# Tag Archives: Technology

## Helping the community with educational technology

Image via Wikipedia

Many people associated with educational technology are driven by a passion for helping students learn using technology in a classroom setting. But I wonder if many ed tech people — either researchers or rank-and-file teachers who teach with technology — ever consider a slightly different role, voiced here by Seymour Papert:

Many education reforms failed because parents did not understand or could not accept what their children were doing. Remember the New Math? This time there will be many who have not had the personal experience necessary to appreciate fully the multiple ways in which digital media can augment intellectual productivity. The people who do can make a major contribution to the success of the new initiative by helping others in their communities understand the potential. And being helpful will do much more than improve the uses of the computers. The computers could be a catalyst for turning our communities into “learning communities.”

So true. So much of education falls to the immediate family, and yet often there are technological innovations in the classroom which fail to be supported at home for the simple reason that parents and other family members don’t understand the technology. Ed tech people can make a real impact by simply turning their talents toward this issue.

Question for you all in the comments: How? It seems that the ways that ed tech people use to communicate their thoughts are exactly the ones off the radar screen of the people who need the  most help — Twitter, blogs, conference talks, YouTube videos, etc. You would need to get on the level with the parent trying to help their kid in a medium that they, the parents, understand. How is that best done? Newsletters? Phone hotlines? Take-home fact and instruction sheets? Give me some ideas here.

(h/t The Daily Papert)

## Technology making a distinction but not a difference?

This article is the second one that I’ve done for Education Debate at Online Schools. It first appeared there on Tuesday this week, and now that it’s fermented a little I’m crossposting it here.

The University of South Florida‘s mathematics department has begun a pilot project to redesign its lower-level mathematics courses, like College Algebra, around a large-scale infusion of technology. This “new way of teaching college math” (to use the article’s language) involves clickers, lecture capture, software-based practice tools, and online homework systems. It’s an ambitious attempt to “teach [students] how to teach themselves”, in the words of professor and project participant Fran Hopf.

It’s a pilot project, so it remains to be seen if this approach makes a difference in improving the pass rates for students in lower-level math courses like College Algebra, which have been at around 60 percent. It’s a good idea. But there’s something unsettling about the description of the algebra class from the article:

Hopf stands in front of an auditorium full of students. Several straggle in 10 to 15 minutes late.

She asks a question involving an equation with x’s, h’s and k’s.

Silence. A few murmurs. After a while, a small voice answers from the back.

Every now and then, Hopf asks the students to answer with their “clickers,” devices they can use to log responses to multiple-choice questions. A bar graph projected onto a screen at the front of the room shows most students are keeping up, though not all.

[...]

As Hopf walks up and down the aisles, she jots equations on a hand-held digital pad that projects whatever she writes on the screen. It allows her to keep an eye on students and talk to them face-to-face throughout the lesson.

Students start drifting out of the 75-minute class about 15 minutes before it ends. But afterward, Hopf is exuberant that a few students were bold enough to raise their hands and call out answers.

To be fair: This is a very tough audience, and the profs involved have their work cut out for them. The USF faculty are trying with the best of intentions to teach students something that almost assuredly none of them really want to learn, and this is exceedingly hard and often unrewarding work. I used to teach remedial algebra (well short of “college algebra”) at a two-year institution, and I know what this is like. I also know that the technology being employed here can, if used properly, make a real difference.

But if there’s one main criticism to make here, it’s that underneath the technology, what I’m seeing — at least in the snapshot in the article — is a class that is really not that different than that of ten or twenty years ago. Sure, there’s technology present, but all it seems to be doing is supporting the kinds of pedagogy that were already being employed before the technology, and yielded 60% pass rates. The professor is using handheld sketching devices — to write on the board, in a 250-student, 75-minute long lecture. The professor is using clickers to get student responses — but also still casting questions out to the crowd and receiving the de rigeur painful silence following the questions, and the clickers are not being used in support of learner-centered pedagogies like peer instruction. The students have the lectures on video — but they also still have to attend the lectures, and class time is still significantly instructor-centered. (Although apparently there’s no penalty for arriving 15 minutes late and leaving 15 minutes early. That behavior in particular should tell USF something about what really needs to change here.)

What USF seems not to have fully apprehended is that something about their remedial math system is fundamentally broken, and technology is neither the culprit nor the panacea. Moving from an instructor-centered model of learning without technology to an instructor-centered model of learning with technology is not going to solve this problem. USF should instead be using this technology to create disruptive change in how it delivers these courses by refocusing to a student-centered model of learning. There are baby steps here — the inclusion of self-paced lab activities is promising — but having 75-minute lectures (on college algebra, no less) with 225 students signals a reluctance to change that USF’s students cannot afford to keep.

## Technology FAIL day

This morning as I was driving in to work, I got to thinking: Could I teach my courses without all the technology I use? As in, just me, my students, and a chalk/whiteboard with chalk/markers? As I pulled in to the college, I thought: Sure I could. It just wouldn’t be as good or fun without the tech.

Little did I know, today would be centered around living that theory out:

• I planned a Keynote presentation with clicker questions to teach the section on antiderivatives in Calculus. As soon as I tried to get the clickers going, I realized the little USB receiver wasn’t working. Turns out, updating Mac OS X to v10.6.5 breaks the software that runs the receiver. Clicker questions for this morning: Out the window. Hopefully I’ll find a useable laptop for tomorrow, when I’m using even more clicker questions.
• Also in calculus, the laptop inexplicably went into presenter mode when I tried to give the presentation without clicker questions. Most of the time when I try to get it into presenter mode, I can’t do it. This time I couldn’t make it stop.
• The Twitter client on my laptop got stuck in some kind of strange mode such that clicking on anything made it go to Expose.
• I lost the network connection to our department printer halfway through the day.
• GMail went down.

Fortunately everything I had planned could be done without any technology aside from the whiteboard. But when the technology doesn’t work, I have to improvise, and sometimes that works well and sometimes not. In calculus, I just had to revert back to what is often called the “interactive lecture”, which means just a regular lecture where you hope the students ask questions, and it was about as engaging as that sounds.

I do believe I can teach without all this technology, but the kind of teaching I do with the technology is, I think, more inherently engaging and meaningful for students. I ask better questions, interact more freely with students, and highlight the coherence and the big ideas of the material more adeptly with the technology in place. So when the tech fails on me, things seem odd and out of place and contrived. Students pick up on that. Maybe I’m simply addicted to the tech, but I don’t like teaching without it, and my classes aren’t nearly at the same level without it.

## Why change how we teach?

Sometimes when I read or hear discussions of innovation or change in teaching mathematics or other STEM disciplines, whether it’s me or somebody else doing the discussing, inevitably there’s the following response:

What do we need all that change for? After all, calculus [or whatever] hasn’t changed that much in 400 years, has it?

I’m not a historian of mathematics, so I can’t say how much calculus has or hasn’t changed since the times of Newton and Leibniz or even Euler. But I can say that the context in which calculus is situated has changed – utterly. And it’s those changes that surround calculus that are forcing the teaching of calculus (any many other STEM subjects) to change –radically.

What are those changes?

First, the practical problems that need to be solved and the methods used to solve them have changed. Not too long ago, practical problems could be neatly compartmentalized and solved using a very small palette of methods. I know some things about those problems from my Dad, who was an electrical engineer for 40 years and was with NASA during the Gemini and Apollo projects. The kinds of problems he’d get were: Design a circuit board for use in the navigational system of the space capsule. While this was a difficult problem that needed trained specialists, it was unambiguous and could be solved with more or less a subset of the average undergraduate electrical engineering curriculum content, plus human ingenuity. And for the most part, the math was done by hand and on slide rules (with a smattering of newfangled mechanical calculators) and the design was done with stuff from a lab — in other words, standard methods and tools for engineers.

So it is with calculus or almost any STEM discipline these days. Students today will not go on to work with simple, cleanly-defined, well-posed problems that fit neatly into a box. Nor will they be always doing things by hand; they will be using technology to solve problems, and this requires both a different way of representing the models (for calculus, think “functions”) they use and the flexibility to anticipate the problems that the methods themselves create. This is not what Newton or Leibniz had in mind, but it is the way things are. Our teaching must therefore change to give students a fighting chance at solving these problems, by emphasizing multiple representations of functions, multiple methods for solution of problems, and attention to the problems created by the methods. And of course, we also must focus on teaching problem-solving itself and on the ability to acquire new skills and information independently, because if so much has changed between 1965 and 1995, we can expect about the same amount of change in progressively shorter time spans in the future.

Also, the people who solve these problems, and what we know about how those people learn, have changed. It seems undeniable that college students are different than they were even 20 years ago, much less 200 years ago. Although they may not be natively fluent in the use of technology, they are certainly steeped in technology, and technology is a primary means for how they interact with the rest of the world. Students in college today bring a different set of values, a different cultural context, and a different outlook to their lives and how they learn. This executive summary of research done by the Pew Research Foundation goes into detail on the characteristics of the Millenial generation, and the full report (PDF, 1.3 Mb) — in addition to our own experiences — highlights the differences in this generation versus previous ones. These folks are not the same people we taught in 1995; we therefore cannot expect to teach them in the same way and expect equal or better results.

We also know a lot more now about how people in general, and Millenials in particular, learn things than we did just a few years ago. We are gradually, but also rapidly, realizing through rigorous education research that there are other methods of teaching out there besides lecture and that these methods work better than lecture does in many situations. Instructors are honing the research findings into usable tools through innovative classroom practices that yield statistically verifiable improvements over more traditional ways of teaching. Even traditional modes of teaching are finding willing and helpful partners in various technological tools that lend themselves well to classroom use and student learning. And that technology is improving in cost, accessibility, and performance at an exponential pace, to the point where it just doesn’t make sense not to use it or think about ways teaching can be improved through its use.

Finally, and perhaps at the root of the first two, the culture in which these problems, methods, people, and even the mathematics itself is situated has changed. Technology drives much of this culture. Millenials are highly connected to each other and the world around them and have little patience — for better or worse — for the usual linear, abstracted, and (let’s face it) slow ways in which calculus and other STEM subjects are usually presented. The countercultural force that tends to discourage kids from getting into STEM disciplines early on is probably stronger today than it has ever been, and it seems foolish to try to fight that force with the way STEM disciplines have been presented to students in the past.

Millenials are interested to a (perhaps) surprising degree in making the world a better place, which means they are a lot more interested in solving problems and helping people than they are with epsilon-delta definitions and deriving integrals from summation rules. The globalized economy and highly-connected world in which we all live has made almost every problem worth solving multidisciplinary. There is a much higher premium now placed on getting a list of viable solutions to a problem within a brief time span, as opposed to a single, perfectly right answer within an unlimited time span (or in the time span of a timed exam).

Even mathematics itself has a different sort of culture now than it did even just ten years ago. We are seeing the emergence of massively collaborative mathematical research via social media, the rise of computational proofs from controversy to standard practice, and computational science taking a central role among the important scientific questions of our time. Calculus may not have changed much but its role in the larger mathematical enterprise has evolved, just in the last 10-15 years.

In short, everything that lends itself to the creation of meaning in the world today — that is, today’s culture — has changed from what it used to be. Even the things that remain essentially unchanged from their previous states, like calculus, must fit into a context that has changed.

All this change presents challenges and opportunities for STEM educators. It’s challenging to go back to calculus, and other STEM disciplines, and think about things like: What are the essential elements of this subject that really need to be taught, as opposed to just the topics we really like? What new facets or topics need to be factored in? What’s the best way to factor those in, so that students are really prepared to function in the world past college? And, maybe most importantly, How do we know our students are really prepared? There’s a temptation to burrow back in to what worked for us, when faced with such daunting challenges, but that really doesn’t help students much — nor does it tap into the possibilities of making our subjects, and our students, richer.

## This week in screencasting: Making 3D plots in MATLAB

I’ve just started on a binge of screencast-making that will probably continue throughout the fall. Some of these screencasts will support one of my colleagues who is teaching Calculus III this semester; this is our first attempt at making the course MATLAB-centric, and most of the students are alums of the MATLAB course from the spring. So those screencasts will be on topics where MATLAB can be used in multivariable calculus. Other screencasts will be for my two sections of calculus and will focus both on technology training and on additional calculus examples that we don’t have time for in class. Still others will be just random topics that I would like to contribute for the greater good.

Here are the first two. It’s a two-part series on plotting two-variable functions in MATLAB. Each is about 10 minutes long.

Part of the reason I’m doing all this, too, is to force myself to master Camtasia:Mac, which is a program I enjoy but don’t fully understand. Hopefully the production value will improve with use. You’ll probably notice that I discovered the Dynamics Processor effect between the first and second screencasts, as the sound quality of Part 2 is way better than that of Part 1. I’d appreciate any constructive feedback from podcasting/screencasting or Camtasia experts out there.

I’m going to be housing all these screencasts at my newly-created YouTube channel if you’d like to subscribe. And if I manage to do more than one or two a week, I’ll put the “greatest hits” up here on the blog.

Filed under Calculus, Camtasia, Screencasts, Teaching, Technology, Textbook-free

## Google Wave and disruptive simplicity

Image via Wikipedia

Google today announced that it will be suspending development on Google Wave, the communications tool it launched last year. Wave attracted unprecedented hype in the run-up to its launch, with Wave invites serving as a kind of geek status symbol and going for \$70 on eBay. But despite the initial enthusiasm, Google reports that Wave “has not seen the user adoption we would have liked”.

I used Wave once or twice once I managed to get an invite. It was one of the most befuddling experiences I have ever had using technology. Wave was supposed to be a sort of combination instant messenger, email, and file-sharing software platform with social media inputs and outputs. But like a lot of attempts to combine existing  services and solutions, instead of being “both-and”, Wave ended up being “neither-nor”. You could IM with Wave, but it lacked the simplicity of a basic IM client. You could send messages with Wave like email, but why do that when users already had GMail? You could post maps and files, but in my experience anything beyond basic messaging was buggy and complicated. I saw somebody say online that the feeling they got using Wave must be like the feeling elderly people get when they have to use computers at all. That sums up my experience with Wave pretty economically.

Wave was a bold attempt to abstract the entire idea of “messaging” into one coherent service. But it lacked one very important thing that makes disruptive ideas stick: simplicity. It really doesn’t matter how innovative or disruptive your technology is. The plain truth is that if it’s complicated, nobody is going to want to use it. Nobody, that is, outside a small circle of enthusiasts who appreciate the technology for what it is. There’s nothing wrong with being an enthusiast. But most people are not enthusiasts, and so it’s no surprise that Wave lacked user adoptions when many people who tried to use it couldn’t find a problem it could solve that wasn’t already solved by something simpler.

Google loses nothing by canceling Wave, of course, and in all likelihood we’ll see Wave re-emerge down the line as something that really does change our lives. Google would do well to remember that it’s the simple things that tend to be the most disruptive.

Filed under Social software, Technology

Wolfram, Inc. has just rolled out its newest creation: Wolfram|Alpha Widgets. These are small “apps” that execute a single W|A query using user input, without actually loading the W|A website. In just the last few days since W|A widgets have been around, hundreds of them have been made, from widgets that find anagrams to widgets that calculate comparative economic data between two states to widgets that take derivatives. Each widget also comes with the option to customize, share among social media applications (21 different services are represented), or embedded in popular blogging and wiki services such as WordPress and Mediawiki. (Sadly, there’s no WordPress.com embedding yet.) Take a look through the gallery at what’s been done.

What’s really exciting here is that you don’t need any programming knowledge to create a widget. You start with a basic W|A query, then highlight the specific search terms you want to turn into user-defined variables, and the graphical tools on the website do the work. In other words, if you can perform a W|A query, you can make a widget out of it in short order and then share it with the world via social media or embedding on a blog or wiki.

There’s a lot of potential here for use in teaching and learning:

• The ability for anybody, with or without programming skill, to create widgets from simple W|A queries opens the door for creative technology projects for students at almost any level. An instructor could assign a project in which students simply have to create a widget that does something useful for the class, for example to generate a comparison of two stocks in an economics class (though that’s already been done) or generate a contour map of a two-variable function in a multivariable calculus class. Students work in teams to create the widget and then post on a class blog or wiki.
• Instructors can easily add a W|A widget to a homework or writing assignment for easy generation of data from user-defined sources. For example, a standard exercise in precalculus and science is to determine when a sample of a radioactive substance is reaches a certain mass, given its half-life. In textbooks, we have to stick with one element and its half-life. But an instructor could now create a widget where the student enters in the name of an element or selects it from the list, and the widget spits out the half-life of that element. The instructor can alter the problem to say, “Pick your favorite radioactive element and use the widget to find its half-life. How long until 10mg of that element decays to 8mg?”

I’m very excited about the shallow learning curve of these widgets and the consequent potential for students to make and play with these things as creative components of a class. Here’s a screencast on how to make a widget, in which I do a complete walk-through of the creation process.

What are some other ways you could see Wolfram|Alpha widgets being used effectively in a course?

1 Comment

## Some technology food for thought

I’m back from vacation and hopefully will be resuming the kind of blogging pace I had while at ASEE last week. I certainly have a lot to process and share. But right now I want to share just a couple of thoughts from one of the sessions. The speaker was Steven Walk of Old Dominion University, speaking on something called “quantitative technology forecasting” — a sort of data analytics approach to the study of how technology emerges and disperses — as a platform for helping students acquire technological literacy. He made a couple of statements which have had my brain turning them over ever since. These are paraphrased off my hastily-taken notes. First:

Technology is any creation that provides humans with a compelling advantage to sustain that creation.

That would imply that technology is a much larger term than we typically imagine, encompassing such things as law, accounting, even language itself. So are all the typically technological items we think about such as computers, automobiles, and agriculture. The sort of free-market definition here is intriguing, but I wonder, what’s an example of something that is not technology? Would art qualify, since there is no sort of evolutionary “compelling advantage” to sustain artistic efforts (we just do it because we like art)? Can something be technology during one period or history and then, once it’s outlived its compelling advantage, cease to be technology?

Second:

Technology is just externalized physiology. All technology arises out of a need for human beings to extend their own bodies.

As someone who views my Macbook Pro along with OmniFocus as a replacement for my brain, I can identify with that. And of course other items are easy to see: cars allow us to move faster and farther than our bodies alone can; telephones allow us to speak with people far away. But what of the other, broader items of “technology”? How is accounting, for example, something which our ancestors created to extend themselves to something their bodies wouldn’t do?

Filed under Technology

## Partying like it’s 1995

Yesterday at the ASEE conference, I attended mostly sessions run by the Liberal Education Division. Today I gravitated toward the Mathematics Division, which is sort of an MAA-within-the-ASEE. In fact, I recognized several faces from past MAA meetings. I would like to say that the outcome of attending these talks has been all positive. Unfortunately it’s not. I should probably explain.

The general impression from the talks I attended is that the discussions, arguments, and crises that the engineering math community is dealing with are exactly the ones that the college mathematics community in general, and the MAA in particular, were having — in 1995. Back then, mathematics instructors were asking questions such as:

• Now that there’s relatively inexpensive technology that will do things like plot graphs and take derivatives, what are we supposed to teach now?
• Won’t all that technology make our students dumb?
• Won’t the calculus reform movement dumb down our curricula with all this nonsense about graphs and multiple representations and so on?
• How can you seriously call a person a mathematician/engineer if they can’t [insert calculation here] by hand? What if they are in a situation where they don’t have access to technology?

And yet, I actually heard all of these questions almost verbatim from mathematics and engineering professors this morning, multiple times. (To the great credit of the speaker who was asked the last question, he replied: If an engineer is ever in a situation where he is without access even to a calculator, we have a lot bigger problems on our hands than just bad education. TRUTH.)  I was having serious third-year-of-grad-school flashbacks.

These questions aren’t bad; they’re moot. In 1995, mathematical technology was just at the level of expense, accessibility, and functionality that these questions needed to be dealt with. Students could conceivably purchase calculators for a couple hundred dollars that were small enough to slip into a backpack and could calculate $\int \ln(\cos x) \, dx$ symbolically. Should we ban the technology, embrace it, regulate it, or what? Should we change what and how we teach? The technology could be controlled, so the question was whether we should, and to what extent, and these were important questions at the time.

But that was 1995. What the TI-92 could do in 1995 can now be done in 2010 using Wolfram|Alpha at no expense, using any device with an internet connection, and with functionality that is already vast and expands every other week. (This says nothing about W|A’s use of natural language input.) The technology is all around us; students are using it; there is no argument against expense, accessibility, or functionality that can reasonably be made. It’s going to affect what our students do and how they accept what we present to them regardless of what we think about it.  So I’d suggest that questions such as What do students need to know how to do in an engineering calculus course? and How do we ensure they can do those things? are better questions for now (and might even have been better then).

Some of the conceptions of innovative teaching and learning strategies I saw also seemed stuck in 1995. I won’t name names or give specific descriptions in order not to offend people who probably simply don’t know the full scope of what’s gone on in mathematics education in the last 15 years. (Although I must call out the one talk that highlighted the use of MS Excel, and claimed that there were no other tools available for hands-on work in mathematics. Augh! You should know better than that!)

I will simply say that people who concern themselves with the mathematical preparation of engineers simply must look around them and get up to speed with what is happening in technology, in the cultures and lives of our students, and in what we know now about student learning that we didn’t know then. Read some seminal MAA articles about active learning. Talk to other people. Read some blogs. Something! We can’t stay stuck in time forever.

## The MATLAB class at midterm: Comfort level

To end the first half of the semester in the MATLAB course, I gave students a lengthier-than-usual survey about the course — a sort of mid-semester course evaluation. I have a load of interesting data to sift through and analyze, relating to various aspects of the course and tagged with metadata about gender, GPA, major, whether they live on or off campus, and so on. I hope to finish analyzing the data before the semester is over. (Ba-dum-ching.)

One of the questions I asked was a mirror of a question I asked in the beginning: On a scale of 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest), rate your personal comfort level with using computers to do the kinds of things we do in this class. I’m thinking that there are affective issues about working with computers, and especially MATLAB, that are never discussed but which play a huge factor in student learning. (We seem to just tell engineers to suck it up and get to work, and assume that all MATLAB learners are engineers.) Here are the data, such as they are, for this question during the first week and at mid-term:

For some reason there were three students who didn’t respond to the midterm survey at all (it was worth 5 out of 15 points on week 7′s homework). I don’t know if the “4″ and the two “8″‘s from week 1 that are missing from week 7 are the ones who didn’t respond to the survey; or if the “4″ is now a “6″ and one of the previous “6″ people didn’t respond; or what.

Of course the striking thing here is that nothing has changed. I consider this a win on two levels.

1. The course has, at the very least, not made students generally less comfortable with using computers, which I think is pretty positive considering the subject matter and audience here.
2. The kinds of things we are doing with MATLAB have gotten progressively more complicated through the semester, so holding steady on comfort level while progressing in complexity is pretty much the same as progressing in comfort level. If you report the same comfort level after learning how to drive on the interstate as you did when first learning how to drive, period, it means that you’re more comfortable with driving in general than you used to be.