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Increasing Non-traditional Students’ Engagement in Academic Work with Tablet PC Feedback in Hybrid Special Education Graduate Courses

Yaoying Xu, Ph.D.
Department of Special Education and Disability Policy
School of Education

Brief Overview of the Project


Findings from research on distance education suggested the critical importance of quality feedback on student engagement and achievement. For example, a recent study by Wallace, Grinnell, Carey, and Carey (2006) suggested that many students prefer personalized, specific, and helpful feedback in distance education courses. With more and more students taking university courses via distance education, hybrid courses, off course, the traditional on-campus instruction that involves typical face-to-face interaction and feedback are no longer the major option in many cases. On the one hand, students choose to take an online or hybrid course for its flexibility; on the other hand, they still prefer “human touch” feedback even from the distance (Steinweg, Williams, & Warren, 2006). This need has created challenges for university instructors when developing and delivering an online or hybrid course. Assisted with technology such as Blackboard, D2L, or regular emails, written communication feedback has become the main form for almost all interactions between an instructor and students (Gray, 2002). However, in order to help students maintain interest and be successful with course content, high quality feedback is needed (Klinger & Connet, 1992). Quality feedback needs to be efficient (timely), effective (helpful), and individualized (personal). With less and less real paper-pencil and face-to-face communication, some students have reported that feedback has become mechanical and impersonal (Jennings & McCuller, 2004).

Despite the fact that online or hybrid courses have the risk for reduced meaningful feedback, the need for developing hybrid or 100% online courses is urgent. In the past three decades, teacher shortage in special education has been the challenge for teacher educators. The pass of federal law No Child Left Behind in 2001 and the new authorization of Individuals of Disabilities Education Act in 2004 have added more to this challenge because of the legal requirement for highly qualified teachers. As a result, like most other states, the state of Virginia has been offering provisional special education license that has put many special education students into full time employment under a provisional condition: remain full time students and full time teachers at the same time. While most graduate courses have been offered in the evenings to accommodate this need of students who are school teachers, there are some course sessions they will have to miss as classroom teachers, such as parent conference, open house, staff training or workshops. Therefore, hybrid courses seem to be the most appropriate delivery format for most special education courses.

The Use of Technology-- Tablet PC

With the advances of technology, providing effective, efficient, and individualized feedback is not only possible, but also applicable. The tablet PC is a tool that has the potential for developing effective, efficient, and individualized feedback with its multiple functions. With a tablet ink PC, comments can be marked directly in the text. Reading with a tablet PC with a pen in hand makes it more likely to focus both on the content as well as the structure (Foster, 2005). In addition, inserting comments using a pen-based computer helps to bring in a more human touch (Gray, 2002). Hand-written electronic feedback can be provided on assignments through the use of a tablet PC. This enables the instructor to write with digital ink on student document files and return them to students as email attachments or via the Blackboard communication. With current tablet PC technology, it is possible to write digitally directly on a MS Word document and be viewed by anyone using MS Word. If students do not have MS Word, a PDF file with feedback can be provided.

The ease of doing this with a tablet PC has reduced the amount of instructor’s time required to provide precise feedback. This technology also enables instructors to provide more detailed feedback on papers submitted via emails or to the Blackboard. Because it is evident a person has read their paper and actually written comments on it, students may feel more connected and personally interacted with the instructor. The survey findings from Steinweg, Williams, and Warren (2006) have indicated that both students and instructors are satisfied with digital ink of a tablet PC because of its efficiency as well as the “human touch” that many online communications do not provide.

Classes Involved in this Project

Two sections of TEDU 630: Trends and Issues in Special Education, one of the most enrolled courses in special education, were involved in this project. This course was the only course required for students to take before they obtain a provisional special education license.   One section was offered during spring 2007 and one during summer 2007. The spring course was a hybrid off campus class using Tablet PC to provide feedback to students throughout the semester. The summer course was also a hybrid course using Table PC as part of feedback delivery, but it was offered on campus with three weeks. A total number of forty students participated in this project.

Equipment/Software funded by CTE small grant

The CTE small grant program made this project possible. A Tablet PC (Lifebook T Series), the Adobe Professional software, and the Microsoft Office 2007 software were funded by the CTE grant. Combing these technologies, I was able to provide variety of feedbacks for student assignments and for after-class research projects during spring and summer 2007. Data on students’ engagement, academic achievement, and perceptions on feedback were collected from both the spring course and summer course.


The goal of this project was to increase students’ engagement in their academic work, especially nontraditional students in the field of special education, through technology in hybrid graduate courses. Specific objectives included: (1) to develop an effective, efficient, and individualized interaction model with students by using a tablet PC as one of the ways to provide feedback for students’ assignments and projects; (2) to develop and implement a survey on examining students’ perceptions on various formats of feedback including handwritten, electronic feedback by a tablet PC; and (3) to examine students’ engagement level and achievements of two hybrid classes through pre- and post-tests.

Assessment Procedure

Using the Tablet PC, MS Word 2007 software, and Adobe Professional software I created digital handwritten feedback directly on students’ papers that were submitted to the Blackboard Assignment Folder and students’ reflections that were submitted to the Exchange Files under Group pages. Then I converted those files to PDF documents so students could download and save them without having to keep piles of hard copies.  Surveys on different types of feedback formats were developed and distributed to students during spring semester of 2007 and summer 2007 on measuring students’ perceptions and satisfactions. Six types of feedback were asked to students: numerical on work, types on document, handwritten on document, digital hand-written using Tablet-PC on document, emails, and face-to-face conversation. Student engagement was measured by number of postings and “hits” on class and group discussion boards on the Blackboards (required discussion questions were excluded). Student achievements were compared through pre- and post-surveys on course goals and objectives, pre- and post-tests on content areas, as well as open-ended interview questions.


Findings from the surveys on both the spring and summer courses indicated that the majority of students (37 out of 40) preferred digital feedback using Tablet PC and face-to-face conversation (36 out of 40) compared with other forms of feedback. The least preferred feedback was numerical on work, followed by emails. Although there was no significant difference of preference between face-to-face conversation and digital Tablet PC feedback, when students were asked to choose between these two, more students chose Tablet PC feedback because of its flexibility and timeliness.

Students’ engagement level was significantly increased as measured by their online participation in Blackboard discussions (both class discussion and group discussion). This did not include their participation in required discussion questions. Eighty percent of their postings were related to the feedback on their papers and/or reflections. This finding suggested that individualized feedback was related to student interactions and engagement. The pretest and posttest scores of both classes showed significant difference of student achievement in content area. There was no significant difference between the two classes in terms of achievement. Pre- and post-surveys showed that there was a significant change of students’ goals and objectives throughout the period of taking the course, for both classes. The interview questions confirmed this change. For example, one student stated, “I took this class because it was required by my provisional license. But now I think I understand better about inclusion and special education law and I want to know more in this area.”

Next Step

The current project examined two classes using hybrid and Tablet PC as part of instructional formats. In the future I plan to compare classes that are delivered via 100% online, hybrid, and face-to-face across courses and instructors. The results will contribute to developing strategies for effective instruction by incorporating technology in all levels of university courses in different content areas.


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Last modified: June 20, 2013
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