Faculty Workshop — Making Technology Work for You

The Center for Teaching Excellence sponsored a workshop on technology in the classroom on Friday 24 February 2012.  The workshop began with presentations from Todd Romero (History), Rebecca Forrest (Physics), and Jennifer Lazzaro (IT support staff for CLASS).

Todd Romero began the discussion by stressing the importance of getting help from IT support staff when planning to employ new technologies in teaching. He thanked Jennifer Lazzaro for her help in helping him organize the material for his history courses. The challenge for the history department is to lower the failure and drop rates for the large (450 student) survey courses it offers as part of the Core Curriculum. Those rates have exceeded 50% in the past, although recent efforts have brought that number down. Romero used clickers in his class, but discontinued the practice in favor of alternative methods for increasing class involvement. The lesson is that it is important to find out what works for a given situation, and to adjust when a given technology does not help.

The technologies Romero uses now include video podcasts to help students improve their learning skills such as note taking, reading a textbook, and taking essay tests. Many students have had no prior experience in these areas. Romero also makes extensive use of e-mails, to remind students of items on the syllabus such as tests and major assignments, and to given students feedback on how they are doing in the course, both for those who are having trouble, and those who are doing well. He explained that his use of PowerPoint has evolved from text dense slides to the use of graphics such as editorial cartoons, maps and satellite images of parts of the world. He stressed the importance of making PowerPoints visually rich.

Romero described how technology is used in two online history classes, one on Native Americans and the other on witchcraft. Here lectures are replaced with shorter units of about 20 minutes that make extensive use of video podcasts, and film clips. Students are encouraged to engage in digital story telling, by working out their own graphical presentations on history topics. Developing a good script for a video can be as rewarding for the student as writing a paper, and many students have strong digital skills to draw on.

Romero has also used discussion boards extensively, and advises that it is not necessary to respond to everything, as he did at first. Now he takes the role of a moderator, who provides reminders, thanks students for their participation, and encourages further discussion.

Rebecca Forrest described her efforts to improve her introductory and upper-class physics courses. She used clickers as a method for peer instruction. A question is posed to the whole class. Students respond, and then discuss their answers in small groups, and are then asked to respond a second time. The hope is that the responses will converge on the right answer, and that the responses can be used as a focus of discussion of the topic at hand. Forrest no longer uses this method, as she now prefers to use that class time for demonstrations.

Forrest reported on three different online tactics she uses. The first is online systems for submission, grading and feedback on homework, which are supplied by many introductory physics textbooks. This is an improvement over manual submission and grading of homework where only a fraction of the problems can be graded by TAs, and feedback is not immediate.

A second online technique is to give short quizzes on material through Blackboard shortly before a class. She got the idea from project on teaching called Just in Time Teaching. The tests help guarantee that students are ready for a given class.

A third method Forrest uses is to provide online tutorials on math skills in the first two weeks of her introductory courses. Students in these courses are often not prepared mathematically, as evidenced by drop and failure rates in the 30% – 40% range. A diagnostic exam of math skills is given before the class begins, to warn students of their deficiencies, but even so, the problem persists. Online tutorials allow students to get back up to speed in math.

The main problem Forrest experiences is dealing with three different online systems, one for homework grading, one for quizzes (Blackboard), and one for tutorials. She is hoping that the homework systems can be integrated into Blackboard in the future.

Jennifer Lazzaro began by urging faculty to think hard about the issues they are trying to resolve before they worry about applications of technology. She described a wide range of technologies for the classroom, including Wimba, where one can create a virtual classroom with students and/or guest speakers at remote sites, and archive the entire proceedings for later use. She also mentioned Voice Boards to language training, TurnItIn for plagiarism checking, and convenient return of written comments by the instructor, Skype for virtual classrooms and guest speakers, and Google Hangout where up to 15 people can collaborate with video camera and microphone on a single document or blackboard. Lazzaro also described some successful teaching technology projects in CLASS, including a course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a website describing the pilgrimage of the characters is presented.

There followed a freewheeling discussion on a wide range of issues.

Frank Holt described the reactions faculty have to the technology revolution – from those who complain that there is no chalk in the room, to those like Forrest who develop a sophisticated range of technologies. The main problem he sees is that it is very difficult for faculty to see, and come to appreciate, the rich variety of technologies being deployed at UH. He suggested that we create a super course so that examples of best practices would be available to all.

The topic turned to the “blind” use of inappropriate technology. Jennifer Lazzaro pointed out that while Second Life is very exciting, it is far from clear how it can be successfully used in a given class setting. Rebecca Forrest pointed out that despite all the technology she deploys, she uses chalk to lecture. That is an advantage over PowerPoint, since the speed at which she is able to write matches the speed at which students can take notes effectively. When questioned about how her class of over 165 students can all see the board, she responded that she simply writes larger than usual. Jim Garson mentioned that working with PowerPoint restricts his movement and this is detrimental to keeping the class’s attention. Frank Holt remarked on the problem that turning ones back to write on the board automatically loses contact with the class. It was pointed out that using visual presentations has been around ever since the widespread use of slides. PowerPoint does help by providing more convenient storage and management of images, and the web has improved access to them.

The speakers were asked to comment on the amount of extra time it takes to use technology. Romero pointed out that his e-mail system can be managed with as little as a half an hour a week. Forrest pointed out that many of the things she must do to set things up online (such as setting up homework assignments) would have to be done in any case. She said that grading the pre class tests was manageable for 80 students, but for a class of 180 she needed to develop a new way that used multiple choice grading. In general, it is important to rethink how to do testing so as not to be swamped with the extra work. Her worst problem is managing the grades in three different system. Merging files where student lists are different can be challenging.

A discussion of the issues related to online grading of homework followed. Those systems are good at evaluating student answers, but not at evaluating the methods students used to arrive at them. It is not easy for such systems to award partial credit for a good derivation followed by a silly mistake in keying a value to a calculator. The worry is that online grading will stress getting the right answer, whereas what we want to teach is the correct method for deriving the answer. Furthermore, online grading does not encourage the student to work out a problem in detail on a piece of paper.

Near the end of the workshop, the topic turned to textbook publishers, the new online tools they provide, and the digital revolution in the way students will read them. Several participants mentioned heavy lobbying by textbook representatives interested in the large profits to be obtained by having a whole department adopt their text for an introductory course. Packages with textbook and online materials can run well over $200. As to whether these costs will come down for students who use digital readers rather than hard copy, Lazzaro thought that the answer was: No. At present, publishers offering packages where the student uses his or her digital reader are provided for a limited amount of time (6 months to a year), cannot be sold after their use, are harder to use than a hard copy text, and still cost only about $15 less. Frank Holt remarked on the poor quality of some texts, which are only lightly revised and retitled for use in very different courses.

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Using Google+ Hangouts for Video Conferencing with Students

Google Plus debuted this summer as an alternative social media platform to Facebook. Because of its hundreds of millions of registered users in other Google platforms, such as Gmail and Google Docs, Google Plus quickly enrolled over 40 million users. Some users were simply tired of Facebook’s lax privacy policies, others tired of the games, and many others simply eager to see their other Google apps integrated into one central hub, which is apparently what is happening, gradually, at Google Plus. Immediately as it was released, professors began seeing the advantage of Plus in their classrooms.

Here, I’d like to discuss the most obvious tool within Plus for teachers — the Hangout feature. Hangout is a simple video application that allows users to conference with up to ten users simultaneously, with additional tools such as text chat and YouTube sharing that can help teachers, especially, connect and conference with their students.

Overview of Hangouts

Why Use Video Hangouts

Consider one of the primary influences of student success — out of class contact with her professor. Establishing regular office hours is standard for all of us, but the reality is that often our schedules do not work with student schedules, especially UH students, who often work and most often commute to campus. Getting to a professor’s office for the one or two hours she’s available can be not only very inconvenient, but also imposing, especially for our large-class sections.

Instead, I can use Google Hangouts to establish either a fixed time every week to video conference with one or more students or even set small-group supervision meetings with them. The student needs only create the Google Plus account (with any e-mail address), and with a PC with camera, will be able to consult with me from wherever she is, and from wherever I am — office, coffee shop, or back porch.

One immediate concern is privacy — just as we would not discuss a student’s grades with a group of people, we need to maintain strict privacy with our Hangout conversations as well. I first establish the simple rule, then, when using video conferencing with my students:

In any group setting, I will not discuss grades. Period. I can discuss lecture notes, assignments, and give feedback, but not specific scores.

This is no different than a meeting in the office — we can discuss grades individually, but if two or more students are present, we simply won’t. Using video conferencing is no different here.

One advantage of Google Plus, however, is that the Hangout can be open to all in your circles, a smaller circle of just class students, or individuals. This is immediately one of the advantages of using Google Plus over other social networks — you control who sees what and who you talk to. So, I could start a Hangout with just one class, all class sections, or a small student group of five students working on a group project. Google Plus allows you to control all this.

Some Quick Homework Before You Begin

When using Hangouts, review the Help section first, to understand the (simple and free) technical requirements, and how to limit your hangout to your selected audience.

And finally, consider other uses of Hangouts for engaging students, encouraging collaboration, consulting with experts, and otherwise strengthening the learning environment of the course.


Google Docs for Classroom Collaboration

I’ve previously introduced Google Documents as an efficient tool to organize and publicize classroom materials to a universal or restricted audience. Here, we’ll see how using Google Docs as a collaborative tool for students enhances engagement and learning.

Sharing the Document with your Students
After creating an empty document — either a text document or spreadsheet or drawing — remember to share the document either universally or with a restricted URL.

As part of that sharing, you will allow others to edit the document as well. Remember — this edit option should only be used for those shared documents you really expect to be modified by others. You would not want to allow editing to your syllabus or reading list, on the other hand.

If you have a mailing list of all your students’ e-mail addresses, you can simply add that list to the sharing permissions. If not, you will need to copy the URL and broadcast that somehow — either in another known document, or in shortened format such as www.bit.ly which is easy to copy by anyone.

Ground Rules

Once you notify your students of the document’s URL, establish your learning expectations with them by clearly articulating what the learning activity entails and how to treat an open document. Simple rules might include

  1. Always identify your own work; this can be done by appending your initial and last name at the end of your addition such as [B Martin]
  2. Remember this is a public forum and all the rules of classroom respect will be observed within the document (here, link to your syllabus comments on classroom respect).
  3. After submitting your own work, remember to come back and review other students’ submissions and comments

These rules, of course, are the same rules you would suggest in any on-line learning environment.

Sample Collaborative Learning Activities

1. Commenting on a standard text. Using the Comment feature (Insert > Comment), students can add their own interactive interpretations or questions to an existing text, such as a historical document, published article, or your own faculty classroom notes. Here, the students will see how other students think while engaging with an actual source text — two critical thinking strategies. By seeing other students’ comments and questions, they also learn from each other while bouncing new ideas that you simply don’t have time to address in the classroom.

2. Group pre-writing. As you use small-group learning strategies, groups can use a space within one class document to pre-write a paper project. I’ve used this several times in my First Year Writing course, where the entire class sees other groups’ pre-writing ideas. Groups begin to become more competitive and can “steal” other groups’ ideas if they are usable.

3. Class note-taking. Here, students add their own notes and comments to other students’ notes for a class session or a module. Called crowd-sourcing, the idea is that the collection of various perspectives on what is important from class time shows different ways of looking at the same problem. Students can then use more creative ways of approaching the same topic or question. Yes, this means that some students will submit notes and other students will not, but the task here is not to grade students on their allegiance to note-taking, but to let students on-line do what they do anyway — copying and discussing their class impressions.

See this discussion of crowd-sourced notes which includes this live example of what can happen when more than one person begins to add ideas to an existing document.
4. Group papers or data sets. Depending on your small group learning project, Google Docs is the perfect way for a group to collaboratively bring their material and revisions to one document. This is far superior to multiple documents being shared across e-mail or flash drives. Revision history is maintained by Google Docs, and with the comment feature, the group can pose questions and reply while tracking their own conversation. The final document can be downloaded as an OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, or PDF file. The document-in-process can be shared with you, so you can monitor and advise as it is being created, revised, and edited.

These are just a few ideas for using the cloud for collaborative learning. Start small, and collect feedback from multiple students — some will have more experience with both group work and cloud documents. All students, however, can learn to use these resources easily and will soon be convinced that crowd-sourcing documents is an effective way to learn and to express learning.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using Google Docs in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.


Google Docs For Centralized Classroom Documents

Since the advent of electronic documents, one of the problems with classroom management is document creep — the proliferation of hard-copy and e-copy documents that can overwhelm the student. With the best file management system, students can still be confused and overwhelmed, and eventually inured to too many documents. Blackboard’s file system doesn’t help much — it is still a system based on the old file-cabinet model, and adding documents there, then “showing” them to the students is cumbersome.

Here, we’ll overview a free service that will help you manage your course documents, create new documents easily, and share them with your students for easy access, without Blackboard. Google Documents (Google Docs, or GDocs) has multiple advantages and has become the standard for document sharing among students world-wide.

The Cloud — Not Quite the Blob

Google Docs operates in the “cloud” — delivery of a service instead of a product. The cloud operates “out there” — part of the Internet — everywhere and nowhere. As such, there is no software to download, such as with OpenOffice or Microsoft Office. The only ware needed is a browser such as Chrome or Firefox on your computer or on your smart phone. Documents are created, saved, and shared without having to download them, file them, or send them. Documents can be organized by “collections” and any document can be organized within multiple “collections” for cross-filing. You can create text, slide presentation, spreadsheet, drawing, and form documents. You can also upload any of these file types and more — you can upload image, audio, PDF, and even video files.

The immediate advantage of Google Docs is that any file or entire collections can be shared with your students. Say, for example, you create a collection “HIST 1301” and share that with your students. When you create a new file or upload a new PDF, for example, each student immediately has access to that entire collection and each document. If you want to be more selective with your sharing, you can share individual collections or documents with individuals or groups of individuals. You can also publish a collection or document to the entire World Wide Web so that everyone on the planet has access. Google will generate a URL for you.

Advantages
Beyond the immediate advantage of sharing to large audiences, the access to Google Docs is one of its first strengths over CMS platforms such as Blackboard. Students are browsing the Web all the time and access to a Google Doc is easy and very fast. Students do not need to go through a security portal and don’t need to navigate through multiple icons to find your work. Consider sharing your class slide presentation as a Google Doc — the student goes to the class collection and there it is — accessible at all times.

But more than this, since each document is “live,” you can edit your documents on the cuff, and the changes are shared immediately with everyone. This is a significant advantage over static documents that must be deleted, edited, uploaded, and “shown” every time you want to add something. So, you can present class notes for Week 1 in a single document, then when you add notes for Week 2, it’s the same document, just enlarged. You can even create an automatic table of contents for every document that shows your additions as they grow.

Finally, Google Docs permits commentary for text documents — a meta-narrative on your text. On the right margin your comments will enhance or clarify graphics or your notes and can even show a dialog between persons who are permitted to comment in the document.

Quicker, easier access, group sharing, and commentary — these are some of the initial advantages of using Google Docs in the cloud to share with your students.

Next week, we’ll discuss how you can go even further — using Google Docs as a collaborative tool to even further enhance student learning in and out of the classroom.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using Google Docs in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.


Blog Posting — Using Social Media in the Classroom — Basics of Twitter

Everyone knows of Twitter, and tens of millions of people use it, but what is it, and how can it be used to engage students in their own learning?

Twitter is a micro-blog — a Web-based social conversation using 140 characters or less. Instead of paragraphs and paragraphs (like this blog entry) of description, Twitter forces users to consolidate ideas into minimalist language. The advantage here is that each user can broadcast a single idea so that the  audience reads only the essentials. The service is free and requires only an e-mail address. Most Twitter users access their accounts via their smart phones, but any regular mobile phone that can send a text message, as well as any computer connected to the Web, can send and read “tweets.”

The concept of Twitter is broadcasting, rather than ocal communication. Contrast a Twitter message, which everyone in the world can see, to an e-mail message, which is directed to specific individuals. Because of this, all messages via Twitter should be made with a universal audience in mind and no tweet should be considered private. But it’s this universal access that makes Twitter an appropriate tool to communicate with students after class and even to engage them during class.

Consider two easy applications — one asynchronous to keep students up-to-date, the other synchronous to gauge student learning in class.

Out-of-Class Updates

After creating your own Twitter account, give your Twitter account name to all your students — on your syllabus, in a class announcement, or on your Blackboard site. Then, after class, you can make a few tweets that

a) summarize essential content from the day’s lesson,

b) remind students of this week’s reading, or

c) mention an out-of-class local event that would interest them.

This would take only a minute of your time. Students who “follow” your Twitter account can review your tweets that night or even have your tweets sent directly to their phone.

 

In the Classroom
Twitter could also be utilized in class with a PC and video projector. By creating a Twitter hashtag and instructing the students to respond to a question using that hashtag, you could determine understanding immediately.

“The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages.” Create a hashtag unique to your class, such as #UHChemBott so that the conversation doesn’t overlap with another conversation of all other #chemistry classes, for example.

With your projector showing the Web-based Twitter feed, prompt the class with a question where you expect them to reply with brief (140 characters, remember?) responses. They will post their response using your class hashtag, and their responses will be reviewed for everyone to see — live. Immediately, you can ascertain what the students comprehend. They can even ask questions using the hashtag right there.

 

Some Brief Suggestions
As with all technology, practice before you use Twitter with your class. Practice sending and replying to tweets and creating and following hashtags. The Help pages on Twitter.com are very useful here.

Secondly, if you use Twitter, use it regularly. The first time might not go as well as you would like, but the students need to adjust to the technology, too. When they see it as a regular, engaging tool, they will get involved. Tweet updates regularly — since this is a technology that is as simple as a phone and 140 characters, a tweet or two a day is reasonable, and soon you’ll have your followers.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using Twitter in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.

Next: An introduction to Google Docs for Classroom Collaboration