Clicker questions from an iPad

I’m using my iPad to present the key points at the start of each class, and yesterday I wanted to ask some interactive clicker-type questions with , like I had done . Students could submit responses via text message, but I immediately ran into a problem with students trying to respond via the web. phentermine The was loading, but indicating that there was no active poll for them to respond to. I didn’t realize that in order to accept responses over the web you need to be running the questions from a computer with Flash. Their FAQ seems to assume this, at least, so I figured I was out of luck with the iPad.

Then I stumbled upon a blog post on their site announcing their , which perfectly solves the problem. It allows you to fully control the polling process from a tablet or smartphone just by going to a . Here you can create new polls, stop and start polls, and push polls to . This is exactly what I needed, and I’m looking forward to trying it tomorrow in class. My only suggestion for them is to add this somewhere on their so it’s more easily discovered.

Reflections on the thinking classroom

Now that I’ve sent the first exam over to the copy center, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my with the Intro Cell Bio class. In short, I set out to lecture far less, expect students to read in advance, and use class time to work problems, questions, and (small) case studies. So how’s it going, and where can I improve?

I have definitely been refraining from long lectures so far, with the longest one clocking in around 30 min (I think). I’m really trying to focus on the highlights from the text and respond to student confusion. The material thus far has not been all that challenging, so I anticipate more student questions as we move deeper into the material. It’s amazing to watch the class though, and even after 20 min of talking at them, some of them are clearly disengaging, especially if there are no slides. I have prepared slides for last two topics, and that seems to keep their interest up longer, plus I think they feel secure knowing better what to “put down” in their notes.

I can’t tell whether students are actually reading more or not. I thought with the new text being more focused on a single topic that I explicitly assigned for a particular date that they would have an easier time keeping up. I’m not quizzing them on the readings, but that might be a good way to encourage a deeper reading ahead of time. I think having a better linkage between the content in the reading and the problem/question/case for the day would also be an improvement.

The in-class work has been hit-and-miss. I feel like some days I managed to provide excellent chances for them to sink their teeth into a question, while others were much more mundane and less engaging. Several times I’ve had them focus on food as a means to apply the material (carbohydrates, lipids) and make the class more relevant for the Food adipex Course Connection. The best class by far, at least in my opinion, was one focused on a medical case study. It was abbreviated from its original version, but there was enough information in it for them to gain the background they needed to ‘solve’ the case questions. I guess I’ll find out from their first exams whether the approach is paying off.

Re-imagining my intro biology class – First steps

I spent the better part of the morning today beginning to re-imagine my intro biology class for the fall, even though I should probably be doing other things more related to research. I’m taking advantage of switching to a new textbook to revamp the whole class from the ground up. Here are my main objectives with the rewrite:

  • spend as little time as possible “covering” material in class
  • use class time to allow students to interact with concepts and apply ideas to real-world problems in small groups rather than transcribing lecture notes

My approach relies heavily on students having read the material before class, so I’m starting with the readings. The Principles site makes it relatively easy to customize the readings, including both the selection and order. It’s a little annoying that their metaphor is “customizing a book” and then “publishing” the custom text. I would like it better if it were easier to add, subtract, and move modules around more dynamically as I assign due dates and create assignments. But other than that, it doesn’t try to impose any additional structure on the course, which I like. I’ve complained before about the proliferation of buckets in the LMS (pages, content, files, documents, etc), and this site does not use such arbitrary categories.

The main thing I’m struggling with is predicting how much time I’ll need for each topic and set of objectives. It’s hard to get out of the mindset of, “How long will it take to walk through this topic from start to finish in front of the class” and instead think about questions, projects, and problems that would help the students apply and synthesize these concepts. I have to admit, at this point sticking with the tried-and-true lecture format sounds much easier, but I really want to try something new (and hopefully more effective).

Students becoming less dependent on physical books?

Inside Higher Ed has an update on electronic textbook adoption which is mostly uninteresting to me except for this bit:

Nevertheless, students’ allegiance to print appears to be eroding; among those who did not purchase a digital text, only 39 percent said they “prefer traditional print textbooks” — down from 50 percent two years ago and 59 percent three years ago.

Student habit and comfort level is one of the hardest things to change, and this survey suggests that college students are quickly dropping their insistence on a physical, paper book. If this is true, this will open up the field to all kinds of experimental approaches to textbooks. I’ll be finding out soon enough with my fall class how comfortable students are with a fairly radical electronic “book”.

Problems with the monolithic LMS

The LMS Product – limitations and alternative « The Weblog of (a) David Jones:

Another characteristic of an integrated system is that the quality of the tools available is limited to those provided by a single vendor or community.

I resonate with many of the points he brings up about the weaknesses of a monolithic LMS, and the discussion on the post is also top-notch, highlighting the requisition process and its influence on the vendors’ offerings.

When I really stop to think about it, all we (as faculty) would need is a more federated identity system, so that we could choose the tool we wanted and our students wouldn’t have to create a new account to manage on whatever platform we selected. The only real down side to my using Canvas last spring was this need to register and create an account. The students told me they didn’t mind doing that at all, but it still feels a bit out-of-bounds to have their identity managed by a non-institutional entity. I’d guess there are FERPA rules against it that I’ve probably violated, but oh well.

Switching to an online-only biology textbook

Now that summer session is behind me, I’m looking forward to starting to work on my Intro Cell Biology class for the fall. This year I’ve adopted a new textbook that is completely online, Principles of Biology. It is published by Nature Education as part of their Principles of Science series of textbooks. I’ve taught the class three times now, each time using the massive Raven Biology textbook. So why switch?

The short answer is, so that my students will read the text. With the encyclopedic Raven text, I found that the material for any given class topic was spread across a large swath of the book, with plenty of distraction that I had to ask the students to skip or ignore temporarily. With the Principles book, it is broken down into modules, each of which seems to be much more digestible at a single sitting. My hope is to be able to assign a module per class session, sometimes two, and expect that the students will arrive having read it already. That way, we can spend our time together discussing the topic in small groups and attempting to apply it to a real-life problem or question in biology rather than plowing through the material and introducing everything.

I do have some hesitations though, the first of which is that students really like to have a physical textbook. No matter how much they complain about cost and weight, they feel secure just holding their book. With an online-only text, I worry they will feel like they still need to buy a “real” book. I plan to discourage them from this as much as possible, but they may still buy it. Which brings me to my second concern, that our other introductory course is still using the Raven text. For the past 3 years, students who’ve taken both intro courses have been able to use the same text for both. Given that it costs nearly $US200, that was at least some consolation. I was unable to convince any of my colleagues who teach the other course to adopt the Nature Principles text yet, although many expressed interest in it for the future.

Why this text, though, and not just the eText version of Raven? I’ve addressed that at length in previous posts, but suffice to say I’m not a big fan of most of the eText versions I’ve seen, with the exception of the Inkling version. The others are poor quality, difficult to read, and have a strict time limit (they expire). I’ve provided links to the etext versions the past two years, but none of the students have opted for it. With the Principles book, the students are buying lifelong access to a quality text (and other ancillary tools) from a highly reputable source, and the cost is far cheaper than the others. It just seems like a better deal all around. I’ll be writing here about the process of customization as I build my course, so check back as the summer wears on.

Canvas is a Delightful Departure

As I’ve shared previously, I’m restless with the technology I use for teaching, especially the LMS. Rather than only complain about it, I choose to experiment with other tools in the hope that I’ll find a better fit for my style. This term I’m experimenting with Canvas, the latest darling of the educational tech scene, and I’ve found its excellent reputation to be mostly well-deserved.

For starters, the fact that I can use it to host an actual class is the result of the fact that Canvas is a cloud-based LMS that is free for individual faculty members. The only practical limitations that I’ve found include a cap on the storage space per class and the need to upload my own roster and ask students to create accounts. Neither of these have been big points of pain for me, but if you need to host many large presentation files you may run out of storage space or have to rotate files off throughout the semester.

In the big picture, these are low costs to pay for the chance to use an LMS with an elegant user interface and straightforward usability features. If you are of the opinion that “design” is just how something looks, I challenge you to compare Canvas to the other big LMS out there. You will conclude that design is how something works, it’s made that well.

That said, there are still unintuitive aspects to its design. For example, my class just completed peer reviews of a writing assignment. These reviews were a cinch to assign, and I assumed the students would see their assignment in their ‘Recent Activity’ stream. But to get their assignment, they had to go to the assignment page and look for it, something that never occurred to any of them. Thirteen email replies later and lots of links to the help section, the problem was solved, but still, it might be nice if they could add this to the activity stream.

I still don’t want to rely on an LMS completely, at least in part for philosophical reasons, I’ll admit. But Canvas has been great for what I’ve used it to do, and it’s made it dead simple to do paperless grading (their Speedgrader iPad app is excellent). I don’t feel like I have to feed it my whole course, to fill in all the spaces with content. It works for what I want it to do, and stays out of my face for the rest. That’s pretty good, I’d say.

Lectures, Credentials, and the Disruption of College

There has been so much written lately about the imminent “disruption” of higher education as we know it. By disruption, pundits seem to mean something akin to the disruption experienced by most media companies over the past 5 years. Technology is the supposed driving force for the inevitable disruption, just as it was in the case of media publishers. As evidence for the disruption, thinkers point to the advent of online resources like Khan Academy, TED-Ed, the YouTube EDU portal, and several recent online courses offered by elite universities. For example, a recent article in Wired put it this way:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

As far as I can see, the disruption argument rests on the availability of two new(ish) resources. The first is a readily available source for high quality lecture materials. Many universities have been capturing lecture audio and video and posting them online as podcasts for years. The OpenCourseWare movement has also been working toward this objective for years. We’re now at a point where nearly every core subject has outstanding lecture materials available online for free.

The second pillar of the disruption argument is that a new system of credentials is emerging that circumvents the “college degree” certification and all it signifies to a potential employer. Here is Kevin Carey writing in The New Republic (linked above):

[…] the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.

And again later in the same piece:

But just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.

The argument here (I think) is that independent students will earn certificates symbolizing their completion of a course through an independent educational entity. These credentials will eventually gain recognition by employers as bona fide indicators of that individual’s competency in a field of study and warrant their consideration for a particular job position. Please excuse my taking liberty with connecting the dots in this way, as I have never actually seen anybody else spell it out.

Is access to information the problem?

First let me state that I do think there is plenty of change coming to higher education, much of it as a consequence of technological disruption. For a variety of reasons, I think the changes will serve to enhance already-existing institutions and not hasten their demise. As for the first argument, free access to educational materials online, I think this is wonderful, but it mostly serves the existing institutional structure far better than it serves the independent learner. I don’t think there is anything magical that will happen with access to recorded lectures because I don’t think this is the limiting step in the educational process. Motivated people have had access to such information as long as we’ve had books and libraries. In my opinion, the limiting step in education is for the individual to know where to focus amidst a sea of information. In this sense, the more information becomes available online, the harder it becomes for the learner to make progress without personal input.

To illustrate this, think of the process of advancing through the current education system. As you progress through the various levels of schooling, you become a more and more self-directed learner. Eventually, if you stick with it long enough, you complete the ultimate in self-directed learning, the Ph.D. This degree does not signify a person’s intellectual capacity, rather it signifies a person’s having become a master over a body of knowledge, fully self-directing and capable of adding to and extending the limits of that knowledge.

As some see impending doom on the horizon for higher ed, the idea of the ‘flipped classroom’ has also received renewed attention. This teaching method eschews the use of class time for traditional lecture, opting instead to discuss and assimilate knowledge. It relies on students coming to class already familiar with the information, ready to think and engage their minds (and not act like a room full of court recorders). This is not a new idea and is based on many years of studies of learning outcomes that support a more active classroom environment. If this discursive, personal, interactive process (and not listening to lectures) is indeed the best way for students to learn, how exactly does the availability of online lectures disrupt existing “delivery methods” in higher education? I argue that such resources serve as a pool of excellent materials for helping students to become familiar with a topic, but their real learning and intellectual formation occurs when they come and interact around those ideas with their peers and an expert in the field (i.e. they come to class).

This is not to say that some small percentage of talented students couldn’t make progress toward competency on their own using only online lectures. But for the vast majority of students, becoming educated requires much more than being exposed to information, it requires struggle and community and questions and other things I’m not qualified to even identify. Maybe someday an online system will exist that allows for those kinds of things, but I’m nearly certain it doesn’t exist now. I also think that one of the main ingredients in effective education is other people. Call me old-fashioned, but when you think about your learning experiences, don’t most of them involve other people? Peers? A favorite teacher? Yeah, mine too.

Is an education all about credentialing?

As for the second argument, that the college diploma will be replaced with some collection of credentials, I think this misconstrues both the meaning and the purpose of education in general, and a college degree in particular. To think of the role of universities as dealing in the “production and sale of higher education credentials” (see quote above) is, in my opinion, a deeply cynical and flawed perspective along the lines of thinking of the role of a family vacation as producing a set of photographs. A credential is the formal recognition of a process of intellectual development and transformation. It is not, in and of itself, the point.

A deep problem with the talk about credentials, badges, and the rise of competency as a measure of qualification lies with the selection of courses: who chooses what to take? I would speculate that most students would choose only those courses they see as important. This is a terrible idea, because the student has no idea what they will need to know. As an academic advisor to mostly science students, I can reveal the stunning news that these students do not relish the opportunity to take courses in the humanities. I know, shocker, right? But they benefit in so many ways from doing so, it’s hard to overstate the importance of these courses in their academic development. They grow in broadened perspective, vocabulary, writing skill, logic, argument, rhetoric, friendship, tolerance, compassion. And once again, these are skills and virtues best acquired in a community.

The bottom line for me is that we’re in the midst of an explosion in the creation of information. The need for a broad education has never been greater. I think this increases the need for guidance, and I think the best guides are other people. I do believe our current colleges and universities need to change and adapt to incorporate new methods for educating people. And maybe we will see the rise of a new kind of educational enterprise that fills a need not met by a four-year college. I do think there are plenty of students enrolled in a four-year degree program with no business being there, but they have no other option. But I don’t think these new enterprises will replace our current colleges, not by a long shot.

The Open Web and the LMS

Before the start of almost every semester, I find myself taking inventory of the various tools I use to do my job and asking whether there’s something better. I feel a bit like a contractor preparing his truck for a job — I want to make sure I have everything I need, because I don’t want to waste time focusing on the wrong things once I get to the job site. How should I provide updates and information to my students? Where should I post notes, outlines, slides, assignments? Should these things be on the open web, or tucked safely behind a learning management system (LMS)? Do students want to take quizzes and submit assignments online? Should I have them email those to me, should I do that within a LMS, or should I use something offered by the textbook publisher?

For most of these questions, one answer is to use Blackboard. It does most, if not all, of the tasks listed above, integrates with our campus registration system (unless you happen to teach cross-listed courses, but I digress), works reasonably well, is familiar to the students, and the university is already paying for it. Why wouldn’t I use it? When colleagues ask that question, my reply usually includes something about how difficult I find it to do the various tasks I want to do, how many clicks it takes to do something. For instance, how do I decide where to put the stuff so that students will find it? Is this an assignment, or content, or a file, or an announcement, or what? But it’s beginning to dawn on me that my hesitation to use a LMS goes deeper than usability — my own or that of my students.

Building with borrowed tools

To return to the contractor analogy, using an LMS feels a lot like building with someone else’s tools. Sure, it’s probably going to do the job, but things just don’t quite feel the same as using your own. In addition to the issue of feel, there is a sense when I’m using a LMS that everything I post has to fit in one of the categories defined by the system. The answer to this problem in particular seems to be for the software designers to create a whole lot of nooks and crannies to file things in hopes that at least something will seem like the right place for the instructor to add that content. This always leaves the users (both instructor and student) in want, though, because it feels like the order is backward: the information shouldn’t be organized in service of a system, but rather the system should support the information by getting out of the way. I always feel like I’m fighting against the system when I add information and try to make it discoverable and linked where appropriate. I suppose the other approach, which many professors apparently follow, is to dump absolutely everything into a single bucket and let the students hash out the germs of value from the chaff. (This happens all the time, from what I hear.)

Building on someone else’s land

If my problem were just a matter of borrowing tools, I might be able to get over it, but it’s not. In January, as I prepared for another semester and spent several hours setting up my courses in a LMS, it became clear to me that I’m not just borrowing tools, I’m also building my course on land that is not my own. In fact, if I’m really using the capabilities of the system, I’m spending hours and hours loading information into this system that is a shadow of the web, a sandboxed web, walled off from the real thing. If and when I stop using it, that information (and the time it took to produce it) is most likely lost. Maybe the system provides a way to download my course if I want to, but what useful thing could I do with it then? I’d have to write my own software to parse that file and make any sense of it, let alone to make use of it in some other system.

Redeeming Qualities

My feelings toward the LMS are not all negative, though. One of the best things about a closed LMS is just that — it is closed to the outside, allowing instructors to keep certain material off the public web. If I were to post all of my slides online for my students, I’d have to remove all the copyrighted figures I use from the textbook, which would be a big bummer. I don’t make the posting of slides a habit, but an LMS with authentication sidesteps this issue. Ideally, I would design my own figures and could share them as freely as I chose, but I haven’t done that yet. Another important use of a system with authentication is for posting grades, which students seem to expect. I know of no way around this other than to use some kind of closed system to keep this information confidential. A third feature of an LMS is handling work submitted by students. I have tried to collect student writing by email, and it sucks. A good LMS at least has the potential to make this suck less, and could actually save me time if designed well. For example, I just graded a short assignment in Instructure Canvas using their SpeedGrader feature, and I have to confess, it was slick. I’m looking forward to using it again later in the semester, and might even use the peer review feature rather than managing all that on my own.


So for now, I see a role for both the open web and a closed LMS occupying different parts of my toolkit for teaching. The trick for me is to keep as much as possible in my own web space, and use the LMS for things for which it is essential (copyrighted material, grades, student submissions). It’s schizophrenic, and some students don’t like having to look in more than one place. What I’m finding is that I tend to use the LMS for some classes, and the open web for other classes, and this minimizes student consternation over where to look for class materials. Making a goal of posting more on the open web has also motivated me to go back and create more of my own materials, too, which has been a great side-effect.

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