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Students Get Laptops for Coursework

By Shankar Mukherji


The MIT Council on Educational Technology (MITCET) has initiated a program to distribute laptop computers to students as part of an experiment aimed at assessing the educational impact of a mobile computing environment.

“The desired outcome of this experiment,” says a document produced by MITCET, “is to determine and measure the pedagogical and learning benefits of wireless, mobile computing in education.”

The departments of Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Architecture, and Physics are offering courses which make use of the mobile computing grants.

“The Council was looking at ways the MIT educational experience needed to change,” said Director of Academic Computing M. S. Vijay Kumar.

According to Kumar, much of the discussion surrounding pedagogical innovation centered around “more flexibility in educational delivery that supports collaborative education, active learning, and that is not reliant on the physical location of machines.”

The program is being jointly run by Academic Computing and the Computing Practices Resource Team (CPRT).

“There are 250 machines in the project,” said Kyle E. Pope, team leader of CPRT. “And 125 of them, to be used for Introduction to Computers and Engineering Problem Solving (1.00) and Mechanics and Materials I (2.001), were donated by the Hewlett-Packard Corporation.

“That adds up to something like half a million dollars of grant aid,” Pope said. “The remaining funds are from MITCET, which [ultimately] comes from the Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education.”

Courses tailor laptop use to fit needs

“Students [except for those in the Technology Enabled Active Learning program] will get the laptop, a wireless card, a case, and the computers will be registered with [],” Pope said.

StudioMIT (Architecture) and 2.001 students will be issued individual laptops for their personal academic use.

“Architecture students will be using [the laptops] for CAD-CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing) development, on-site work at construction building projects, and ultimately developing portfolios of their architectural work,” said Phillip D. Long, senior strategist in Academic Computing.

Meanwhile, students enrolled in 1.00 will be paired up and instructed to “figure out how to share the laptop,” Long said.

Students taking part in the TEAL program, the version of Physics II (8.02T) which has replaced the standard electricity and magnetism course usually offered in the fall, will interact with their laptops as part of their laboratory equipment. Each team of four to six students will be assigned a computer for use in a project-based setting.

Project an educational experiment

If the laptop program succeeds during initial tests, it could usher in the largest changes to campus computing since the completion of Project Athena in June 1991.

“The idea is to accommodate different goals,” Kumar said. “We want to move the computing environment to a stage where education is not reliant on the physical location of computing equipment, for example, Athena clusters.”

“One-to-one computing is the vision we are trying to paint,” Kumar said. “We envision a transformation in the clusters to a much more mobile, heterogeneous environment.”

Still, no concrete plans for expanding the program are currently being discussed. “The outcome has not been determined,” Long said.

Among the issues yet to be resolved are the availability of the infrastructure necessary to support such a wireless network and the basic question of whether students need the laptops at all.

“It’s not like this is a step to some master plan,” Long said. “We realize that the program is not for everybody. We are instead using this in the true sense of inquiry.”