuniCon where they presented the results of their projects to the community, and collaborate with engineering and math classes. (par. 8)

The English curriculum was redesigned to attract those who normally lack interest by the liberal arts side of their education. According to Laurie Sherrod, at Clemson University this redesign of course work was successful.

Many universities throughout the country, such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, are renovating traditional classrooms to make way for laptop classrooms. These "smart" classrooms provide the teacher with a main computer equipped with LCD displays, and extensive control over the environment’s lighting and sound.

For the students, the smart classrooms provide each workstation with access to the school's network and any other service provided by the university. As a result of schools integrating laptops into their curriculum, the need for teachers with computer knowledge increases. At some universities teachers are given financial incentives to use technology in the classroom.

Professor Joe Serene from Georgetown University suggests in his memo, "Technologies Inside the Classroom", that "Individual faculty members can be chosen as champions and given some form of compensation to act as mentors to their colleagues for a specified period of time." The purpose of compensation for these teachers is to create an increase in teachers’ demand for the modernized classes. At Clemson University, however, financial incentives are not directly offered. Instead teachers receive a laptop computer and instruction in using different software.

Given the necessary tools for implementing a laptop classroom (e.g. hardware, software, and training) and under the pedagogy that teachers act more as a partners in learning, laptop programs will be able to maximize the efficiency and quality of learning on the university level. Learning as equals, people are able to learn from each other instead of being taught, or dictated to. By employing new methods of learning and teaching styles is an indicator that the divide between teachers and learners can be surpassed so that each gains something from educational experiences.

Education continually consists of action and reflection. Students learn and absorb at various levels, therefore they are more prone to be susceptible to different learning styles. The radical concept of the technological institution of laptops is becoming less extreme, allowing for the expansion of knowledge through these programs. As teachers deviate from traditional teaching styles, the importance lies not in teaching the curriculum, but ensuring the understanding of essential concepts. Through the analysis of the works of Paulo Friere, William Perry, Howard Gardner, and David Kolb, the research concludes that students absorb more information by engagement rather than dictation of instruction.

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