# Tag Archives: Educational 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)

## How I make screencasts: The whiteboard screencast

In this post, the fifth in a series of posts on how I make screencasts, I’m going to focus on what I call the “whiteboard” screencast. This is a screencast where I am demoing some sort of concept or calculation by writing things down, rather than clicking through a Keynote presentation or typing something on the screen. It’s intended to mimic the live presentation of content on a whiteboard, hence my name for it.

Of course the most well-known examples of “whiteboard” screencasts are the videos at Khan Academy. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen a Khan Academy video before, here’s one:

I do whiteboard screencasts fairly often. I use them sometimes for presenting hand calculations for students to watch and work through before class, and sometimes (probably more frequently) I use them to create additional examples for things I’ve covered in class. This is a really powerful use of screencasts — students often want more examples than there is time for in a class meeting, and whiteboard screencasts give me a way to give students as many examples as they can dream up.

The basic principles of whiteboard screencasts are the same as for other screencasts. You first have to engage in basic planning, which involves defining a tight and coherent scope for your screencast and writing out a script. For whiteboard screencasting, which is more free-form than lecture capture using Keynote or PowerPoint, the scripting process has to be a little more rigorous. Because it’s easy for me to get carried away when talking about something that matters to me, I find it very helpful to work out in advance everything that I am going to do in the screencast, in the order and position on the screen that I intend to do it. I don’t always read words from a script, but in order to make the screencast logical and coherent, I do storyboard what I am going to do and practice with the drawings, erasures, and such. Very little of what I do in a whiteboard screencast is ad-libbed. (If I were better at ad-libbing, that might be different.)

So I will start a whiteboard screencast with something like a mind-map of the topic or topics I intend to address and one, maybe two, examples of that topic. Additional topics go into additional screencasts. I work those examples all the way through to ensure that there are no math or other mistakes and that I don’t get stuck in one of my own calculations. If you think about it, this is just the same kind of planning that goes into a successful whiteboard lecture, so this process is not entirely alien to instructors.

Once the screencast is properly planned, it’s time to put it together. This is where it gets technically somewhat complicated. But a lot of people ask me about the tools I use to make whiteboard screencasts, so hopefully this will be worth it. I use four main tools for doing whiteboard screencasts:

• Keynote; I’ll explain in a minute.
• Camtasia, which we saw in the last post in this series.
• FlySketch, a software app from Flying Meat (they also make the popular personal wiki software VoodooPad). FlySketch puts a transparent overlay on top of any existing objects on your computer screen and allows you to draw freehand, draw geometric shapes, or type text on the overlay. See the link for screenshots and a more detailed description.
• A Wacom pen tablet. I currently a Wacom Graphire tablet purchased with a grant a few years ago. With my upcoming job change, I have to hand that in when I leave, so I plan on picking up a Bamboo Pen & Touch this fall.

With those tools, here is the workflow I follow for making a whiteboard screencast.

First, open up Keynote and make a single, blank white slide. This is going to be the “whiteboard” itself. Of course you could also use a blank MS Word document, or any other blank white window or screen. Keynote is just for convenience’s sake.

Next, open up FlySketch and lay it completely over the blank window so that the controls are showing above the top of the window:

Then, open Camtasia and create a custom region that encompasses the “whiteboard”. When the video rolls, it will record what is happening on the whiteboard:

And finally — start the video, and start writing on the FlySketch overlay using the Wacom tablet. Before you start recording, make sure to select the pen color and size you want. If you need to change color, size, or pen type during the screencast — say, you want to switch from freehand writing to typing, or drawing a straight line for an axis — you can tap on the appropriate FlySketch control and Camtasia won’t record it because it’s off-screen.

Then you simply record what you need, then stop, and process the video as was described in the previous post in this series. This includes editing out any mistakes and splicing together multiple video clips for the same screencast.

Here’s an example of the finished product:

Although Sal Khan has been my inspiration for doing screencasts, I’ve made some conscious decisions here to do things differently than Khan does. First, I prefer the white background to the black; it’s more familiar to learners and seems cleaner. I also tend to use thicker pen “tips” than Khan does; I tend to think his pens look a little spidery. Also, the Wacom tablet pen is pressure-sensitive, and that feature works better if the pen tip is thicker. Finally, from a planning perspective, my whiteboard screencasts are a lot less conversational than Khan’s videos. Khan tends to shoot from the hip in terms of presentation; this is part of what makes his videos so charming, but I think it also tends to make his videos go longer than they need to. I prefer to make things a bit more efficient and focused and take less time. It also cuts down on mistakes.

I think the hardest part of this process, for me, was mastering the art of writing on the Wacom tablet in one place and having the writing appear on the screen. This is harder than it sounds! At first my handwriting was horrible (I think at the time I likened it to somebody with a brain injury) but eventually I got my act together. I suspect people learning to play the drums or the piano have to go through the same process before it sounds any good.

Another challenge is managing the relatively small amount of physical space you are working with. A Keynote slide is just not a very large place, and it’s easy to run out of room when writing. If this happens, it can be dealt with by just starting another slide and creating a new video clip. But it’s better for the learner to see one example per slide if possible, and making sure this happens is part of that all-important planning process. I find it helpful to practice the presentation not on the screen or a piece of paper but on a 3 x 5 inch notecard, which has something much closer the same proportions for writing as the Keynote slide on the screen. But note that it does take practice — if you just sit down and try to bang out a whiteboard screencast, it’s likely not to be as good or as instructional as possible, and it could end up taking more time in terms of edits and re-takes than it would if you just planned and practiced in the first place.

I’d be interested in hearing any alternative approaches for making these kinds of screencasts. I once wrote Sal Khan and asked him what his tools were, but never got a response, so I just reverse-engineered what he was doing. There may be a better way. Let me know!

Next up will be the final installment in this series, touching on what I called a “demo” screencast. It’s probably what I do the most. Stay tuned!

## How I make screencasts: Lecture capture, part 2

Now that school’s out, I’m going to pick up where I left off (two months ago!) in my series on how I make screencasts. So far I’ve made three posts in this series. In the first post we talked about what a screencast is, exactly, and why anybody would want to make one. In the second post, we saw how the elements of careful planning make screencasting a successful experience. And in the most recent post, we took a look at using Keynote (or PowerPoint) to create a lecture-capture screencast.

Before I talk about the other kinds of screencasts I make, I’m going to take this post to describe how I use my go-to tool for screencasting: Camtasia for Mac, specifically how I use it to make lecture capture videos when I’m not using Keynote. (Full disclosure: I was on the beta-testing team for Camtasia for Mac and got a free license for the software for my efforts. But I can definitely say that I’d gladly have paid the $99 for the software otherwise — it’s that useful.) There is a Windows version of Camtasia and a server-oriented variant called Camtasia Relay, and they are all very similar, so what I describe in this post can be used if lots of different situations. Let’s suppose I have a lecture or presentation that I want to turn into a screencast, which basically means I need to record the presentation as it happens on the screen and add a voice-over. I’ve already described how to do this with Keynote or PowerPoint, but what if you’re using Prezi, Beamer, or some other presentation tool? What I need is a tool that will record stuff happening on the screen that’s separate from the presentation tool itself. That’s where Camtasia comes in. Camtasia is software that records video of anything happening on your screen — all of it, or part of it — along with any audio you choose to add, including voiceovers. You can record multiple segments of video, edit those segments, and put it all together with transitions and effects. The interface is laid out a lot like iMovie, so Mac users will feel right at home using it. There are a lot — seriously, a lot — of options for working with video in Camtasia, too many to get into here. I’ll just show an example of a simple lecture capture putting Prezi and Camtasia together. First, bring up the screen that has the Prezi in it. (For Prezis particularly, creating the lecture capture works best if you download the Prezi to your local drive and then run it in a window, rather than trying to run it on the web.) Now launch Camtasia. When you do, a little floating pane will come up that looks like this: The dropdown menu on the left lets you specify which part of the screen you’re going to capture. I usually just select “YouTube HD/720p”, which records essentially the entire screen. I can crop out what I don’t need later. And once I put it on YouTube (which is my usual destination for screencasts) it’ll be in glorious 720p HD. Once you’ve selected your area, just click the Record button and start presenting, just as you would if you were giving the lecture in front of a live audience. Your lecture is being recorded behind the scenes and all you see is your screen. Warning: Presenting for a screencast feels a lot different than doing it for a live audience because, well, the audience isn’t there. There’s no body language or ambience to add to the presentation. So this will feel a little unusual at first. Also, I can’t stress enough that you should probably go from a prepared script the first few times you do this, rather than try to wing it. It’ll keep you on track and prevent lots of mistakes. When you stop recording, you’re brought into the main editing area of Camtasia: The bottom part of this screen is called the “timeline”. Right now, the one clip that I have in the timeline is a partial video of the presentation. It appears as a chunk of the timeline outlined in blue. Inside the timeline you can see the audio levels given as waveforms, and there’s a playhead along the top of the timeline showing you where you are in the video as well as the time. At this point, what I usually do is check the sound levels first. A lot of times the built-in microphone on my Macbook doesn’t record very loudly. I’ll listen to a bit of the recorded video to check if that is the case. If so, I go and apply the Dynamics Processor effect to the clip I made: You apply the clip just by dragging it from the effects area directly onto the clip in the timeline. In fact this is how all the effects, transitions, and other features of Camtasia are applied to video. The Dynamics Processor brings all audio levels up to a uniformly audible setting. If I have the time, I will watch the whole video from start to finish to see if I’m happy with it. If there’s something I need to edit out — I goofed the script, or sneezed, or the phone rang, etc. — I can go back and edit that part out just by putting the playhead just before the mistake: Then selecting “Split selected at playhead” from the Edit menu; this splits the video clip in two, right where the blooper is. Then move the playhead until just after the mistake, and selecting “Trim Start to Playhead”. This will crop out the blooper from the second clip. Then you can just drag the second clip over next to the first one, and with that, the blooper is edited out. The ability to edit in such an easy way really changed screencasting for me. You will make mistakes when you screencast, no matter how good or experienced you get. But you don’t want to have to throw away an entire screencast because of one goof. If I am screencasting and I make a mistake, I just pause for a moment, and then I start again from the point of error. The pause will show up on the audio as a flat spot, and I can go back and edit the error out. You cannot do this with the voiceover features of Keynote and PowerPoint, and it makes a huge difference. If this is just a straight lecture capture — so there’s no other video coming in from a different source — at this point I’m done. The only thing left to do is add the “credits page” that I always put at the end of my screencasts that lists my email, YouTube channel, Twitter, and so on. I have this saved as a PDF. To bring it into the timeline, I go to Import Media: and select it from the file finder. It then appears as a clip: I just drag it into the timeline at the end of the video: And then, for effect, add a fade-in transition from the video to the credits, which I do by finding it in the transitions menu: And dragging and dropping it in the little seam between the video clip and the credits page: Now I’m ready to publish. Camtasia allows me to publish the resulting video directly to my YouTube channel using the Share menu: As you can see, there are options for iTunes and Screencast.com as well. Or you can just choose “Export…” which exports the video to a file format of your choice, for uploading wherever you want. After I start the process, Camtasia converts the video to Quicktime and then uploads it with the title I gave it. A 10-minute video will take several minutes to complete this process on a Macbook Pro. Your mileage will vary according to your system hardware and your internet connection. After it’s done uploading, I still have to go to YouTube and add metadata. But otherwise that’s it! What’s nice about Camtasia is that the tool is separate from the presentation tool you’re using. So if you already have the presentation content made up, you can turn it into a screencast quite easily. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Prezi, Beamer, a text document you’re scrolling down, or anything else. And the more you do this, the easier it gets to convert existing presentation content into a mobile device-friendly screencast. In the next post, I’ll talk about what I call “whiteboard” screencasts, where I record stuff that I am writing on the screen. This is a lot like what Salman Khan at Khan Academy does. Hopefully it won’t be another two months before I get to that. ## Three things I wish Google Documents would let me do Let me preface this article by saying that I really like Google Documents. It’s a fantastic set of tools that extends basic office functionality to the web in really compelling ways. I’ve been incorporating Google Docs pretty centrally in my courses for the last few years — for example, I no longer hand out paper syllabi on the first day of classes but instead write the syllabi on GDocs and distribute the links; and I’ve given final exams on Google Docs with links to data that are housed in Google Spreadsheets. I love being able to create a document on the web and just leave it there for students (or whoever) to come see, collaborate, and comment — without having to keep track of paper and with virtually zero chance of losing my data. (If Google crashes, we have much bigger problems than the loss of a set of quiz data.) But like anything, Google Documents isn’t perfect — and in particular, there are at least three things that I wish Google Documents would do that would push my really like-ness to unqualified love: 1. Bring back the old Equation Editor. A couple of years ago, Google rolled out an equation editor for Google Docs that was just beautiful — a small editor that had point-and-click features for adding equations and the ability to parse $\LaTeX$ commands. In other words, it was a mini-$\LaTeX$ editor built right into Google Docs that would implement almost any of the essential functionality of $\LaTeX$, including matrices, multi-line equations, and more. I remember discovering this editor two years ago and promptly writing up every single one of my linear algebra activities as Google Documents. Then, inexplicably, Google replaced this sweet $\LaTeX$ goodness with a stripped-down equation editor that pales in comparison, supporting only a tiny fraction of $\LaTeX$‘s command set, and in particular no matrices or multi-line equations. And the “new” editor is clunky and doesn’t seem to produce very good results. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of why this change to a clearly-inferior editor was made. It can’t be because it was overtaxing Google’s system! This is Google, for goodness’ sake, and it’s 2011 — can’t we have a real $\LaTeX$ editor for Google Docs? There’s already one for GMail, you know. 2. Allow comments and discussion threads on PDF’s uploaded to Google Documents. From a teacher’s perspective, one of the most compelling possibilities for Google Docs is to have students upload their class work on Google Docs and then initiate a running discussion thread on that work. Such a thing would replace the usual system of handing in work and having the teacher write comments on it, thereby turning the grading process into something more like a conversation. You can do this with documents created in Google Docs. But if you want students to create mathematical work — since, as I just noted, the current equation editor for GDocs doesn’t get the job done — students would have to create their work in MS Word or $\LaTeX$, convert to a PDF, and then upload it. No problem, except that discussion threads and comments aren’t allowed on uploaded documents. The option simply isn’t there in the menu system. Google acknowledges that comments and comment threads are only available on newly-created documents, and functionality is coming for older documents — but no word on uploaded documents. If this could be made to happen, grading student work suddenly gets a whole lot more interesting (and valuable for students). 3. Auto-shorten URL’s of links to documents. OK, this is pretty minor, because all I have to do is copy the URL given to me by Google and run it through bit.ly. But since Google already has its own URL shortener, why not just auto-compress the URL using that shortener at the moment the URL is generated? It saves a few clicks and makes users happier because we don’t have to deal with URL’s that are multiple dozens of characters long. And more practically, it makes Google Docs easier for novices to use — many new users (I’m envisioning a good portion of students in my classes who I’d like to get to use Google Docs) have no idea that URL shorteners exist. What else would you add to this list? Better yet, are there hacks or workarounds that resolve these issues? (Or, thirdly, am I just mistaken on any of this?) 1 Comment Filed under LaTeX, Social software, Teaching, Technology, Web 2.0 ## 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. ## 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. 3 Comments ## 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 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 ## 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. ## Spreadsheets vs. online gradebooks One of the things my students like the most about learning managment systems (LMS’s) such as Blackboard, Angel, or Moodle (I’ve used all of these at some point in my career) is the online gradebook feature. I enter their grades online, and students can check in on the web at any time and see their grades and get the info. These things are useful to be sure. But I’ve been wondering if they are the best implement for managing grades. I’ve been wondering if it wouldn’t be better to simply hand back graded work and then have students keep their grades on their own using a simple spreadsheet. Some reasons why I think this way: 1. Spreadsheets have functionality. I can enter, view, and edit grades in an online gradebook; students can view them; but nobody can perform any meaningful analysis on the data that have been entered. The gradebook is just a two-dimensional list. But of course in a spreadsheet I can not only store and view data but also manipulate it any way I want and play the many what-if scenarios that profs and students alike play. Of course this is not a big deal because most LMS’s allow you to download gradebook data in some kind of spreadsheet-compatible form, but why not just start with a spreadsheet to begin with? 2. Spreadsheets allow greater choice of implementation of other LMS features. Online gradebooks are often the only redeeming feature of LMS’s, and profs tend to stick with LMS’s they don’t like just to have the gradebook. This often hurts the students, who have to put up with substandard email clients (see this post for more) and file-sharing systems that LMS’s provide rather than use something easier and better-implemented. Or else, profs end up using only the gradebook feature of an LMS and use other software (class blogs, wikis, Netvibes, etc.) for the remainder of what an LMS does (such as posting files and announcements), which can get confusing for students, who then expect the prof to use the features of the LMS. 3. Having students keep track of their grades with a spreadsheet encourages them to learn about spreadsheets. If you take the approach of expecting students to manage their own grades, and teach them how to use spreadsheets to do this, my experience is that students will be motivated to learn the basics of spreadsheets simply because they care about their grades and because they can now answer on their own all those questions such as “What do I need on the final to get a B- in the class?” One can learn a lot about spreadsheets just by using it as a personal gradebook for one class in one semester. And since spreadsheets are an increasingly important tool for data management in general both in and after school, the more students can learn about them, and the earlier they can do so, the better for them. 4. Using spreadsheets encourages students to take responsibility for their learning. One of the detriments of online gradebooks is that it removes an important responsibility of learning — managing the outcomes of your assessments — from the student and makes it the instructor’s job. I don’t mind the work of entering grades into a gradebook, but I do think it would be better for students to learn that responsible record-keeping is important and that they should practice it, and I like the idea of students being closer to their grade data than they are with instructor-managed online gradebooks. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to completely give up using an online gradebook for these reasons, but I find them to be pretty compelling. What do you think? 8 Comments Filed under Course management systems, Technology ## Wolfram|Alpha and the shrinking future of the graphing calculator Image via Wikipedia By now, you’ve probably heard about Wolfram|Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that was recently rolled out by the makers of Mathematica. If you haven’t, here’s a good place to start. There is considerable debate among ed-tech people as to exactly what kind of impact Wolfram|Alpha, abbreviated W|A, is going to have in education. For me, W|A is still a little raw and gives back too many “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input” responses when given mathematically legitimate (at least they seem so to me) queries. But the potential is there for W|A to be a game-changing technological advance, doing for quantitative information what Google did for text and web-based information back in the 90’s. (W|A is already its own verb.) One thing that seems clear is that, with technology available that is free and powerful and hardware-agnostic, technology that previously has ruled the ed-tech roost can’t survive for much longer. I’m thinking particularly of the graphing calculator. These have been a fixture in math education, especially at the pre-college level, for the better part of 20 years. But now here is W|A, which can graph functions, perform symbolic algebra and calculus computations, even solve differential equations and do number theory and statistics and all manner of interesting stuff besides, including but very much not limited to mathematics. In short, it does everything a graphing calculator does. But, importantly: W|A is free, runs on any web-enabled device (including, as I can attest to by experience, an iPod touch), is fast, is portable (see the links I just shared?), and — perhaps most importantly of all — has an army of developers who are constantly adding new features into the system. You could spend$150 to get the latest and greatest from Texas Instruments, a handheld device that does what a graphing calculator does — but no more. (Here’s my first-hand take on the NSpire and details on what I see as its demerits.) Or, you could spend a little more than twice that much and get a netbook computer that gives you access to W|A as well as a suite of office tools and more. Computing hardware has become so small and cheap, and online quantitative tools so functional and powerful, that it’s very hard to see how graphing calculators can survive the next 5 years.

If graphing calculators do survive, it will be for one main reason: The AP exams. I was talking with a local high school AP Calculus teacher this week who impressed on me that  she cannot afford to drop graphing calculators and move on to using netbooks or some other more sensible technology because, quite simply, there are questions on the AP Calculus exams that require the use of graphing calculators. Students have to have total fluency with graphing calculators — and not some other, calculator-like technology — in order to do as well as they possibly can on the exam, which is part of this teacher’s professional responsibility. The AP already succeeded in killing the TI-92 calculator — a really good technology for its time, when laptops still weighed 15 pounds and costs thousands of dollars — for no better reason than because it had a QWERTY keyboard. Today, the AP might succeed in keeping W|A and other similiarly useful, perhaps even transformative, technologies out of the hands of students pretty much for the same reasons, which is a real shame and quite backwards-looking.

But then again, I don’t know what the AP folks have in mind. Perhaps there are plans afoot to migrate the AP exams away from dependency on graphing calculators. It certainly wouldn’t take much for the AP folks to write their own lightweight graphing tool that does nothing more than plot functions, find intersection points, shade in areas, and do numerical integration (rarely are graphing calculators used on the AP free-response portion for more than these four things). Make it extremely basic, put it on the web, free for all to use, and provide it on specialized computers for students taking the exam. That way, students can learn how to use technology rather than learn how to use a graphing calculator, and both teachers and students can be freer to choose the extent and type of technology they want to use in their classes. And such a thing would probably have a longer shelf life than any TI calculator for sale or in production.