Friday, August 18, 2017

Effective Course Augmentation with Technology

Given that Fresno State's first day of the semester was yesterday, and instruction begins next week, this seems an appropriate time to summarize, and expand upon, some musings about effective Course Augmentation with Technology (CAT). Before you finish the spit-shine on your syllabus and course schedule and send them out to your new students, here are a few key points to consider that should help your courses run more smoothly and be more effective:

Focus on Pedagogy and Outcomes

CAT is never "technology for the sake of technology." Promote the use of technology when it enriches the learning experience.


I use Google Classroom to facilitate obtaining formative feedback from students, during class. The objectives here are:

  • Get real-time data on student understanding so that I can modify lesson plans according to student needs
  • Provide anonymous feedback to students on their understanding

In brief, I distribute a PDF file of a class exercise to all students through Google Classroom during class. They use their devices to annotate the PDF (often drawing responses to prompts) and then return those documents to me through Google Classroom. I can then display them immediately on my tablet (anonymously, if I want - which I usually do) and provide feedback on quality and extent of understanding.

Student Access

I only require mobile device use when I know my students all have relatively equal access to such technology. Because we have laptop and tablet loaner programs, I usually feel comfortable doing so. If this isn't true where you teach, it is often possible to form student groups including at least one student per group who does have the technology.

It is also a really good idea to ask students to use apps that are available for free on any mobile device (smartphone; tablet; laptop). Not many apps do this, but it keeps the playing field level and makes tech support easier on the faculty (and/or campus staff).

Faculty Buy-In

I can report from personal experience that students can tell when faculty interest in and/or use of technology wanes over the semester. I have plenty of evidence from student course evaluations in the first semesters when I began CAT. The solution is to make one or a few small changes per term that you have every expectation you will be able to sustain throughout the term.

Faculty Boldness

Fear of failure is an often-cited reason why many of my colleagues don't want to pursue active learning with technology, or other tech-enhanced teaching strategies. They don't want to have tech problems during class, so they never try. Or, they tried once, failed, and gave up. Please remember three important things:

  • FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning. Practice makes perfect; things can always go "wrong" in class - regardless of what technology you use (projector lamps can go out even if you're projecting from a laptop; your dry erase marker can run out of ink…). Choose to enter your class with a growth mindset
  • Students need to see you model how one has to leave their comfort zone to learn and to grow. Honestly, nothing worth doing ever came easily; the same is true for effective instruction. Students prize (again, I have course evaluation evidence) instructors who make it clear that they are pushing the envelope to benefit their students. Sometimes the best pedagogical innovations come from having to make on-the-spot adjustments to class plans.
  • Build a support group. Have peers (like me) to discuss issues both before and after class. In other words, discuss intended approaches beforehand and practice what you might do (as back-up plans); then discuss successes and failures. You'll find, not surprisingly, that we all have good and bad days in the classroom, with or without technology.

Student Buy-In (the most important component)

When my students show up on the first day of class (I assume yours are similar), they expect more of the same: lecture. Sitting passively, maybe occasionally not paying attention, listening to lecture. At the end of each semester, I always distribute my own course evaluation survey, in which I solicit student feedback on a number of CAT-related questions. I regularly hear from students (although usually a minority of them) that they prefer the lecture-only experience.

So, more and more, I have been dedicating time during the entire first week of instruction (and repeatedly throughout the term) explaining to students (and later reminding them) why I have designed the class the way I have. I try to make it very clear why the use of the flipped classroom approach, active learning, and CAT, will help them with future coursework and, afterward, in a career. I've included much of this material in pages 8-10 (including a video linked from page 8) in the following Introduction chapter of a course manual I just wrote for my genetics class. Please download this chapter for examples of how I justify the course design to students and try to make it obvious to them why their participation in class is critical:

Support for CAT

If you are at Fresno State, you have several resources to draw on. I'll highlight two here. First, the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) - our instructional designers and associated faculty liaisons, including DISCOVERe (tablet-based instruction) experts Mary Paul and Martin Shapiro, are fantastic to work with if you need to brainstorm, practice, troubleshoot, and/or be inspired with new ideas and solutions to problems you present to them.

Second, I am always willing to meet to accomplish the same: to give you feedback on effective pedagogical ways to accomplish your goals with your courses. I am always happy to meet, and particularly to visit one of your class sessions to give friendly feedback on ways you might consider Course Augmentation with Technology to enhance your class. E-mail me at! I'll be part of your support group team.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Clips: Spreadsheet Basics

The problem

Quantitative reasoning (the basis of evidence-based decision-making) is a skill that benefits every person. Scientist educators strive to develop this in their students. "Number sense" is notoriously difficult to develop, perhaps in part because of student math anxiety and a fixed mindset ("math is hard," "I'm not mathematically inclined," etc.).

So, I've been working to incorporate mathematical analysis exercises in my classes. The way I see it, the best way to do this is to use spreadsheets. They're relatively easy to use (compared to command-line programs like R or GUI-ish Mathematica or SPSS), free (e.g. Google Sheets, Apple's Numbers) or nearly free to students (e.g. Microsoft Excel).

I grew up using Excel, and can't imagine life without it. Heck, I use it to understand how quickly my Thanksgiving turkeys cook so that, given the mass of this year's turkey, I can predict when to put the stuffing and roast potatoes in the oven and have everything come out perfectly done at the same time:

Evidence of the extent of my nerd cred.

Of course, I had to learn to use Excel somewhere. When I entered college, I had a pretty good grasp. As I recall, I knew how to enter calculations, fill-down calculations, format cells, and so forth. I don't recall where I picked this up…probably from a high school science class. But, of course, not everybody gets this exposure in high school. In college, my fantastic honors general chemistry lab instructor, a well-known and recognized (and non-tenure-track) instructor, invested huge amounts of time teaching us analytical skills using Excel (significant figures, error propagation; the whole nine yards). And then I took an "Advanced Excel" class offered by the business school.

And so, about twenty years on, it has been a shock to me, when I teach upper-division biology, that students don't already inherently know how to use a spreadsheet. That's my myopia.

What to do about it?

Apple's Clips app. This semester, I will intentionally involve students, during class, in more spreadsheet-based data analysis than I have undertaken before. And I need to scaffold instruction in using spreadsheets along with their use.

Having just been through (very little, but intense) training and exploration in using Clips at the Apple Distinguished Educator academy, I thought, "Here is a great tool for making a series of microlectures on using Google Sheets." I started with the basics: the structure of a spreadsheet, the types of information spreadsheets can contain, and how to perform simple calculations.


I plan to follow this up with additional Clips, to produce a video microlecture series. Sure, these tutorials exist elsewhere - and they are probably more professionally done. But, I think (and students tell me) that there is tremendous value in their teacher having made the videos - that makes them tailored to the particular scenarios and case studies employed in the specific class. It also indicates our dedication to the class and to the education of the students.

Basic Clips Workflow and Best Practices

Here's a brief overview of how I made the above 2:30 Clip.

Record a screencast of using Google Sheets. I plugged my iPad into my MacBook using the charging cable, and used Quicktime Player (File: New Movie Recording, and then choose your iPad, or even iPhone, as the video source) to record me (without audio) as I navigated my iPad to launch Google Sheets and then perform several tasks in Sheets. I saved the video on my laptop and imported it into my Photos reel so that it would be available on my mobile devices.

The next step was voiceover. I used Apple's Clips app: this plays the video as it imports into Clips. While importing (in real time), I used Clips to record a voiceover annotation of what I was doing through the entire video. I recorded the voiceovers in sections to produce a series of short "clips" that comprise the entire video above. Here I can highlight one of Clips' key features: live captioning. Clips uses the Siri voice recognition engine to process your voice as you speak and translate it into captions: on the fly! Of course, no voice recognition is perfect, so I use Clips' built-in transcript editing tool to make small changes (usually the addition of punctuation marks) to perfect my captions.

Having made this series of short, individual video clips, I interspersed (again, using Clips) the still, text frames (called "Posters") in between each clip. I use these to summarize information from the previous video and/or to introducing upcoming information.

Then, onto the various clips (videos and posters), I added some animated graphics (emojis, arrowheads, etc.) to emphasize particular parts of each video component.

Finally, I added a background soundtrack (just for fun). I exported the movie (to my camera roll, where I exported it to my laptop as a .mov file) and then uploaded it to YouTube to share with the world (i.e. my class).

At the end of the clip (as is my wont during classes), I added an "extension" piece, so that students who cruise through the video and quickly grasp the content have a new exercise to work on before our next class meeting.


That's one way to use Clips to help your students learn skills that can help them become more effective quantitative reasoners.

Next up

I'll be recording Clips for chi-square analysis and for graphing using Sheets.

Monday, August 14, 2017

This project e-Clips-ed my summer

Call me a lunatic, but once again I've allowed a "side project" to eclipse my summer! Of course, it is only because I enjoy working on such projects, and I see tremendous value in them, that I let this happen. I spent the better part of my "free time" assembling a class manual, curating the digital materials I have developed for genetics (BIOL 102) over my many semesters of course augmentation with technology. In the waning days of summer, I sit down for the first time in a long time to update you on my perspectives and progress.


Related to my side project, I was recognized this year with the honor of becoming an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE). This was much to my surprise, because, although I am an Apple advocate, Fresno State's 1:1 tablet program is not an Apple program. More on that soon…

To become an ADE, one has to participate in a summer academy - which I just recently completed. Each academy has a project that the participants focus much of their attention on; this year, that focus was placed squarely on the use of one of Apple's newest apps, called Clips, in education. Our task, in short, was to develop best practices for using Clips in education (K-12 and higher ed).

Although this post, like many, is couched in a discipline-specific context (and this time, necessarily, a device-specific context), I'm still striving to distill course-, grade-, and technology-agnostic principles for you to use. Please read on with an open mind!


Clips is a mobile-device-friendly (i.e. low-frills, low CPU-usage, low-memory usage) program. Its main role is as a video editing and social-media-posting app. A brief summary of its utility: with Clips, you can capture new still images and video using a phone or tablet camera. You can also import stills and video from the device's camera roll. Clips allows simple editing, like:

  • ordering various media items into a specified order
  • adding animated icons and text "posters" in between those media
  • adding a soundtrack

Most notably to many of us, one of the most novel (powerful?) aspects of Clips is its "Live Captions" function. In essence, when using Clips, the device uses speech recognition to perform on-the-fly captioning of videos. This is, as an understatement, HUGE in improving video accessibility without having to undergo a separate process of captioning videos.

For example, here is the Clips video I produced during the ADE summer academy:

Please watch the Clip in the link above so that you can tell me what you think I did wrong in my first Clip!

Clips in Education

My colleagues and I have brainstormed potential classroom uses of Clips, and here are a summary of potential pros and cons:

  • This seems an ideal app for students to use to summarize content and to provide instructors with feedback or reflections
  • We might have some fear about the glitz and "social media-ness" that Clips provides - will this seem to "sophomoric" for higher ed?
  • It isn't equitable to ask students to use Clips if not all students have Apple products (this is perhaps the biggest issue; perhaps solvable by having students work in groups containing at least one iPhone or iPad)
  • Clips isn't the only video-recording app, especially on the iPhone/iPad; we wondered: "What are the Apple-independent principles of the use of short videos by students and/or by faculty?"

To see more examples of the use of Clips for higher education, search Twitter with #classroomclips

Probable Best Practices for using Clips (or any video app)

  • Student use is probably more powerful than faculty use
  • Clips should be just that: clips. Not full-length feature films. This is, probably not arguably, one of my missteps in my first Clip (URL above): a 3:17 video, although relatively short, is probably too long to make the point it makes. How short should a Clip be? It is certainly up to you. How long do you think a student will watch? I'll guess a minute, maximum. Thirty seconds would be better.

My approach for using Clips

This summer, as I was producing my course manual, I decided that I would produce a "trailer" (a movie trailer: a preview) of the topic for each class meeting. Not counting the first day of class, or review sessions or exam days, I will have 23 class meetings this coming semester. So, I have created 23 brief trailers, "A Genetics Class Trailer" (or AGCT - for you geneticists and others in-the-know), for the semester. I have embedded these videos at the start of each "Chapter" of my course manual (one chapter per class meeting). Here is a YouTube playlist of all 23 of these trailers, the longest of which is exactly one minute long:

Why trailers?

My intentions with these Clips, to be rolled out one week from today, when I begin fall semester instruction, are to:

  • Introduce content in bite-size packages
  • Stimulate student interest
  • Demonstrate relevance of content to be covered each class
  • Give students a "hook" that will help make pre-class reading/video content more meaningful

Given the amount of effort I put into developing these Clips and my course manual, I'm very much looking forward to reporting back to you, at the end of this semester! I will let you know:

  • what the student response has been
  • revisions to best practices
  • whether the effort is worth it!

I'm sure my answer to the latter will be, "Yes!" As always, innovating in education has kept me engaged and enthused, and that might be the most important and engaging result!