Tag Archives: Digital natives

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.

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Filed under MATLAB, Teaching, Technology

And so it begins: Lab #1 in the MATLAB course

The MATLAB course began in earnest on Monday this week with our first full-length lab activity session. This was the second overall meeting, the first one being some organizational stuff and a lengthy fly-through of the main features of MATLAB. What follows is a breakdown of what we did and how it went, which also serves as an invitation for critique and suggestions in the comments.

First, some context. I intend for this course to be heavily hands-on with an emphasis on self-teaching within reasonable bounds. I laid a ground rule in the first class meeting that any question of the form “How do you do ____ in MATLAB?” was going to be met with the responses “What have you found in the MATLAB help documentation? What have you found via a Google search? What have you found out from your lab partner?” I’m not above giving hints to students in the class, but I insist that they exhaust all efforts of their own first before I come swooping in to the rescue, thereby creating a dependency upon me that makes their future, independent use of MATLAB problematic. So students have to do a considerable amount of individual work to learn basic commands and concepts before they come in to lab. Maybe I’ll blog more about that idea later, but now I want to get on to the activity itself.

First of all, students did this homework assignment in the week before the lab. The main item is to produce a graph of y = \sin(1/x) from x = -1 to x = 12. The theme of the lab this week was plotting, as you’ll see. This homework item forces them to figure out the basic usage of the PLOT command in MATLAB. It also forces them to figure out that you can’t just type 1/x in MATLAB if x is a vector.

The first 10 minutes of class are spent taking a quiz over the basic elements of the homework. Then, the lab activity itself. Here it is: CMP150-Lab1 (PDF, 201Kb). The summary:

  1. Reproduce a graph of a somewhat complicated function (related to the one from the homework set) with a bunch of extras added in the graph. Create a JPG and submit it.
  2. Create a data set by hand and plot it, and add some extras, including a text annotation. But this time, no pointy-clicky stuff using the Plot Tools window — you have to do it all by hand from the command line and put the commands into an M-file and submit that. (The moral: You need to know how to create a plot both ways, using the pointy-clicky stuff and without using it.)
  3. Create a two-item data set by hand and plot it, and make it look pretty. Create a PNG and submit it.
  4. Create single plot with 6 subplots arranged in a 2×3 grid. Create a PDF and submit it.

The philosophy here is that plotting stuff is fun, and there is a kind of immediate gratification when you create something visual that will hopefully serve as a source of low-hanging fruit for beginning MATLAB users. So students learning MATLAB should be introduced to the ins and outs of basic function and data visualization before they see much of anything else. And plotting also provides a convenient inroads to talking about M-files and other important MATLAB components.

So, how did it all go? I have to admit it didn’t start well. The homework set was due at 10:30 AM on Monday, and a good portion of the submissions had a timestamp in the neighborhood of 1:30AM Monday. There were several instances of students not reviewing their notes or watching the assigned tutorial videos before starting on the homework, which they did after midnight on the day it was due. So several teams took around 30-40 minutes just to get a basic plot of A = e^{-0.2t} \sin(2t) up on the screen — simply because they didn’t know how to create a vector, use the exp( ) command, or use the plot command, all of which we covered last week and in the homework.

I don’t say this to shame my students. Rather, I think it illustrates some important psychological points that play into teaching MATLAB, or any kind of technical computing topic, at this level:

  • Students who are at the entry level of using technical computing software believe that the software will adapt itself to what they are thinking, rather than the harsh reality of the other way around. When students want to plot e^x, they should just type it the way they write it. That may be the ideal case, but MATLAB just doesn’t work that way, and that’s a big problem for some people.
  • Most people who do any amount of computing will vouch for the importance of being able to surf the help files of a program to figure out what you need to do if you have something to get done. But freshmen in college have mostly never heard of such a thing. They are still making that transition from high school, where (typically) the teacher tells you what you need to know. Asking students to look up a command in a help system and then play around with it before coming into a lab session where they’ll be asked to do more of the same, is asking students to make a HUGE developmental leap. Or at least to begin to make it.
  • I’ve said it before, but the notion that today’s students are digitally native is both unfounded and dangerous. My students are not unintelligent, but many of them had no idea what a PNG was or how it was different from a JPG or PDF (this week’s homework asks them to do some research on that topic); many have never seen anything like a command line; a few of them didn’t even know how to attach something to an email to submit it. The so-called and self-appointed ed tech illuminati pushing this digital native idea have simply got to come back to reality so we can teach these ideas and skills rather than assume them.

Anyway, despite the rocky start, we ended well. I softened my stance, just this once, on giving out hints and how-to advice for a couple of things, and the infusion of progress begat more progress, this time by the students themselves. Most people didn’t make it past the second problem but everybody turned in reasonably good work by the deadline this morning. And by the end, teams were getting excited that they had figured some MATLAB out.

I think we can now move forward into next week, which is about working with data files and doing basic statistics, with confidence and with a little more understanding of what this class is all about. Here’s the homework!


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

True library story

I don’t make it out of my building very often at work, but I needed to go over to our library this morning to reserve a computer lab and to look for a particular book. I didn’t know the call number for the book, so I went to the nearest available kiosk computer to look it up in the online catalog.

I should have known it was going to be trouble when the nearest computer was an ancient, beige tower PC with a sticker on the side proclaiming it to be “Designed for Windows 98 and Windows NT“. And it was turned off, which is unusual for a public kiosk. So I turned it on, and it proceeded to literally rattle and whine while it booted. After entering in my login information, I was able to access the web browser — after 15 minutes had passed. 15 minutes from login to usability! I couldn’t even walk away and get on with the stuff I had to do today, because once the interminable login procedure passed, I’d be logged on.

After trying to use Internet Explorer to get to the library’s catalog — which resulted in a stuck browser — I finally just gave up and shut the thing down. Or at least, I initiated the shutdown procedure and walked off. For all I know, the thing may still be trying to shut down.

It occurred to me that university libraries are in a state of transition, and they could look like a lot of different things in the future, but one of the things that library must be is  a repository of  both information and the technology to access and connect that information. And increasingly, that dual role is shifting from books to computers and networks. If the public kiosk computer, to be used by any person randomly needing information about something, takes 15 minutes to boot and an unknown amount of time to actually use a web browser to get to the library’s internal web site, then something’s not right. And if there’s any truth at all to the digital natives idea, I think most students would have gotten a negative impression after the first 90 seconds had passed and they weren’t online.

[Disclaimer: There are other computers that work much faster in our library; but they aren’t prominently positioned to be used by the general public. And I mean no disrespect to our library staff, who really are smart when it comes to technology and are probably just as appalled by a 15-minute startup time as I am.]


Filed under Life in academia, Technology


Here’s a promotional video for a new math curriculum from Pearson called enVisionMATH. (It must be a sign of the times that grade school math curricula have promotional videos.) Watch carefully.

Four questions about this:

  1. Should it be a requirement of parenthood that you must remember enough 5th grade math to teach it halfway decently to your kids?
  2. Does the smartboard come included with the textbooks?
  3. Did anybody else have the overwhelming urge to yell “Bingo!” after about 2 minutes in?
  4. When will textbook companies stop drawing the conclusion that because kids today like to play video games, talk on cell phones, and listen to MP3 players, that they are therefore learning in a fundamentally different way than anybody else in history?

The last question is all about the research-free digital nativist assumption that is the source of many lucrative curriculum deals these days. Data, please?

[ht Teaching College Math Technology Blog]


Filed under Early education, High school, Math, Teaching, Technology, Textbooks

Retrospective: A proposal about digital natives (4.12.2007)

Editorial: We’re getting near the end of this week’s look back at articles from the past here at CO9s. I’ll have two more tomorrow and one more Saturday. Why twelve? Why, because 12 is an integer of the form 3 \times 2^n, of course. Didn’t you know those are the best kinds of numbers?

One of the things I want to accomplish on this blog is question assumptions, especially where those assumptions have an impact on students and how we teach them. For me, there’s no bigger source of unquestioned assumptions than the current movement built around the digital native hypothesis — the notion that children today are native to the digital world and come pre-loaded with technological skills that we “digital immigrants” have to acquire. These assumptions simply don’t square in any way with what I’ve experienced as a teacher, and the extent to which these assumptions are driving pedagogical programs in this country is alarming and dangerous.

In this article, I lay out a sort of research program to delineate and open up for questioning just exactly what it is these people are assuming. Now all that’s needed is for somebody to come along and start collecting data — and see where the truth is. 

A proposal about digital natives

Originally posted: April 12, 2007


 The video below, via Wes Fryer, gives a pretty good synopsis of the entire notion of “digital natives” and how they should be taught — if you drink the kool-aid believe the arguments of people who believe in digital natives. It’s 7:40 long, so take a deep breath and make some popcorn:

Continue reading


Filed under Education, Educational technology, Teaching, Technology

What’s the best electronic medium for professor/student interaction?

The comments at my last post are suggesting that email has been surpassed by IM, Facebook, and text messaging among the younger generation as the preferred means of electronic communication. (Maybe of any kind of communication.) That really gives me, as a professor, some pause as to my assumption that if I need to get information out to students in a timely way (say, about a change in an assignment or a last-minute announcement for class) or create a space for out-of-classroom discussion of ideas or assignments, email isn’t nearly as reliable as I think it is.

I’m OK with that if it’s true, but then there are two questions that come to mind as being pretty important from my perspective:

  • If I have information that I need to get out to my students quickly and be reasonably assured that they’ll get it in time for it to be useful, what is the best way to do this? Is there no one best way, meaning that I need a plan to send the info out in multiple formats? (That would be time consuming = bad.)
  • Whatever medium/media is the answer to the first question, where is the functionality for it in the major course management software packages like Angel? If it’s there, does it make sense to use the CMS proprietary version of the softwar or some third party app? (E.g. Angel’s chat feature versus plain old AIM?)

Also, would students appreciate professors using IM, texting, Facebook, etc. for class purposes, or do they really want to keep “their” means of communication for social purposes only? I tried using Facebook last year in relatively close contact with my precalculus class, and far from the students appreciating my efforts, they really felt resentful and creeped-out by the fact that their professors were on Facebook, which is “theirs”.


Filed under Educational technology, Social software, Software, Student culture, Technology

These digital natives don’t email

If you read enough edublogs, you begin to encounter the factions that believe that students today are digital natives and have all sorts of rich information experiences all the time in their everyday lives. This is usually taken to mean that they use all kinds of electronic means of sending and receiving information, such as email. I’m already skeptical of that claim, and after the following experience from today I am even less sure about it.

We had some high school students visiting the math department at my college, and part of the program was a discussion panel with current math majors. One of the math majors was asked about some of the main differences between high school and college, and he mentioned the quantity of email that one has to keep up with as a major difference. He asked the high school students how often they checked their emails now. They all looked at each other sheepishly. The math major then asked how many students have email accounts at all. Less than half indicated that they did.

Less than half. How can that be, if they are digital natives? I think have at least half a dozen email addresses just for myself!

So now I am wondering: Do most of the students not have email accounts because they simply aren’t as technologically immersed as some people think they are? Or do they have some other electronic medium for communicating, like text messaging, that they use more frequently than email — so much more frequently that they don’t even have email accounts? I know texting is big among the 18-22 year old set right now, but it’s hard to imagine texting simply usurping the role of email, when you can get email accounts for free all over the place.


Filed under High school, Student culture, Technology