In order to stay within a traditional classroom environment, natural input technology as well as products which make hardware easier to use are a must. In 1975, at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, a prototype called DYNABOOK with the size and weight of an executive portfolio, a page-sized flat display and voice and stylus input was designed. The DYNABOOK was to be operated in much the same way as pencil and paper are used today. Xerox's vision of light-weight, keyboard-free (not requiring typing skills) and user-friendly systems should increase the expectations of many people in the educational community.
According to Bajarin , the concept of pen computing has captured the imagination of many in the industry. It has been viewed as a new paradigm, a new platform that could usher many non-computer users into the computer age; and the pen has been touted as the most natural way to interact with a computer. Bajarin  has also pointed out that such a pen is the evolution of the computing interface, an evolution of the way we interact with information because it creates new ways to deal with information and opens up the possibility of placing computer technology into the hands of more people. Since September 1989, when Grid announced the GRidPad, most of the major computer hardware companies have introduced pen-based computers. Each of these products is approximately the size of a notebook, has no keyboard, allows the user to write directly on the display with an electronic pen, and has a character recognition engine to convert handwriting to printed characters.
|Fig 1. Remote configuration|
To offer a more convenient interface and to realize Berque's vision , our system is modeled on such pen-based computers as shown in figure 1. Through a local area network (LAN) installed in each classroom and inter-connected between them by Ethernet routers to create a metropolitan or even a wide area network, students use these pen computers to receive the professor's electronic slides and can annotate each slide with their personal notes. Full interaction between the professor's computer and students' computers is possible; for example, quizzes may be administered discretely by the professor via the same network, in real-time; and, total student success rate can be displayed on the professor's screen to see if the teaching material is understood or if corrective teaching is required. One course lecture at a time can be run over the entire network; simultaneous lectures are not supported for the moment.
Although our software tools were implemented for the classroom, they were designed with a more global view. From the classroom system presented in this paper, a more global system may be implemented. As shown in figure 2, the software tools may be used in the following environments:
|Fig 2. System usage environments|
a. in the classroom: During a lecture, students use their pen-based computer to receive data sent by the professor. Full interaction is performed via a set of commands initiated by either the professor or any of the students. Personal notes may be written on computers to annotate the professor's electronic transparencies;
b. in remote classrooms: Students may attend lectures in remote classrooms and benefit from the same tools as those used by students located in the main classroom;
c. at school: Transmitters can be installed at different locations in the school to send any relevant memos (such as the cafeteria menu for the day) to students' pen-based computers. Students may send E-mail messages among themselves. Personalized timetables indicating students' schedules of classes to attend may be installed on their computers at the beginning of the term. A scheduler can be installed on students' pen-based computers which may interact with their course timetable and coach students to organize their time, or they can use any software package that may be installed on their computers; and
d. at home: After school, students generally study lessons learned during the day. Using a tutoring module, students may be guided to study subjects according to their own learning habits and abilities; the system may also be used to analyse the students' level of learning. Besides reviewing course materials, students may use their computers to do homework. Such functions and their results could be valuable to both students and professors in helping them to perform better in their roles and environment. With the course lecture materials already downloaded on the students' computers or by loading the materials from diskettes, students can review their courses on any computer by "re-running" the lectures.
|Fig 3. Classroom configuration|
As shown in figure 3, our system is formed by an Ethernet LAN; hubs, connected to a backbone, may be used in the classrooms of an academic institution if multiple classrooms are required to seat the students. In this system, one of the classroom computers is configured as the server controlling the communication between students located in the classroom, the professor, peripherals and any communication to remote classrooms. Only one computer in the entire network may be configured as the professor; all others, excluding the servers, must be configured as students. A large- screen projection system is connected to all server computers allowing students without a computer to follow the lesson or allowing video clips to be projected. This system also dissuades students from constantly looking only at their computer screen. Hence, computers may be configured in three different modes. The following describes the role of each mode:
a. The Server mode. A centralized approach was taken in order to gather information on classroom events easily. It frees other computers to perform their own tasks. Information passing on the network between the professor and the students' computers is analysed by the server, and if proper action has to be taken, the server will initiate a command to the right computer. Furthermore, the server is responsible for updating the classroom overhead projection screen. Depending on how professors design their lectures, this screen may display information other than what is displayed on the students' computer screens. This screen plays the role of the traditional blackboard which provides a common focus point to the class and maintains peer group interactions. For example, electronic pointing is allowed and performed only on the classroom projection screen. Students must still look at this screen if they do not want to miss information. Any peripherals such as printers, compact disk drives, sound cards, and video cards must be connected to server computers. Peripheral configurations should be the same in all classrooms to maintain the integrity of the lecture;
b. The Professor mode. In this mode, commands to control other computers are available. The current lesson, displayed on all computers, is controlled by this computer. Most commands are initiated from the professor's computer and sent directly to the server which in turn will initiate the appropriate command; however, if a command must be executed by all other computers, the command will be broadcasted and no relay will be performed by the server. In this mode, a professor may also write personal notes; and
c. The Student mode. In this mode, the computer is mostly controlled by commands received by the server or the professor's computer. However, students may initiate questions sent to the professor and may write personal notes.
The following section describes the tools which were constructed to improve note taking.