Category Archives: Wikis

Get your widget on

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 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?

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Filed under Calculus, Educational technology, Math, Teaching, Technology, Web 2.0, Wikis, Wolfram|Alpha

Summer calculus tidbits

So I started my summer calculus class yesterday, which meets three nights a week from 5:30-7:45 PM and consists almost entirely of commuter students. I haven’t taught an evening class since graduate school, nor have I taught a class of non-resident students in nearly as long. Noteworthy thoughts (well, I’m noting them whether they are noteworthy or not): 

  • I like teaching evening classes. There’s a kind of “after-hours” vibe to such classes that makes the atmosphere more intimate and relaxed. 
  • I like teaching commuter students. Some of these folks are commuting in from nearly an hour away, which means it’s costing some of them between $5 and $10 per class meeting in travel expenses. Many of them have day jobs which consume all their time between 8:00 and 5:00. In other words, the resources that are normally available to students in luxuriant abundance — time to study, time and accessibility for office hours, availability of college resources like computer labs and tutoring services — are a lot more scarce. And therefore the students tend to have a much higher sense of making the most of what’s around them than regular-semester students (even the ones who I have had during the regular semester). I like that. 
  • Two of the students in the class are from other local liberal arts colleges, and it’s interesting to see the differences in approach and student culture (even after one class meeting) between them and the students from my school. 
  • Angel, our course management system, has been virtually non-functional for the last few days. Sunday night I sat down to put together the Angel site for the course, and it went completely offline 1/3 of the way through. I took that as being the final straw, and I took it upon myself to pull the trigger on Option 1 from the last time I got intolerably tired of Angel. That is, I create this Wikispaces site for my course. I am not entirely sure that I am allowed to do this, since some of my higher-ups balked when I used an off-site wiki hosting service for two course wikis (mainly because of the text ads and the potential for people not related to the college to edit a college-affiliated site). But with this many commuter students, we’ve got to have some sort of reliable, web-based service for posting documents and announcements and links. I’m finding that the Wikispaces site is just what I have been wanting, and there have been some nifty additions in functionality since I used them last. I’m doing a 30-day trial of the non-free version just to eliminate the text ads (because the class will be over in eight weeks) and allow for private viewing. If I were using this during the regular semester with 10 students, which is what I have now, I could simply tack on a course fee of $2 a head and pay for four months of the no-ad version easily. 

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Filed under Course management systems, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching, Technology, Wikis

It’s ICTCM week!

ictcm.jpgOn Thursday I’ll be heading south, out of the deep freeze of late winter in Indiana to lovely San Antonio, TX for the International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics (ICTCM). This is my first time to an ICTCM, and I’m genuinely excited about going. (Which is something I can’t say about very many conferences I have attended.)

I’ll be giving a talk at 1:10 on Friday about some stuff that I have been doing with wikis in my upper-division classes lately and about the potential role of wikis in advanced math courses in general. Of course, my talk’s time slot is only 15 minutes long, and they tell me the talk should really only be 10 minutes long, so my talk is going to be more of a conversation-starter (at least I hope so) than it is anything nearly comprehensive .

Earlier on Friday, I’ll be attending a workshop on Camtasia, which I am considering as a replacement for Snapz Pro X as my screencasting software. I’ll have more to say about screencasting and screencasting software a little later. It turns out that our IT department at the college use Camtasia to do tutorial videos, and they apparently like it very much.

And apart from those two things, which constitute sort of the official reason I am going to the ICTCM, there will be lots of other fun stuff happening. For one, I’ll be meeting up with other edubloggers — notably Maria Anderson from Teaching College Math Technology Blog and Scott Franklin from Natural Blogarithms. If you’re reading this and will be there with nothing to do Friday night, join us in the lobby of the hotel and have dinner and hang out.

Also, since the Camtasia workshop and my talk all happen between 10:30 and 1:30 on Friday, the entire rest of the conference is wide open for me to attend other stuff. They haven’t posted the full schedule at the ICTCM web site yet, but the 45-minute workshops look pretty interesting, and there ought to be a huge diversity of short talks like mine. And don’t forget the vendor exhibits, which are always among the coolest things at math conferences.

In the spirit of educational technology, blogging, math, and all the other stuff that makes Casting Out Nines more or less what it is, I’ll be blogging the conference as I go, including photos and video (hopefully; I’m taking the camera, at least). You never know exactly how much down time you’ll have at a conference, but I hope to keep a steady stream of posts coming from Thursday through Saturday.

As I told my linear algebra class yesterday, this is not only a math conference but a technology conference too — so this is the sanctum sanctorum of geekhood. Don’t you want to be along for the ride?


Filed under Blog announcements, Educational technology, ictcm, Technology, Wikis