San Diego, CA, January 6, 2005 -- "Cool technology!" That's how one Jacobs School student summed up the Information Technology & Public Policy course he took jointly with other students at UCSD, University of Washington, UC Berkeley and Microsoft Research (see main article). "The class was quite refreshing," says Josh Opos, a first-year graduate student in Computer Science and Engineering (CSE). "It gave us a chance to look at computer science and technology as a whole from a political perspective, which is something that I had never seen before."
"The topics were all current and very relevant to a lot of what we do everyday, such as spam and patents and copyrights and outsourcing," observes Diwaker Gupta, a second-year Ph.D. student at the Jacobs School. "It was exciting to take part in such a high-tech class."
If there was one downside to the technology, students agree, it was that the distributed class made its more difficult to ask questions or engage in discussion with faculty or students at the other sites - even though the peer-to-peer technology makes it possible in principle. "The course did a good job with one-way communication from the instructor to the students," adds Gupta. "It felt distant in the sense that asking questions was a lot more difficult." Second-year Master's candidate Jonathan Weinberg agrees, comparing the experience to watching an educational television program. "On the other hand," continues Weinberg, "I felt much less inclined to interact with the speakers."
One suggested solution: allow students to submit questions or raise their hands electronically via each classroom's high-speed wireless network. That is similar to an application called ActiveClass, developed by UCSD professor William Griswold as part of the ActiveCampus project (itself co-sponsored by Microsoft Research). "ActiveClass is designed to allow students to ask questions or get the attention of the lecturer through their wireless-enabled PDAs," says Griswold. "We should be able to adapt that software to run as part of the Classroom Presenter application that the lead instructor at UW used from his Tablet PC in this course."
Students also indicated that they would like to be able to follow the class PowerPoint presentations on their own laptops, including a tool that is currently only available to the instructor, to highlight or mark up his or her slides, just as they would on any whiteboard or overhead slide. Microsoft researchers are already scouting for a suitable venue to test a new wireless version of the ConferenceXP platform for a classroom where all the students have Tablet PCs.
To complete the course, students were required to submit a balanced policy brief on a topic related to IT policy. Teams of four to six students - in some cases drawn from multiple sites - chose topics ranging from the future of e-voting, to outsourcing and government policies on open source technology. "During the project I worked remotely with people from various backgrounds," says Josh Opos, a first-year grad student. "I had a great time coordinating my team spread across the four sites."
Upbeat assessments of the instructors and the content more than outweighed any reservations about the technology itself. "The technology was about as good as one could hope, but it still felt as if I was watching a movie rather than being in a class," Opos sums up. "I think that I learned as much, but the distributed approach puts more responsibility for learning on the student."