Category Archives: Educational technology

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.

“What was that?” Hopf asks. “I think I heard the answer.”

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.

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Filed under Clickers, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Math, Peer instruction, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

How the inverted classroom saves students time

Our semester is into its third full week, and most of my time (as you know from checking my Twitter or Facebook feed) is being spent, it seems, on making screencasts for the MATLAB class. I feel like I’ve learned a great deal from a year’s worth of reflection on the first run of the class last spring, and it’s showing in the materials I’m producing and the work the students are giving back.

The whole idea of the inverted classroom has gotten a lot of attention in between the current version of the course and the inaugural run — the time period I think of as the “MATLAB offseason” — through my blogging, conference talks, and everyday conversations at my work. One of my associate deans, off of whom I’ve bounced a number of ideas about this course, related a conversation he recently had with someone about what I’m doing.

Associate Dean: So, Talbert is using this thing called the inverted classroom.

Other person: What’s that all about?

AD: He puts the lectures all online, and instead of lecturing in class he has them do group assignments on various kinds of problems.

OP: Doesn’t that double the amount of time students have to spend on the class?

I’ve never encountered that exact reaction before, although I did mention once that the biggest negative comment from students last year in the MATLAB course was that it took too much time relative to the credit load (1 credit). I liked how my associate dean put the answer:

AD: Well… think about it this way. You are still doing both lecture and “homework”. But which part of that are going to need the most amount of help on?

OP: OK, now I get it.

Exactly. Students are going to need a lot more guidance on the difficult task of assimilating information than they will need on the relatively easy — incredibly easy, in fact — task of receiving a transmission of information. Both phases of the game need to take place in some form, but assimilation is harder, and the probability of sinking massive amounts of time into work that goes nowhere is a lot higher, than in transmission.

I’ve seen some great examples of where the inverted classroom method has actually saved students possibly hours of fruitless labor in the last two weeks.

Today, for instance, we were doing a lab problem set on command line plotting. In one of the tasks, students are asked to produce a 1×2 subplot illustrating the behavior of a two-parameter family of functions. One team was stuck because their M-file wouldn’t execute properly even though their code looked correct. The problem: They used a dash (-) in the title, which causes MATLAB to think that the stuff preceding the dash is a variable name, which wasn’t in the workspace. It’s an innocent error but not one that students with just two weeks of MATLAB under their belts could easily debug themselves. Had they run into this problem outside of class, who knows how much time would have been wasted getting nowhere? But inside class, it was solved in the amount of time it took for them to raise their hands and for me to come over and look.

Another example from today: A team had entered this code:

x = linspace(0,10);
y = 100 - exp(-2*x);
axis([0 15 90 105])
plot(x,y)

They had entered the code without line 3 already but didn’t like the look of the plot, so they added the axis command to try and change the viewing window. But nothing changed. Why? To the trained eye, it’s simple — you have to have something plotted first before you can change the axis. So just reverse lines 3 and 4. But to the untrained eye, again, who knows how much time would be lost in trying to figure this out? Instead I was able to instruct them directly on this, at the conceptual level (How is MATLAB thinking its way through your code?) and they got it. (It wasn’t just me telling them, “You need to switch lines 3 and 4.”)

So above and beyond being more instructionally effective, I’m realizing — and I hope students are too — that the inverted classroom makes student time a lot more efficient, and there’s a much higher success-to-effort ratio than in the traditional mode of teaching.

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Filed under Education, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, MATLAB, Teaching, Technology

Computers, the Internet, and the Human Touch

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This article first appeared earlier this week on the group blog Education Debate at OnlineSchools.org. I’m one of the guest bloggers over there now and will be contributing articles 1–2 times a month. I’ll be cross-posting those articles a couple of days after they appear. You’d enjoy going to Education Debate for a lively and diverse group of bloggers covering all kinds of educational issues.

It used to be that in order to educate more than a handful of people at the same time, schools had to herd them into large lecture halls and utilize the skills of lecturers to transmit information to them. Education and school became synonymous in this way. Lectures, syllabi, assessments, and other instruments of education were the tightly-held property of the universities.

But that’s changing. Thanks to advancements in media and internet technology over the past decade, it is simpler than ever today to package and publish the raw informational content of a course to the internet, making the Web in effect a lecture hall for the world. We now have projects such as MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, and countless initiatives for online education at US colleges and universities providing high-quality materials online, for free, to whomever wants them. It brings up a sometimes-disturbing question among educators: If students can get all this stuff online for free, what are classrooms and instructors for?

Tech author Randall Stross attempts to examine this question in his New York Times article “Online Courses, Still Lacking that Third Dimension”. In the article, Stross mentions “hybrid” courses — courses with both online and in-person components — but focuses mainly on self-contained courses done entirely online with no live human interaction. He correctly points out that learning is an inherently human activity, and technologically-enhanced coursework is successful insofar as it retains that “human touch”.

However, Stross casts the relationship between computer-enabled courses and traditional courses as a kind of zero-sum game, wherein an increased computer presence results in a decreased human presence. He refers to universities “adopting the technology that renders human instructors obsolete.” But it’s not the technology itself that makes instructors obsolete; it’s the adoption of practices of using that technology that does. There are numerous instances of traditional college courses using computing and internet tools to affect positive change in the learning culture of the institution. There are also plenty of cases, as Stross points out, where technology has replaced human instructors. The difference is an administrative one, not a technological one.

Nor is the supposed obsolescence of the instructor all technology’s fault. If universities and individual professors continue to hold on to a conception of “teaching” that equates to “mass communication” — using the classroom only to lecture and transmit information and nothing else — then both university and instructor are obsolete already, no technology necessary. They are obsolete because the college graduate of the 21st century does not need more information in his or her head to solve the problems that will press upon them in the next five or ten years. Instead, they need creativity, problem-solving experience, and high-order cognitive processing skills. A college experience based on sitting through lectures and working homework does not deliver on this point. The college classroom cannot, any longer, be about lecturing if it is to remain relevant.

And notice that an entirely self-contained online course can be as “traditional” as the driest traditional lecture course attended in person if it’s only a YouTube playlist of lectures. What matters regarding the effectiveness of a course isn’t the technology that is or is not being used. Instead it’s the assumptions about teaching and learning held by the colleges and instructors that matter, and their choices in translating those assumptions to an actual class that students pay for.

What we should be doing instead of choosing sides between computers and humans is finding ways to leverage the power of computers and the internet to enhance the human element in learning. There are several places where this is already happening:

  • Livemocha is a website that combines quality multimedia content with social networking to help people learn languages. Users can watch and listen to language content that would normally find its place in a classroom lecture and then interact with native speakers from around the world to get feedback on their performance.
  • Socrait, a system proposed by Maria Andersen, would provide personalized Socratic questions keyed to specific content areas by way of a “Learn This” button appended to existing web content, much like the “Like This” button for sharing content on Facebook. Clicking the button would bring the user to an interface to help the user learn the content, and the system contains social components such as identifying friends who also chose to learn the topic.
  • I would offer my own experiments with the inverted classroom model of instruction as an imperfect but promising example as well. Research suggests this model can provide in significant gains in student learning versus the traditional approach to teaching by simply switching the contexts of lecture and activity, with lecture being delivered via video podcasts accessed outside of class and class time spent on problem-based learning activities in teams.

Rather than view college course structure as a pie divided into a computer piece and a human piece, and fret about the human piece becoming too small, let’s examine ways to use computers to enhance human learning. If we keep thinking of computers as a threat rather than an aid to human interaction, computer-assisted instruction will continue to lack the human touch, the human touch will continue to lack the power and resources of computers and the internet, and student learning will suffer. But if we get creative, the college learning experience could be in for a renaissance.

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Filed under Early education, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Peer instruction, Software, Teaching, Technology

Another thought from Papert

Seymour Papert - Grafik

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Like I said yesterday, I’m reading through Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas right now. It is full of potent ideas about education that are reverberating in my brain as I read it. Here’s another quote from the chapter titled “Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning”:

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are “smart people” and “dumb people.” The social construction of the individual is as a bundle of aptitudes. There are people who are “good at math” and people who “can’t do math.” Everything is set up for children to attribute their first unsuccessful or unpleasant learning experiences to their own disabilities. As a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of “dumb people” or, more often, to a group of people “dumb at x” (where, as we have pointed, x often equals mathematics). Within this framework children will define themselves in terms of their limitations, and this definition will be consolidated and reinforced throughout their lives. Only rarely does some exceptional event lead people to reorganize their intellectual self-image in such a way as to open up new perspectives on what is learnable.

Haven’t all of us who teach seen this among the people in our classes? The culture in which our students grow up unnaturally, and incorrectly, breaks people into “good at math” or “bad at math”, and students who don’t have consistent, lifelong success will put themselves in the second camp, never to break out unless some “exceptional event” takes place. Surely each person has real limitations — I, for example, will never be on the roster of an NFL team, no matter how much I believe in myself — but when you see what students are capable of doing when put into a rich intellectual environment that provides them with challenges and support to meet them, you can’t help but wonder how many of those “limitations” are self-inflicted and therefore illusory.

It seems to me that we teachers are in the business of crafting and delivering “exceptional events” in Papert’s sense.

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Filed under Early education, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Coming up in January

Fall Semester 2010 is in the books, and I’m heading into an extended holiday break with the family. Rather than not blog at all for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting (possibly auto-posting) some short items that take a look back at the semester just ended — it was a very eventful one from a teaching standpoint — and a look ahead and what’s coming up in 2011.

I’ll start with the look head to January 2011. We have a January term at my school, and thanks to my membership on the Promotion and Tenure Committee — which does all its review work during January — I’ve been exempt from teaching during Winter Term since 2006 when I was elected to the committee. This year I am on a subcommittee with only three files to review, so I have a relatively luxurious amount of time before Spring semester gets cranked up in February. A time, that is, which is immediately gobbled up by the following:

  • I’ll be at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans from January 6–9. This will be my first trip to the Joint Meetings since 2002, and I’m pretty excited about it. I will be giving two talks, one in the MAA Session on Undergraduate Cryptology (PDF) about my five-day micro-unit on cryptology for freshmen and the other in the MAA Session on Innovative and Effective Ways to Teach Linear Algebra (PDF) on experimenting with the inverted classroom model in linear algebra. Both of those sessions are loaded with interesting-sounding talks, so I hope to attend the entire session. I also hope to catch up with friends I haven’t seen since, well, 2002 — and maybe connect with some new ones. If you’re attending, let me know!
  • The second iteration of the MATLAB course is coming up in the spring as well, and I will be doing some significant redesign work on it based on experiences and data from the first iteration. I’m constantly humbled and gratified by the interest and positive responses that the course has generated in the MATLAB community and elsewhere — and by how much interest and attention the course has received. I’ve had a chance to observe and talk to the alumni from the first run of the course during their Calculus III course that used MATLAB significantly, and their usage habits and feedback have given me some ideas for what should be positive changes in the course. I’ll elaborate on that later.
  • I am teaching Linear Algebra again in the spring, as I have done for the last 4-5 years, and this year I am targeting that course for a more robust implementation of inverted classroom techniques. A lot of the students in that course will be MATLAB course alumni, so they will be used to all that inversion. But I’ve had enough experience with peer instruction and classroom response system (“clicker”) use on the one hand from this past semester (which I never blogged about, and I’ll try to remedy that) and inverted classroom approaches in MATLAB on the other that Linear Algebra seems well-positioned to benefit from a combination of these approaches. I’ll be sketching out and planning the course in January.
  • Like I said, I used a lot of peer instruction and clickers in calculus this semester with great success (I think; at least the students say so). I’m teaching two more sections of calculus in the spring and will be refining my teaching using these tools. But calculus in the spring has a different flavor than calculus in the fall, so we will see how it goes.
  • What I’m reading this January: Teaching with Classroom Response Systems by Derek Bruff; Learning to Solve Problems by David Jonassen; The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb, and Williams; and catching up on a mountain of articles that accumulated during the semester.
  • I’m also reading Geometry and Symmetry by Kinsey, Moore, and Prassidis leading up to an MAA review of the book. The “Prassidis” in the author list is Stratos Prassidis, who was my Ph.D. dissertation advisor.

Throw a couple of consulting projects on top of all that, and you’ve got yourself a busy January!

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Filed under Calculus, Clickers, Education, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, Life in academia, Linear algebra, Math, MATLAB, Peer instruction, Teaching, Technology

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.

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Filed under Educational technology, Life in academia, Math, Profhacks, Teaching, Technology

This week in screencasting: Optimization-palooza

My calculus class hit optimization problems this week — or it might be better to say the class got hit by optimization problems. These are tough problems because of all their many moving parts, especially the fact that one of those parts is to build the model you plan to optimize. Most of my students have had calculus in high school, but too many calculus courses in high school as well as college focus almost primarily on algorithms for computation and spend little to no time with how to create a model in the first place. Classes that are so structured are doing massive harm to students in a number of ways, but that’s for another post or two.

Careful study of worked-out examples is an essential part of understanding optimization problems (though not the only part, and this alone isn’t sufficient). The textbook has a few of these. The professor can provide more, but class time really isn’t best spent just by having the professor put examples on the board. Class time should also be spent working on optimization problems with the professor there to provide guidance. And since I can’t spend 8-10 class days both working examples and giving students time to work themselves, screencasts on optimization problems have been the obvious solution.

This week I did screencasts for four problems. Here they are (one problem needed two screencasts):

To my students’ great credit, they have embraced YouTube as a great source of help in calculus. They’ve utilized not only these screencasts but many other ones, most of them excellently produced, and now doing a search on YouTube is an essential component of studying for many of them. I think that’s a great approach, obviously.

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Filed under Calculus, Education, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, Math, Problem Solving, Screencasts, Teaching, Technology, Weekly features