Tablets: The Prescription to Strengthen Student Engagement in Computer Science Instruction

Ed Gallizzi (, Holger Mauch (, Kelly Debure, Computer Science

Bill Junkin, Director of Instructional Technology

2006 Cohort --- Technology for Teaching Grant

Abstract: Lack of student engagement in course work is a concern for college educators. The Computer Theory course, one of four required for a computer science major, was selected for redesign because its content is abstract and complex, requiring graphical figures and mathematical notation. Tablet technology increased student engagement by introducing problem solving activities whose solutions, captured on tablets, are shared; the full process of solution development is shown and captured in tablet-based class notes; and all in-class notes were shared on a website for later review. Another tablet-inspired redesign described in this project is the Digital Arts Computing course.



Eckerd College’s “Computer Theory” course has been completely redesigned and other computer science courses have been modified using tablets to increase student learning. The redesign 1) developed group problem solving activities whose tablet-captured solutions are shared; 2) shared solutions so no student is identified and incorrect solutions became “teachable moments”; 3) showed the full process of solution development, captured in tablet-based class notes; 4) displayed all in-class notes on class website for later review. These uses of tablet technology address the following instructional issues that undermine engagement and content mastery: 1) passive student reception of content presented by instructor; 2) students’ fear of appearing “dumb”; 3) students’ incomplete understanding of content; and 4) lack of accurate and complete class notes. This project addresses a major concern of college educators – lack of “student engagement” in course work. Maintaining students’ interest in in-class activities is essential because research demonstrates that engaged learners learn more.

Digital Arts Computing, another course redesigned to make use of tablet technology, explores ways in which the computer has become a prevalent tool in the visual arts, affecting both the creation and delivery process.

Implementation (pedagogy)

Three important instructional issues have been addressed: students become actively involved as learners; potential misconceptions of content is addressed during class; and learning is refocused from answers to the derivation processes. Faculty continually search for methods to engage students in learning, i.e., increase student involvement in learning processes, because active engagement increases learning. Tablet technology use enables students to spend more time on intra- and inter-group discussion, by-passing inactive processes, e.g., re-writing group solutions on the blackboard, copying those solutions. In the past, only excellent students volunteered to share their “correct” solutions, which minimized participation from hesitant students. However, anonymous projection of potentially incorrect tablet solutions removes the “embarrassment” factor and enables inclusion of more varied responses for review, including incorrect solutions, which offers additional opportunities to fully address potential misconceptions. Because tablet technology encourages inter- and intra-group communication about problems, class discussions move from focusing on problem solutions written on the blackboard by the professor or star student to joint derivation of solutions, with contributions from the non-stars. The active process becomes the focus.


Adding the browser-based, in-class polling program, already developed at Eckerd College, produces even more powerful interaction and anonymous presentation of students’ responses.


In the Digital Arts Computing course students use the tablets to complete digital drawing and painting projects as well as projects that involved various photo-manipulation tasks requiring precise cursor control. They compare their experiences of artistic expression in the digital domain to experiences using traditional media.

Implementation (technology)

Ubiquitous Presenter software has been used in the Theory of Computing course. This has moved learning from traditional static processing, e.g., copying discrete snapshots of a complex process from the blackboard, to recording the flow of all steps that led to a problem solution during in-class discussion (made available on the web for later review).

A typical screenshot is shown here:

In the Digital Arts Computing course the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is used.

Impact on Teaching

In the Theory of Computing course mobile tablet technology refocused learning from instructor led lecture to student derived solutions, i.e., from teacher elaboration of design ideas, concepts and proofs on the blackboard, to students’ problem solving and sharing solutions through engaging exercises such as "complete this diagram," "finish this proof," "work in pairs to check each other's results, suggest improvements."

New in-class exercises and group projects have been tailored to tablet’s capabilities, e.g., progressive machine designs that branch into various versions of machines require numerous uses of “undo”/“redo.” This process could not be discussed in detail without each student’s access to tablet and replay software.


For more details, please refer to the following documents:

Impact on Student Learning

Goal: To provide learning experiences for students that will ensure their engagement with and full understanding of course content presented in class, laboratory, or online.

To measure the difference in knowledge gained from tablet-based instruction vs. traditional instruction, we have compared final exam scores for the Theory of Computing course achieved by computer science majors instructed using these two methods. For future comparative studies, we also have four years of comprehensive exam data for four required courses taught traditionally. Preliminary results show that there is a statistically significant increase in scores for those final exam questions whose solutions are largely graphical in nature; solutions to such type of problems had been discussed in-class using the tablet PCs.

For the detailed statistical analysis, please refer to the following document:

For the Digital Arts Computing course students compared their experiences of artistic expression in the digital domain to experiences using traditional media. Although the imaging software used for the course was also available in an open lab 24 hours a day, students were reluctant to work on a machine that substituted a mouse for the stylus. Thus, they came to the teaching classroom outside of class hours to use the tablet technology to finish their assignments. Some examples of work from the Digital Arts Computing course are shown here:

Traditional (scanned) and digital sketches of a still life, using cross hatching for shading.

Examples of several digital watercolor paintings.

The Digital Arts Computing course is a short term course taken by incoming freshmen who get exposed to the advantages tablet technology has to offer right from the start.

Student Voices

What did students have to say about the impact of the tablets on their learning? Watch the following:

Professor Gallizzi, engaged in a teaching/learning activity.

"In the Computer Architecture class, most of the students have used the tablet computers to integrate their note taking with the class presentation slides that were redesigned and formatted for the tablet computer interface."

Professor Mauch introducing a student presentation.

"Immediate feedback on in-class exercises and student presentations is important, and tablet PCs help to clarify difficult concepts."

Quick Facts

Dept: Natural Sciences Collegium, Computer Science Discipline


As of May 2008, thirteen computer science courses have been impacted:

  • CS110 Survey of Computing,
  • CS143 Introduction to Computer Science,
  • CS221 Data Structures,
  • CS301 Theory of Computing (focus of our redesign),
  • CS310 Computer Architecture,
  • CS334 Bioinformatics,
  • CS360 Databases,
  • CS1 410, CS2 410, CS3 410, CS4 410 Computer Science Seminar,
  • CS415 Computer Networks,
  • CS431 Evolutionary Computation.

Three non-computer science courses have been directly impacted:

  • Sociology (SO) 160 Statistical Methods
  • Winter Term 2007: Culture thru the Camera's Lens
  • Autumn Term 2006 and 2007: Digital Arts Computing

Number of students impacted as of May 2008 (estimate): 270

Number of faculty impacted as of May 2008: 6

Number of faculty that will be "tablet-ready" by Fall 2008: 28


Keywords: tablet computer, theory of computing, Ubiquitous Presenter

Contact Us

PI Name: Ed Gallizzi

Our project website is

Secondary contact: Holger Mauch

Additional team members: Kelly Debure, Bill Junkin

References & Publications

Documents that describe the details of our project:

Resources that we have found to be helpful:

Links to any presentations we have given or papers/articles we have published, that are related to this project or area of research will appear here.

This project supported in part by an HP Technology for Teaching grant.

This electronic portfolio was created using the KML Snapshot Tool™, a part of the KEEP Toolkit™,
developed at the Knowledge Media Lab of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
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