Professors net $250,000 grant to develop eReader applications

Article Published: Jul. 21, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011

Electronic readers, such as iPads and other electronic tablets, quickly have been adopted as ways to read newspapers, magazines and books, views videos, send email and surf the Web.

Two professors at Appalachian State University have received a $250,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to explore the wireless tablets' applications related to computer science education.

Professor Barry Kurtz, the Lowe's Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Appalachian, and associate professor Jay Fenwick, also from ASU's Department of Computer Science, co-wrote the grant.

The NSF is interested in ways to enhance student engagement in lectures, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

"We are interested in how to leverage these devices in a classroom setting," Fenwick said. "Electronic reading devices haven't really changed the reading and learning experience for college students all that much. They still need to have a notebook, and highlighting text isn't that easy to do with an eBook. We are trying to determine how we can use the power of these devices to really change teaching and learning."

The professors will develop tools and software programs that can be accessed through the electronic devices. They also will develop software that can be used by instructors to build educational activities with minimum knowledge of the underlying software.

Kurtz, an expert in computer-based education, believes the tablets' features are perfect for use in microlab settings, in which students work on computer science or math problems in class. "Students could work individually or in pairs, and it would break up the lecture with an activity related to the topic the students have just learned about and to solve a real problem," he said.

The devices also are equipped with small cameras that could facilitate video conferencing and group projects no matter the students' locations.

"The microlab idea is a way to bring a traditional lab into the classroom in small bits, rather than having students work in a lab days after the lecture," Fenwick said.

Microlabs are feasible with the electronic tablets thanks to the advent of "cloud computing," where software programs and information are located on computer servers in different locations and accessed through WiFi, or wireless, connections. That means students don't need a laptop or desktop computer to access software programs.

"Cloud computing is a big push these days," Kurtz said. "There are a lot of existing resources out there on the Web. So we're not just looking at developing new software - we will investigate how we can use these devices most effectively in the classroom with materials that already exist. The whole idea is to try and embed these devices as part of the lecture and make it more interactive."

A portion of the grant will provide electronic browsers for Appalachian students in mid-level computer science classes to use in class, and for students in computer science and mathematics classes at Wilkes Community College, which is a grant partner.

"Evaluation is critical, so we will gather baseline data from classes that aren't using the electronic browsers, teach the same topic in the following semester with the browsers and see if it made a difference in learning," Kurtz said.

While Kurtz and Fenwick will target specific topics within computer science and math, what they learn might be applied to other academic areas.

"I suspect that in the near future, many students will begin to abandon laptops in favor of these electronic browsers, which are more portable and less expensive," Fenwick said.

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