Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A new blog is born!

Even though this blog is called Tablet Pedagogy, my ruminations about effective pedagogy have grown beyond technology-based innovations. To try to keep lines of communication clear, I've just today launched an additional blog to cater to readers who have teaching-related interests outside of the realm of mobile technology in the classroom.

I will continue posting tech-based information here at Tablet Pedagogy, and I will be posting other educational content at:

(link to if you like)

Although I will use my @rossbiology (professional) Twitter account to continue promoting Tablet Pedagogy, I have also launched a new Twitter handle to accompany the new blog: @eduproffer

Twitter users: please follow me @eduproffer - thanks!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Just Joe's" Top Tips for Fantastic Flips

I just completed day one of the California State University system's Course Redesign with Technology summer institute, where I was happy to be able to present three different times on augmenting university classes with technology to enhance student engagement:

Ross guiding CSU faculty through strategies for student active learning
By the way: at past institutes, I introduced myself as Bio(logy) Joe from Fresno. This year, I realize the value of not promoting that I am a biologist, because everything I do as a faculty professional developer is to try to make my practices discipline-agnostic. My goal is to develop and disseminate information that faculty from any discipline can use. Yesterday, one of my colleagues suggested that I be "Just Joe" – hence my new moniker.

Yesterday, while I was presenting, and listening to other CSU experts, I distilled three great tips for those of us who teach classes in a blended learning ("flipped") format. I'll couch these tips in the context of two questions and complaints I often hear from faculty who have tried this approach:

1. For videos that students watch before coming to class, what types of content should I present, and how long should be videos be?

Yesterday, my colleague Ji Son gave a great description of how to divide course content and practice between pre-class and in-class: think of Bloom's taxonomy. Give students the factual (lower Bloom's) information in brief (three to five minute) videos. Spend class time doing the higher Bloom's levels: tackling employing knowledge in new circumstances, evaluating information, etc. in that classroom setting, where students have you (and peers) as a support structure! This is critically important for students who have fixed mindsets.

2. Students aren't engaging in my exercises during our in-class time

Two main challenges might explain this reluctance

a. First, I've heard many stories from faculty of how they started out with so many great new techniques and approaches, but their time (and enthusiasm) to support those changes tapered off over the semester. This is often sensed by students as faculty getting "lazy."

The best answer to this: be as conscious as you can as you're designing how you will integrate new pedagogies. Think sustainably: just make one change each term, and make it a small change, so that you can be sure you have enough time all semester long to support your innovation. Students prefer consistent energy across the semester.

b. Another perspective that students sometimes have about faculty is that using a flipped classroom approach is a "lazy teacher" approach, especially when we spend most of our in-class time answering student questions and facilitating small group work.

I have three recommendations

a. The most important: do everything you can (see below) to onboard students into the value of your class augmentation/enrichment/redesign strategy. Describe/provide to the students:

  • how what you are doing is probably going to be new to them
  • how you know that your changes have been shown to be effective (i.e. that you're not necessarily testing unproven strategies on them as "guinea pigs")
  • how their participation and regular preparation for a flipped class is absolutely critical and essential for the class to work and help every student succeed

Do this as early in the semester as possible. Some places to do this: in your course syllabus and during the very first day of class. I now spend about a half-hour of class on each of my first few days of class giving students structured exercises and time to learn all new technologies/workflows. This can include providing online resources (videos, tutorials) for using those technologies. At the same time, I reinforce how all of these approaches help improve their ability to succeed in my course.

b. It can also be very valuable, in the first days of class, to survey your students to try to learn about their attitudes and perceptions on your pedagogical approach. This way, if you have any concerns coming into the semester about whether students will appreciate what you're doing, you will find out what sort of concerns you will need to explicitly address on this first days. Some example survey questions might include (for a flipped classroom approach):

  • How much do you like being able to ask questions during class? (a little, some, a lot)
  • What percent of class time do you prefer be spent on lecture? (0-25%, 25-50%, 50-75%, 75-100%)
  • How much time do you expect to spend outside of class preparing for class?
This process can be very eye-opening about the gap between your expectations for student activity/involvement and their own expectations. Only with these data can you be effective in helping the students understand the value of their adapting their schedules/expectations/activities to conform with your pedagogical approach.

c. I have had a lot of difficulty (spanning multiple semesters) figuring out how to get students to prepare to ask questions and engage in group work during class. In other words: preparing students to realize that their homework has two components:

  • read/watch the material for class
  • prepare questions, based on thoughtful reflection, to ask in class

To help prime students, one of the things I prefer to do is to assign students a "homework question" to try to complete by the next class meeting. I do this at one or both of the following ways:

  • at the end of the current class meeting and/or
  • in the video I am asking the students to watch by next class

Such a question that I pose to students will always be a tough question that, at its core, requires the students to use the pre-class video and/or reading material. However, that question usually has one final part that will be difficult (to nearly impossible) for students to complete. The goal of this is to force students to consider how the information/topic engages higher Bloom's levels before class. Then, when they come to class, you should be fairly confident that a number of your students will have FAILed to answer that question (where the acronym FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning - that's not my invention, but I'm not sure who to attribute this acronym to). This approach ensures that, at the very least, students should come to class expecting to work on figuring out how to appropriately answer that question.

A final thought about helping students prepare for the in-class portion of a flipped class

Be very explicit with your students about how students can go about developing appropriate/useful questions to bring to class. This might take the form of providing students with a flowchart of prompts to help them pinpoint where they encountered difficulties:

  • Where in the process of answering the question did you get stuck?
  • What were the questions racing through your head when you gave up? Write those down and bring them to class. Examples include:
    • "Do I need this piece of information?"
    • "How do I incorporate this information in my answer?"
    • "Why is this information provided in the question?"
    • "What does this term mean?"
    • "I had multiple possible options of how to proceed at this point - which one should I choose?"
    • "How do I know what to do next? I don't know what options exist for how to proceed."

Do you have other methods you use to help students develop questions to ask during class? Please let me know by e-mail or as a comment!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Benefits of active participation in pedagogical reform

I'm now wrapping up my fifth year as an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno. For seven of those ten semesters (January 2014–present), I've been part of the DISCOVERe initiative at Fresno State. Our campus just today sent out a call for applications to be part of its fifth cohort of DISCOVERe Faculty Fellows, and here I'll reflect on the costs and benefits of my participation in this program. Although this is most directly applicable to Fresno State faculty, the general thrust is relevant to any teacher who is considering whether to invest time augmenting their courses with mobile technology.

The DISCOVERe Program

Our President, Joseph Castro, had the vision to create classes in which tablet technology was available to the instructor and to every student. The initial cohort of faculty fellows was nominated by College Deans. We were given a tablet and then received professional development on its pedagogical use in the classroom - although as the initial faculty cohort, we were ground-breakers and the first wave of faculty developing best practices for the use of mobile technology in the college classroom. These practices are mainly what I have been writing posts about on this blog.

For courses we designated as DISCOVERe courses, each student received funds to pay for the cost of the required tablet computer. Subsequently, those scholarships were discontinued, at which time Fresno State initiated a tablet loaner program, so that the technology cost would still be nonexistent for all students enrolled in DISCOVERe classes.

The main reason I accepted by Dean's invitation to join DISCOVERe was because I could imagine numerous ways I could improve student engagement when I was assured that every student in my class would have equal access to the internet and to a computer. Since then, main thrusts of my approach to augmenting courses with mobile technology have included:

  • creating authentic experiences for biology students (e.g. exercises that develop information literacy and quantitative reasoning skills using web-based data sources and tools)
  • eco-friendly (electronic instead of paper workflows, improving course management efficiency)
  • reducing the cost of instruction by creating my own course materials and also by using open-access resources instead of textbooks from for-profit publishers


From the faculty perspective, this program is unique because it:

  • is platform agnostic (we essentially take all comers: students can bring existing mobile devices or use school-provided ones)
  • is focused on pedagogy first: this isn't just technology for technology's sake. This is pedagogy driving appropriate use of technology in the classroom
  • allows faculty to decide how to use tablets in their classes. The faculty are the disciplinary experts, so there is no program-wide prescription of how tablets should be used in each DISCOVERe class
  • places emphasis on net cost-neutrality: we strive to offset the technology cost by supporting faculty in:
    • identifying open-access (free) educational materials
    • identifying free tablet apps to use in class, and developing their own educational resources to provide their students
  • Provides tremendous campus resources (including tech support and classroom audio/video services support) to facilitate use of mobile technology by all of the faculty and students involved in DISCOVERe courses
  • also emphasizes faculty alignment their course syllabus (particularly student learning outcomes) with tablet use, including with the SAMR model: to emphasize using tablets to Modify and to Redefine classroom activities to leverage mobile technology


  • Networking: I've made great cross-disciplinary connections with other faculty by being part of this campus-wide initiative
  • Leadership: as an ardent adopter of mobile technology, I've had a number of opportunities for becoming a leader in faculty professional development
    • Travel to present at conferences and to other universities interested in using mobile technologies in courses
    • Opportunities to serve on the DISCOVERe Taskforce and to be the DISCOVERe program Assessment Subcommittee Chair
    • Faculty Cohort Co-Chair in the California State University system's Course Redesign with Techonology program, which provided me with assigned time, professional development funds (including for purchasing technology, captioning videos, and paying for a teaching assistant for my technology-augmented course)
  • Because of my involvement and activities as a leader in the DISCOVERe program led me to receive Fresno State's Provost Award for Innovation in 2016
  • Subsequently, my application to be an Apple Distinguished Educator 2017 was accepted


The main drawback has been that my exposure to mobile technology pedagogy has led me to become more interested in improving my teaching skills and in performing pedagogical research, which has summarily led to my having less time for scholarship as a biologist. Fortunately, at Fresno State, both are valued; this may not be the case at other institutions.

Concluding Perspective

For me, the pros so greatly outweigh any cons that I would not even think twice about whether to join the DISCOVERe program. In general, the opportunity to join like-minded peers to build networks, to operate at the cutting edge of education (developing best practices), and hopefully to improve education for our students cannot be ignored. Beyond those benefits, even just the tangible benefits (improved classroom efficiency, development of resources to leverage in future semesters, professional development funding, professional development in pedagogy and technology, and assigned time) would have been enough to make me sign up again and again!

Now that I'm heading into my sixth year as an Assistant Professor (about to submit my promotion and tenure application), I'm convinced that the networking I've made with colleagues as well as Fresno State administration has undoubtedly strengthened my application, especially with regard to my ability not only to demonstrate my commitment and advances in teaching but also in service.

If you have any questions about getting involved in DISCOVERe at Fresno State (or just in integrated technology into classes), please feel free to contact me! E-mail me: jross (a) or contact me on Twitter: @rossbiology