Eye on Education

Fresno State readies for tablet experiment

A roving military Humvee curves around switchbacks, climbing up a dusty mountain road on the way through Afghanistan's Waygal Valley.

The platoon leader's boots crunch hard dirt as he and his comrades disembark once they've made it up the ridge.

This war scenario actually is a video gamelike digital simulation playing across dozens of laptop screens in a Fresno State military science classroom. Army Reserve Officer training students like 23-year-old Joshua Schmelzel, whose on-screen character is the platoon leader, move their fatigue-clad avatars around a cyber war zone during a lesson on navigating foreign terrain.

This is almost what a 21st century college classroom looks like, Fresno State officials say. Almost.

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Fresno State leaders believe the future is all about tablets -- lightweight, mobile and cheap.

"Next year, they'll use these tablets," said Lt. Col. Lorenzo Rios, Army ROTC commander and professor for the military science class. "We'll be pushing the envelope a little bit further to leverage video (and) various websites that allow them to really shape and formulate their understanding of the information."

Rios is one of 40 Fresno State professors training to participate in the university's new tablet program, which will launch next year and provide a subsidized device for at least 1,000 students who enroll in classes using tablets.

The plan, modeled on a similar idea at California State University, Northridge, is a rarity among universities. Research shows very few college students own tablets. In a realm where laptops still reign among 20-somethings, Fresno State President Joseph Castro is forging ahead with an experiment to determine whether hand-held tablets have enough computing power, and whether tablets have noticeable education benefits.

"I think it's going to be more collaborative in nature, more dynamic and lead to innovation in ways we haven't quite imagined yet," Castro said. "There's just tremendous potential there."

This fall, students who participate will each get a $500 scholarship to buy one of three tablet options. The funds are an approximately $600,000 investment by the Fresno State Foundation that Castro says is an important way to level the playing field for low-income students.

Another $300,000 will double the number of university wireless hotspots.

The goal is to give students the tools they need to do well in school, Castro said.

"I've heard some stories about students writing papers on their phones because that's where they have their data plan," he said. "This is going to enable them to do it from their tablet, from wherever they're at."

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Tablets will change how students learn and how teachers teach. No longer will professors stand at the front lecturing, a teaching style nicknamed the "sage on the stage," Rios said.

Professors will become more like facilitators while students take the reins over classroom learning.

"Instead of being the source of knowledge, (professors) can direct the student to the different sources and allow them to generate their own understanding," Rios said.

Knowing how to use the most cutting-edge devices will be important for Fresno State graduates, said Rudy Sanchez, director of academic technology and innovation. Employers expect new hires to have technological skills. More and more, he said, tablets are becoming part of that mix.

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Hand-held devices usually are more versatile than laptops and can host any number of applications, he added, though practical barriers could turn some off.

"The ease of use and convenience are some significant pros," Sanchez said. "The downside has to do with the limitations of computing power."

A 2012 study of Fresno State students shows 15.2% have tablets, but only 8.5% use them for school. Nationwide, just a small slice of college-goers are buying tablets. Deloitte's annual back-to-school survey from 2013 shows that while 82% of college students own a desktop or laptop, only 14% have a tablet.

Will laptops soon share the same fate as flip phones, which for years dominated the cellphone market but were replaced by smartphones?

Indiana mobile media researcher Michael Hanley says no, at least not for a while.

Very few college students own a tablet, and those who do mostly use them to watch videos and browse online, said the Ball State University associate advertising professor.

Hanley has tracked tablet purchases among Ball State's 18,000 college students and found that while purchases surged right after the iPad was released, those numbers have declined slightly over the years.

About 29% of Ball State students now own some type of tablet, his 2014 research shows. That's par for the course among many universities he swaps notes with about mobile trends in higher education.

By being among just a handful of universities investing in tablets, Fresno State is taking a risk, Hanley said -- especially when it comes to overcoming computing power issues and frustrations with detachable keyboards and mouses intended to make them more user-friendly.

Training professors and convincing them to use tablets as a curriculum tool could prove to be the biggest hold-up, he said.

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"In one way, they're rather courageous because they're at the point of the spear," Hanley said of universities like Fresno State. "The chatter you hear about mobile is really loud, but like a lot of these niches, it's a long way from adoption into the niche of the education market."

But with such limited research on the topic, Fresno State's Angel Sanchez says he hopes the university's experiment can help make sense of it all.

"If this device is used in ways for study, for accessing information, for communicating information, for development of writing, how does it change the classroom environment?" said Sanchez, director for the office of institutional effectiveness. "Those are the kinds of things that we need to look at."

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