Three teaching technologies

Three different technologies have affected either my actual teaching or my thinking about future teaching this past week.


For the first time since teaching in what others call a “flipped classroom,” I’m teaching a class that I’ve already developed a full set of out-of-class video resources for my students. The course is Physical Optics and I taught it two years ago with an earlier version of the same text that I’m using this year. Back then I produced nearly 100 3-5 minute long screencasts that supported the text. It’s been fun leveraging that cache of resources this year.

The first thing I did was put links on my daily outlines that mapped the new book version’s sections to the old screencasts. Nearly all the chapters changed the sectioning numbering by one by not numbering the introduction section, and I had titled the old screencasts by the old numbering. Now students can find the appropriate screencasts for each day’s material, though they are still free to browse any of the screencasts at their leisure.

For a given day of class, I post the reading I want them to do, and post the appropriate screencasts. In class I answer any questions posted through my home-built question and summary database and discuss any of the comments that have come through the out-0f-class backchannel. Then we spend the majority of the time working in small groups, developing and practicing the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful when assessing the various standards of the course. The new twist, in this class, is that at the end of the time the students request more screencasts to address the areas they’re still confused about.

What that means is that they have online screencasts that work as both pre- and post-class resources. Last semester I realized, by looking at the browsing data for my screencasts, that students mostly use my screencasts in a review mode. As far as workflow for me goes, I’ve gone from producing five or so screencasts per class that focused on what I thought was important/confusing in the text, to producing two or three screencasts targeted directly to what the students feel they need help with.

I like this workflow and I can see how the pattern would likely continue if I were to teach the class again in the future.

Sharing screens in a computer lab

For the fourth year in a row, I’m teaching the lab for a course in the math department called “Applied Math.” In it I typically show them ways to numerically investigate the theory presented in the lecture. For the physics department the lab tries to get students to the point where they’re quite comfortable with Mathematica, in general, and error propagation, curve fitting, graphing, data manipulation, and integrating differential equations, specifically. We spend an hour and a half per week (minus the 10 minutes I devote to my 10-integrals-in-10-minutes quiz -another blog post some day probably) in a computer lab.

As I was preparing for the course this year, I realized that I get frustrated with the varying speeds that the students move through the material. It’s to be expected, of course, but I know that I’m not great at keeping the fast end engaged and the slow end not frustrated. So this year I thought I’d try to see how well it would work to have everyone help me diagnose syntax errors, instead of me roving around the room and helping people individually. I decided, even though we’re all physically in the same room, to have everyone log into my online office hours (the same system we use for the Global Physics Department) so that they can easily share their screens. This past week we tried this for the first time and I felt it went pretty well. As students found things weren’t working, I would ask them to share their screen and the whole class would engage in helping debug the problem. This kept the fast students engaged, as they were developing valuable debugging skills, along with learning different ways to accomplish the same thing. I think it helps the slower students, too, some who often don’t even know how to begin a task.

At first I tried to get everyone to look up at the projected screen, which necessitated asking the student to zoom their text, but then I realized it was much easier to have them just look at their own terminals where the shared screen also existed.

I don’t know if I’ll go further and have students request control of other’s screens, but it’s definitely available in the software.

Wii Smartboard

In my Optics class, the text is a free PDF document. Often in class I’ll project it onto the white board to either annotate it myself or have students or groups come up and do the same. What sucks is when I forget what I’m doing and scroll the screen, because the marks on the white board don’t scroll.

That got me thinking about so-called smartboards. I know my school has a couple of classrooms with those installed, and if I were in them I could annotate the text in the digital document and the marks would scroll right along with the text/figures. However, I’m not scheduled in those rooms. So, I’ve decided to finally pursue something that I’ve heard about for a few years: wiimote smartboards.

If you haven’t heard about these, basically they make use of an IR LED and the camera on a wii-mote along with some bluetooth-tinged software. It’ll turn any projected screen into a smartboard. The software is either free or ~$30, depending on how hard you’re willing to work, and the hardware is about ~$60-$70. So, for $100 you get nearly all the functionality of a $2000-$3000 smartboard. Plus you get portability!

I’m hoping to get it set up and working over the next few weeks to see whether I and/or my students benefit. It may be that it’ll be too hokey, but I have a sense it’ll come in handy in this class.

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in lab, mathematica, physics, teaching, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Three teaching technologies

  1. Joss Ives says:

    See now you at least have to give us the abstract on the 10 integrals in 10 minutes quiz.

    Have you tried any other screen-sharing software. I really like this idea of group debugging.

    What advantage do you think that the wii-board offers over annotating on the computer via bamboo or something similar?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Ok, short abstract: My colleagues have accused me of watering down students’ abilities to do integrals by hand, since I push Mathematica so much to “do the math while they do the physics.” It was the number one thing they asked me to address when I started to plan the Applied Math Lab. So I decided to require the students to complete (and be 100% correct on) a 10-integrals-in-10-minutes quiz that I give at the beginning of each class period.

      I’ve played with a few other screen sharing software solutions (big marker, skype, and at least one other I can’t remember right now) but none as much as I’ve played with elluminate. It just works for me and we have the site license so good enough. Big Marker is free and looks like it might work quite well.

      The big advantage to the wiimote over bringing my wacom tablet is that students can easily come up and do it (students struggle with looking at the screen while writing on the tablet at first) and others can watch both their body language and their results.

  2. Thanks for describing how you’ve used screen sharing to help with your Mathematica class! I’ve been thinking about how I could use a feature like that in my Matlab class.

    Can you provide info on how you have access to the Elluminate program? Does your school have a subscription that you can make use of, for example?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      We have a site license for elluminate and I have a 24/7 access account (because I’m SuperFly, after all). Most non-superfly colleagues of mine can schedule specific “meetings” with the software. If I didn’t have that, I think I’d use Big Marker, as it seems to have everything I would want for that application.

  3. Mylene says:

    Hi Andy, interesting idea about the shared debugging. Does this mean you interrupt what the students are working on to have them participate in debugging? I struggle with this kind of context-switching because my students seem to find it hard to shift their attention quickly. (I think that’s what’s going on, anyway). Do you find that some students are not paying attention to the big-group discussion? (maybe that’s ok because they’re continuing their own work?)

    I haven’t used a Smartboard much, but my limited experiments with using them to annotate documents seemed to indicate that the annotations, once you scroll, are burned into the background of the document, no longer editable (or even eraseable). I found that really frustrating since, like you, I wanted to scroll around in a document, come back to something we had discussed previously, and update it. I had to be careful to make a copy of the document each time I used it in class, to prevent leaving indelible markups all over my original. And once something was marked up, I couldn’t update it except by writing over it.

    When experimenting with the wiimote whiteboard, I was using a free app called Massiveboard, which improved the situation by overlaying a transparent “scratchpad” on the screen. Not sure if this would work for you (and I didn’t end up using it in class, so I don’t have any helpful tips) but thought it might be of interest.

    What I ended up doing is using a tablet. It’s a bit more expensive than the wiimote solution, but at $400 or so for a decent tablet, still much less than a Smartboard. I bought a $3 PDF annotation app that acts like a lightweight version of Bluebeam Revu, creating permanently editable annotations either with “ink,” textboxes, etc. I project the tablet screen, then either annotate or pass around the tablet for students to annotate. If you have other reasons to use a tablet anyway (i.e. document scanning or using it as a document camera), the cost might be worth it.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Yes, there is definitely a lot of interruptions happening in the screen sharing class. But I wanted to set the tone that we’re all going to learn how to do this at roughly the same rate, so that getting ahead isn’t really an issue. I did notice that several students were adding extra bells an whistles anyways, and I think I’ll encourage them to share them.

      I think what I’ll do with the smartboard is use something like Jarnal to annotate pdfs that are just a few pages of the chapter. That’s actually how I did the screencasts for this book, since annotating the huge document was a memory drain in Jarnal. That way I can post the few pages if they wanted to see what we’re up to in class.

      Interestingly I’m getting a tablet this week. We’ll see if that works just as well or better.

      • Steve Dickie says:

        Hey Andy,

        I’ve done the Wiimote whiteboard in the past, but I didn’t really like it. I hate being up front. I always want to be wandering around my room. Now when I want to write on my screen I use a Bluetooth Wacom tablet. It’s awesome. I also use a free program called Sankoré for writing on the screen. It was designed to be an open source alternative to smart board software. It works with both the tablet and the wiimote.


      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        Hi Steve. Thanks for the info, I didn’t even know they had a bluetooth wacom tablet. I’ll experiment with my netbook tablet later this week and see how I like that.

  4. Bret Benesh says:

    Hi Andy,

    First, congratulations on getting to re-use screencasts. I have done that twice this semester, and it was a thrill both times. I can’t imagine doing it every day.

    Also, I want to second the idea of creating screencasts in response to student requests for screencasts. I have basically dumped the idea of creating screencasts prior to knowing what is going to be confusing for the students. I really think that it is a better use of time for them and me.

    Finally, thanks for all of the cool technology information. That wiimote whiteboard sounds ridiculously cool.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks, Bret. I’ve been thinking a lot about future classes regarding pre- or post-class screencasts. The viewing statistics sure seem to suggest that my students use them much more for the latter than the former. This semester is great because I don’t have to do any work for the pre-ones.

  5. That Wiimote whiteboard has been haunting me ever since I saw it. I have a Smartboard in the room, but it doesn’t see muhc use. I’d like to not be tied to the front of the room and would like to easily hand off the “pen” to students when they have something to add or ask. Have you considered pairing a class iPad with an AppleTV? I’ve heard of classes where this has been successful.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I think for this incredibly small class (7 people), having them come up to the board is no big deal. The notion of passing a tablet around that somehow connects to the projected screen is a cool thing to do with more students. I’m going to try that with my tablet computer (once it comes in later this week) by having it constantly sharing its screen through elluminate.

  6. Pingback: Web App Dev with GAS course | SuperFly Physics

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