Teaching Wirelessly with Tablets

Jamie Nelson, CITES Academic Technology Services

Spring 2015

Michael Koerner: “Teaching wirelessly with a tablet is for me!”


Technology in the classroom is nothing new. A good #2 pencil and a decent notebook always have been, and remain, excellent technologies. Chalkboards to this day remain a favorite of math professors and old school economists. In the 1950s film and transparency projectors saw widespread adoption as the newest technologies for the classroom. Following a flirtation with television and cable access as educational mediums, the rise of the personal computer and World Wide Web remain the most significant technological transformations of our era. Most recently, tablets, with their reduced size, cost, and ease-of-use, have joined with enhanced wireless and audio visual technologies to allow millions of consumers to wirelessly project media in their homes. While various technologies such as Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Roku are easily utilized in the home environment, the complex network and classroom technology infrastructure of a major campus requires greater security and robustness than consumer-based technologies currently provide. In the last few years Illinois campus faculty have been piloting and testing wireless tablets in the classroom, with early results indicating a strong interest on the part of instructors for the pedagogical usefulness of these approaches, as well as some remaining technical challenges hindering widespread classroom deployment.

CITES Academic Technology Services and CITES Wireless Networking have been working to bring wireless technology to campus since the introduction of the iPad 2 in 2011, which first introduced a feature called AirPlay. Using AirPlay an instructor could wirelessly display anything on the iPad through the classroom projector if it was connected to Apple TV, a small, $99 device. The problem that the University of Illinois and others were having was that secure enterprise wireless networks would not allow this traffic and, thus, it would work at home, but not in the classroom. Upgrades to the campus wireless network have thankfully alleviated these issues and a campus solution, poised to work with most future protocols, has been put into place. But as teaching wirelessly with tablets became more popular, largely via the iPad, it also became clear that we needed to search for cost effective, enterprise-ready solutions that could support Windows and Android devices. In the past two years, manufacturers and software developers have been coming out with solutions (often less than perfect, but with some interesting unique features) for Windows and Android tablets. There are currently a variety of solutions, each with a variety of pros and cons. The search for one robust and economical platform that can support Apple, Windows, and Android tablets in classrooms is an on-going, national search that appears close to resolution.

Faculty Embrace Teaching Wirelessly:

Michael Koerner on Teaching Wirelessly with a Tablet

Many faculty have been involved in teaching wirelessly with a tablet over the years, and we’ve attempted to give credit to those we have identified as early adopters. At this point, the ability to teach wirelessly is catching the attention of departments and the campus as a whole. The College of Education, who have been investigating this technology since the start, have embraced it and have installed Apple TVs in a majority of their departmental classrooms and conference rooms. Further, CITES Classroom and Conference Media Engineering (CCME) has begun a pilot in several general assignment classrooms on campus to gauge interest and test wireless presentation equipment. Below are several narratives about faculty that have embraced teaching wirelessly in the classroom.

Cinda Heeren, Computer Science

Cinda Heeren on the Origins of SLICE

Computer Science at the University of Illinois has been pioneering wireless presentation in a teaching and learning context since 2007, when they created and deployed their own system: SLICE Framework by Sam Kamin and Wade Fagan. This tool, originally designed as a simple-to-use annotation/collaboration tool, did not originally have a wireless component. Cinda Heeren, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, was involved in the project early on and is the one who asked for the ability to teach wirelessly in the classroom. She has been using SLICE in her classes since those early days. She finds great value in the ability to be wireless, helping her be more interactive as a presenter and feel more engaged with her students. She also likes the digital inking features, which allow her to mark up content in real time, letting her teach and illustrate programming concepts in a practical, hands-on, real-time manner. SLICE has, unfortunately, been phased-out, in part due to the fact that the market seems poised to provide a good, economical solution. Having recently lost the wireless freedom of SLICE, Cinda has deepened her appreciation of the freedom to engage students in various parts of the classroom. While waiting for a new solution, Cinda continues to “work the room” and get out from behind the podium, but finds herself having to run back to the podium to switch slides or to annotate a lesson, a waste of valuable class time and an interruption to her preferred teaching style. Cinda would like to gain back her ability to teach wirelessly and is investigating alternative wireless technologies.

Model: Instructor Windows tablet mirrors SLICE content to another Windows tablet connected to the projector in the classroom.

Cinda Heeren enjoys freedom of movement in class

Cinda Heeren on the Organic, Flexible Nature of the Tablet

Cinda Heeren on Engaging Students with a Tablet

Robert Brunner, Astronomy

Robert Brunner, Associate Professor in Astronomy, and instructor for Astronomy 330 – Extraterrestrial Life, has embraced teaching wirelessly in the classroom. He has been piloting wireless presentation via an iPad since Spring semester 2013, and with assistance from CITES Academic Technology services. He enjoys being able to work the classroom, to make a large class of over one hundred students feel more like an intimate group of twenty. Robert also utilizes Twitter in his classroom to promote student interaction. He will pose a question to the students in class, give them a few minutes to ponder the question, look up evidence on their mobile devices, and have the students tweet their answers to a Twitter app displaying responses on his tablet, all while continuing to teach amidst the students in the middle of the classroom. The best student tweets are selected and shared wirelessly for all to see on the classroom projection screen.

Model: iPad mirrors all content to an AppleTV connected to the projector in the classroom.

Robert Brunner engaging students wirelessly in the classroom

Michael Koerner, Chemistry

Michael Koerner, Lecturer in Chemistry, says teaching wirelessly is for him. He stresses the value in being amongst the students, joking that he is similar to Jane Goodall, who did her famous field work by joining the chimpanzee troops in the wild. He indicates that teaching wirelessly enhances engagement with the students and that is what they want – more of a collaborative learning environment than a sage on the stage reciting content for the students to transcribe and memorize. With a tablet Michael is able to frame learning around concepts in a variety of settings. When talking about Valium, for example, he can display the molecule structure, an image of the pill itself, and provide cultural references via videos, images, and songs such as “Mother’s Little Helper” by the Rolling Stones. He will even use the tablet as a hand-held document camera, enabling students to better see demonstrations at the front of the room. Helping Michael achieve his educational goals while teaching wirelessly in the classroom is Doug Mills, Director of Instructional Technology at Chemistry, who has actively supported educational technology adoption in Chemistry over the years.

Model: iPad mirrors all content to an AppleTV connected to the projector in the classroom.

Michael Koerner in the classroom

Michael Koerner on Tablet Content

Michel Bellini and David Rivier, Cellular and Developmental Biology

Michel Bellini, Associate Professor of Cellular and Developmental Biology and Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), and David Rivier, Associate Professor of Cellular and Developmental Biology, co-taught MCB 252 in Spring 2014 and wanted to better engage students in the large lecture classroom. The class, taught in Lincoln Hall Theater, consisted of 300+ students. Since they were co-teaching it was thought that the best tool for teaching wirelessly, considering the options available at the time, was an app and companion laptop program called Doceri. Michel and David were able to engage students in the lecture hall and allow them to share their knowledge with the rest of the class, without leaving their seat, by applying digital ink to pre-existing problems on the presentation slide. Students were handed the iPad displaying a problem or diagram and asked to annotate the slide so that the rest of the class could see. This worked well in that the student working the problem was not at the front of the class at the podium, but was amongst his fellow students, which lessened the stress. Other students were encouraged to help the student with the iPad. This worked well, focusing student attention, emphasizing working out problems together as a group of peers – seeing the steps that a student might take to solve a problem – not just having the lecturer do it for them.

Model: iPad controls (and allows digital inking) on a laptop connected to the projector in the classroom.

The Future of Wireless Presentation Devices:

With the success of Apple’s iPad and its ability to connect wirelessly to a $99 Apple TV, other platforms followed to get into the game of wireless projection. But for greater adoption, the solution would have to be more cost effective, easier to use, and more robust than past solutions. What would be the perfect device that could be used in any classroom on campus? What are the key features in a wireless receiver device?

Mirroring: One of the key features in wireless presentation is mirroring of content. That is to display everything that is on the tablet to the big screen. Whether an instructor is presenting in PowerPoint, switching to a video on YouTube, using Google Maps, or annotating over a PDF, they need it all to project. In the recent search for the holy grail of wireless presentation technology, this has been something that has been elusive across the platforms with many solutions mirroring one particular platform, but leaving interactivity with the others as an afterthought. These often indicate compatibility with all platforms, but only provide rudimentary sharing of pictures, video, PDF, and a very basic web browser.

Cross Platform: A solution for a large campus such as ours needs to enable the user to gain a similar experience across the primary platforms, in this case Windows, Apple, iOS, and Android. While a handful of solutions exist to accommodate the major platforms, these are often very expensive and often make some sacrifices in an effort to be one ring to rule them all. As of this writing, it seems as though the best solution may be a combination of two (or more) wireless presentation technologies to meet the need better and more economically.

As wireless display technology improves and more faculty, researchers, and students get a taste of its benefits, one can only presume that this will catch on even more. Is it perfect yet? Will one device do it all? Sadly, no. At least not yet. We are at the leading edge of this wireless technology. Judging by the improvements and interest in this technology that we have seen over the past several years, good things are definitely around the corner.

Interested in Learning More?

If teaching wirelessly with a tablet is something you are interested in, please visit http://www.cites.illinois.edu/tablets to take a part in an ongoing campus tablet initiative or contact CITES Academic Technologies at consult@illinois.edu. Further, if you have any questions about use, pedagogy, best practices, etc., the faculty and other groups involved in this article would be happy to share their experiences further. Just click on their name to find their contact information.

Did we miss you? Have you been teaching wirelessly with tablets? Would you like to share your experiences? Please feel free to contact us.

For an interesting exploration and reminder that pencil and paper are forms of technology see University of Illinois English Professor Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.”

About Jamie Nelson

Jamie is an elearning professional specializing in the innovative use of technology in teaching and learning.
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