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Release: March 15, 2000

Model UI project will measure impact of computers in class

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A few years ago, Lynn Johnson, Ph.D., incorporated laptop computers into a small-group class for beginning dental students. She described it as a great experience, an
"ah-ha" moment that showed her how information technology could enhance learning.

Now, Johnson, an assistant professor of oral pathology, radiology and medicine at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry, is building on this experience. She and Jim Duncan, coordinator of electronic services and the Information Commons at the UI Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, have launched a research project that combines laptop computers, wireless networks and problem-based learning.

Problem-based learning (PBL) brings small groups of students together to explore clinical cases. Presented with a hypothetical patient, students work together to locate information that will help them determine the best route to addressing the patient's specific health care needs.

Johnson recalls that in her pilot project, one student used electronic information resources to determine that a patient with diabetes was incorrectly taking his insulin. Without aid from online databases, the problem might have remained a mystery. "I'll bet this student will understand facts about diabetes and insulin for life," Johnson said.

Johnson's new project emphasizes skills that students will carry with them throughout their careers. PBL was developed as a way to teach problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to students in the health sciences. Information technology offers increasingly useful tools for locating information and making clinical decisions.

Supported by a UI grant of more than $44,000, the two-year project will lend laptop computers to 12 first-year dental students, who will be free to use the computers throughout their academic work as well as in PBL sessions. Johnson hopes the machines will enhance PBL, letting students collaborate on research that they might otherwise have to do individually outside of class.

"We will research the impact on education by measuring students' problem-solving skills and perceptions of self-directed learning," Johnson said. Duncan added that the project integrates existing information resources into the dental curriculum in the hope that they will become second nature to students. A librarian will be available during PBL sessions to help students design effective information searches.

The grant, which was funded by UI student computer fees, will purchase the computers, plus transmitters that permit wireless connections between the computers and to the Internet. The wireless system will let students move about the room and break into groups, giving the small, discussion-based classes much more flexibility than they would find in conventional electronic classrooms.

Duncan said the project also offers the chance to assess the current state of wireless technology, which may reduce the need to rewire existing facilities in order to accommodate computer connections. He said the project also aims to develop a system that lets students seamlessly link their computers to different networks as they travel from building to building.

With its broad focus on technology, learning strategies, and personnel and infrastructure requirements, the project may become a model for similar efforts to fuse computers and teaching. It begins with a pilot project this summer.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide.