Saturday, December 20, 2014

Useful tablet tech gift ideas

As the holidays bear down upon us, here are some ideas for last-minute gifts you might get your favorite tablet teacher.


My iPad came (thanks to Fresno State) with a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio which I really enjoy having. It is a case to protect the iPad that also has an integrated Bluetooth keyboard. The folio acts as a stand for the iPad as well. The key layout takes a little getting used to; the thing I miss most on this compact keyboard is a tab key that doesn't require using a modifier key as well.
The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio

I opted for the Adonit Jot Script because of its ability to perform wrist rejection in certain apps (i.e. Penultimate). Although this stylus is expensive, the built-in Bluetooth connectivity is what allows tablet apps to know whether it is the tip of the stylus contacting the touchscreen (when you want the screen to respond) or your wrist, just resting on the touchscreen. The main drawback I've found about the Jot is that its hard tip makes a very subtle *tap* sound when it contacts a touchscreen - this isn't surprising. However, any hard-tipped stylus will cause issues if you're using an app like ExplainEverything to make a recording - you'll hear in the recording all of the *tap* *tap* *tap* as you draw, write, navigate using a stylus. So, I don't use my stylus when I record movies or when I present in-class, but I still use it (and it is essential, especially given my "stout" fingers) for any sort of drawing application.


For untethered presentation (e.g. walking around a classroom with your tablet), I really like the MaxCases educator case, which clips onto the back of a tablet and has an elastic strap that fits around the hand. The case also rotates around the clip, so that it is easy to change the orientation (portrait or landscape) of the tablet as you're holding it. There is also a built-in loop for holding a stylus. I use this case every day in class. If you've tried holding onto a tablet for an entire class period and had extreme hand fatigue, or if you've accidentally pressed various parts of the touchscreen while using your tablet, you'll love this case.

When I'm not using my iPad, it lives in a Cocoon Innovations iPad Sleeve. This extremely handy padded tote has a fleece-lined pocket for cradling your tablet; it is just (barely) large enough to accommodate the iPad while it is attached to the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio. What is most unique and useful about this product is its sole other feature: a pocket for holding your tablet backup kit! With myriad elastic loops of all sizes (Cocoon's big contribution to luggage organization), everything I carry "just-in-case" always has a place to live.

Cocoon's iPad Sleeve
Some of these extra items that the iPad Sleeve holds will also make good stocking stuffers for your favorite educator!

  • iPad-VGA adapter (or iPad-HDMI adapter, depending on your classroom set-up)
  • LASER pointer (splurge and get a green one - they're much more effective than red)
  • Stylus
  • iPad charging cord
  • Keyboard Folio charging cord
  • Apple Remote
  • Spare batteries for LASER pointer
Happy shopping!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Term 1: Lessons Learned

As another reflection on the first semester of DISCOVERe tablet-based instruction at Fresno State, I'm offering a few general best practices for any of you who are thinking about introducing tablets into your classes. Later, I'll detail specific best practices for certain apps and approaches. Look back through some that I've already covered in previous posts:

Lessons from the first semester of tablet instruction

Be flexible. As you are aware, this isn't specific to tablet instruction. However, we're more likely to run into problems opportunities in class when trying something new, and these can lead to those priceless teachable moments.

Be prepared to spend more time doing essentially the same in-class things you used to do without a tablet. Likewise, be prepared to sacrifice some content to give you and your students time to establish workflows for apps. Consider making practice assignments (assign some points purely for completion, if you want) to let students work through using apps for the first time and become comfortable with their new learning environment.

Be an evangelist. On day one and regularly throughout the term, explain to students the potential benefits to them of tablet instruction and set their expectations for the term.

Foster interaction between you and the students (and between the students) about how they are using their tablet in class. The students are more likely to come up with efficient processes and creative ways to achieve goals than the instructor. Leverage their expertise!

Finally, and most importantly, have a backup plan!

  • What will you do if there is an internet outage? Our campus was performing network upgrades during the term that impacted internet access during one class period.
  • My tablet suddenly isn't connecting wirelessly to the AppleTV (and through it, to the class projector), or it keeps dropping the connection! What now?
  • "Dr. Ross - the new version of that app, which just came out, doesn't work the same as it used to..."
  • A third-party website you were planning on using (e.g. online database, textbook publisher website) is temporarily down

Once again, as always, the flexibility of an instructor to deal with adversity on the spot is critical for keeping a class moving forward, engaged, and convinced of the perception that their instructor is an authority. Addressing the above best practices in advance will help you keep those students engaged and to present the best possible classroom environment to them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

All good things come to an end

Today was the final day of instruction in my first DISCOVERe course! Looking back on the term, given other responsibilities, I certainly didn't do as much innovation and exploration as I would have liked to incorporate the tablet into my class. However, I am overjoyed and proud that the first half (or so) of the semester involved a flipped classroom approach, where I recorded screencast lectures in advance of each class; my students were required to watch those before coming to class. The reason that I didn't continue this approach through the entire term was because I was also requiring students to perform textbook readings in advance of class as well, and the two approaches were mostly redundant.

What I'm even more proud of is that I faithfully recorded every lecture (except one, because of technical difficulty) and posted each one on YouTube. As mentioned in the previous post, I've seen resounding success with this approach. Today, my channel for my course (both my tablet and non-tablet sections combined have an enrollment of 84) has received 5,805 video views, in which 53,090 minutes of video have been watched by my students. As soon as I post grades, I will be allowed to access my student assessments for the purpose of analyzing my successes in more detail and comparing my tablet and non-tablet courses.

In one month, I will start instruction on my second DISCOVERe tablet instruction course: Applied Bioethics. A graduate course, this will be fundamentally different from my genetics tablet course, and I'm really looking forward to learning about and inventing more new ways to use a tablet computer in class!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

YouTube Analytics as Formative Assessment

As I've mentioned here, exporting in-class lecture/activity from my tablet as a movie file using the app Explain Everything has been an ancillary tool I've used to take advantage of tablet technology to give students another tool for studying and reviewing material. One of the (many) benefits of uploading video to YouTube is the ability to use their analytics tools to ask questions like:

  1. are students taking advantage of the resource or am I wasting my time providing it?
  2. what parts of the videos are students watching more than others?

Accessing Analytics Tools

Login to a YouTube account. Because this is the first class I've advertised instructional videos to, all of my 37 subscribers (seen at the top of the window) are from my genetics class this term. They and their classmates have produced the vast majority of the 4,783 views, answering question 1 above: yes, students are overwhelmingly using this resource (and not just my Tablet section students - my Traditional class format students are accessing the online video content as well). Go to the Video Manager page.
YouTube landing page

In the menu at the left of the Video Manager screen, near the bottom is an Analytics tab. Once you've had a video posted that others have accessed, it will contain some potentially useful content.

Video Manager Screen

Below is the initial view of the Analytics page, containing some basic information. In the last month, my students have viewed over 15,000 minutes of content in over 1,200 views! In the Analytics sub-menu at left, the tool I use most frequently is "Audience Retention."

Analytics Overview Page

Here, I can obtain a report like the one below for each of my videos. 

Analytics Audience Retention Report
The graph shows the percentage of viewers who initially starting the movie that are still watching at each point during the movie. As YouTube explains, percentages can go above 100% when individual viewers "rewind" and watch a section again. This tool is most useful to me for identifying material that probably needs to be addressed in more detail in class. For example, in the graph above, every time the line increases to a peak, this suggests that viewers have selected to see that content more frequently than other parts of the video. At 28:26 (where the cursor is positioned above) there is a distinct peak. I can see the corresponding video frame below the graph and that I was covering question 9.2 at that point. So, I might choose to practice these concepts more in class and to ensure that students are comfortable with them.

In sum, posting material on YouTube can be used to collect useful data for informing and tailoring instruction to student needs!

Best Practices

  • Provide a text key to each video that gives a rough timeline of when different topics arise. This will help students navigate quickly to content that they know they need to access. It will also be useful to the instructor later, if it becomes useful to take clips of these existing movies to make new content (say, for other classes).
  • Create a YouTube Playlist for each class, and when you upload a video, tag it to that Playlist so that you only have to provide your class one URL, to your Playlist.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tablet exams: study guides and review sessions

I don't really like to hold exam review sessions. But students ask for them. And they ask for "study guides" (for students who might be reading this, here's a hint: the lecture slides, the syllabus, your textbook, and your notes are the study guide!) This post explores new approaches using tablet computers to potentially improve the efficacy of

I have three predominant concerns about review sessions:

  1. I'm not sure they necessarily help students who attend; they definitely don't help students who are unable to attend. My experience suggests that many of the students who will show up to a review session are the motivated, high-achieving students; these students may only make incremental gains by attending an office hour.
  2. Related, it is next to impossible to pick a time (and find an empty classroom) that works with everybody's schedule. So, it seems almost inherently unfair to hold review sessions, as they will certainly exclude attendance by some students.
  3. They never seem to be very efficient. This might be an outcome of a combination of my implementation of the review session. The format I use is that I show up and students ask me questions about content. I don't bring any prepared agenda. So, in this sense, the review session is merely an extended office hour in a space large enough to accommodate a large number of students. I often schedule exams on Mondays, to give students the weekend to study, but this also means that students typically (if my experience is still typical of college students) don't start studying until the weekend just before the exam. Because I strongly discourage last-minute (i.e. Monday earlier in the day than the exam) question-asking, I will schedule a review session for the previous Thursday or Friday - unfortunately, this is before most of the students have probably started reviewing the material and formulating questions to ask. So, many "A" students tend to show up just to hear questions from other students and my responses. Much of the time is spent with me waiting for students to actively leaf through their notes and find topics that they want to review.

New review session approach
I just held an exam review session for my genetics students; I used my tablet to make a change this time, and I'm excited to follow the outcomes over the next week. I recorded the review session. This isn't a major leap, as I'm already recording pre-lectures and in-class lectures and posting them on YouTube for students to access. However, the reason I'm hopeful that this new practice will improve student success is because I'm addressing some of my concerns above.

Benefit to students
Students who are unable to attend a review session scheduled at a time other than our normal class meeting time are now able to access the exact same content as those who were in attendance. I'm giving students another resource to help them help themselves succeed, and it takes next to no additional effort on my part.

Best practices

  • After I exported my screencast video of the review session, I spent ten minutes going through the video and noting the time when I began responding to each question, along with the topic of that question. When I posted the URL to the video on our learning management system, I also provided this guide to the video, so that students don't have to watch over an hour of video to find out whether there are parts of the video that address a specific question they may have
  • Although nobody used this opportunity, I had suggested that students should e-mail or tweet me questions that I could discuss during the live review session

On Study Guides & Answer Keys
My students seemed particularly concerned before my first exam about whether I could provide an example exam for them to see the types of questions I write. Because I had only taught this course once before, I declined to provide my meager stockpile of exam questions to the class.

After the first exam, as part of a quiz (in Socrative), I asked each student to write an exam question (and answer) that they thought represented the type of question I might ask on the upcoming second exam. This was a useful exercise for two reasons: it made students consciously assess what content they thought was exam material, and it also gave me a stockpile of potential exam questions! To motivate the students to take this task of question-writing seriously, I told them that I would choose one of their questions and use it on the exam. From the rest of the questions, I chose several and published those to the class as a "study guide" (more like a practice exam) that covered the highlights, as chosen by the class, of the exam material.

So, I distributed a PDF of this study guide, and a student asked me, almost immediately, whether I was going to post a screencast key. What a great idea! So, instead of filling out a printout of the study guide by hand, scanning it, and posting it as a PDF, I used my established process of annotating a PDF using ExplainEverything and then exporting the annotation as a movie. The reason I'm particularly keen about this approach (and glad that a student suggested it!) is that, at least in genetics, it is difficult for many students to get a handle on the order of steps (the process) necessary to solve a multi-step problem. Because the normal answer keys they see are static (a printout posted on a bulletin board, or a digital text document or PDF), it can be difficult to understand the logic behind how the key-writer arrived at the answer. I hope that being able to see (on-demand, probably the weekend right before the exam) example problems being solved as screencast videos with audio voiceover will help students improve their understanding of the key concepts I'm trying to help them learn.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Explain Everything and blended learning

In today's post, I'll give my impressions on how tablets are extremely useful for helping faculty "flip the classroom" and to give students more tools for succeeding in class.

As soon as I heard about the app Explain Everything, which is my most-used app, I knew that one of the main ways I would use my tablet was to create a blended learning course (aka a "flipped classroom"). Explain Everything, which costs next to nothing to purchase, is a dual-purpose (or more!) app: I present information to students with it (like one might use PowerPoint), but it also records audio and written annotation!

Purpose 1: Explain Everything Before Class

I'm now using Explain Everything to voice-over (and annotate) pre-lecture content. Before every chapter of my textbook, I record a brief (5 to 20 minute) screencast lecture to try to convey the basic, factual information that the students will need to engage in what we do in class: work through problems and examples and answer student questions. To ensure compliance watching these videos in advance, I have a low-point quiz on every pre-lecture video.

Pre-Class Workflow for Screencasting

  1. Create slides (little text - maybe just a title) containing graphics (photographs, primary data, etc.) that I wouldn't want to reproduce by hand. I use PowerPoint for this
  2. Export slides as a PDF file
  3. Copy the PDF file on my computer to my Google Drive
  4. Open the multi-page PDF file in Explain Everything (which converts each page of the PDF to its own slide)
  5. Press the record button and start talking and making on-screen annotations using my finger and the tablet touchscreen (only audio and touchscreen-based activity are recorded - not video from the tablet camera - so the students just see what's displayed on the tablet screen and not the instructor's face)
  6. When I'm done navigating through the presentation, I export the presentation (audio plus all of my live annotations) as a movie back to my Google Drive account
  7. I upload the movie to YouTube (although I could export directly from Explain Everything to YouTube, I like keeping a copy of the presentation as a movie file on my laptop)
  8. I'll describe the YouTube side of the workflow in a later post, but briefly: students know where to look on YouTube to find the videos I upload (I provide a link to my YouTube channel on our learning management system website).

Purpose 2: Explain Everything: Presenting In Class

I also use Explain Everything for my in-class presentations, which, keeping true to the blended learning approach, usually comprise activities/exercises I've devised for doing in class. Practicing applying the knowledge the students gained before coming to class (by reading the textbook and watching the pre-class video) is a really valuable use of the face time I have with students.

In-Class Workflow for Presenting

  1. I create slides in PowerPoint and export them as a PDF file, or I create a worksheet/activity in Adobe InDesign (page layout program) and export that as a PDF
  2. Import the PDFs to Explain Everything for presentation. Available tools for Explain Everything include basic shapes, a pen with variable width and color, an eraser, a text tool, zoom tool, and more advanced tools (layering, locking objects, etc. and a LASER pointer tool). Another fabulous thing about Explain Everything is that each slide can be drawn on (and, of course, those annotations are displayed by projector to the class)
  3. I draw on my tablet (or use the LASER pointer tool to draw attention to particular parts of the slide), and students see that in real-time. This is writing on a digital white board, on top of graphics that I provide! And, of course, because I always upload my lecture PDF to our learning management system before class, all of the students follow along on their tablets (many of my students are taking their own hand-written annotations on their copies of the lecture slides).

I should explicitly mention that I'm not having students themselves use Explain Everything. Because the app is not free (though only a couple dollars and change, the last time I checked), I'm not requiring students to purchase any apps for this class.

In my flipped classroom, when I write here about designing exercises/activities, those are things that the students are doing on their tablets. This is most frequently by distributing to the students a PDF of the exercise, asking them to annotate/draw on the PDF (the topic of yet another future post), and then return the annotated PDF to me by e-mail attachment - in cases where I want to collect evidence of their work. Some of my colleagues are having the students purchase Explain Everything and then use them to produce and deliver presentations on content, which is certainly another great use of this app.

Purpose 3: Recording during class

What comes next is the very best part: I always record my in-class presentation! The audio picks up my voice, and I try to remember to re-state student questions so that they are audible on the recording. (One minor drawback is that recording only occurs while in Explain Everything, so when I switch to a different app during class, that part doesn't get recorded). As with the advance screencast lecture capture, the audio gets recorded along with all of the on-screen annotation with the Explain Everything tools (pen, LASER pointer, etc.) After class, I export and upload every class session as a movie to YouTube, just like the screencast lectures.

In a future post, I'll delve into evidence I have that students are taking advantage of these resources (the pre-class screencast lecture content; the in-class recording)!


Here's the first pre-lecture video I ever recorded (this was for a graduate course I taught in a previous term, as practice for tablet teaching this term):

I'm not pointing you toward my current-term videos because I'm trying to limit views of that content only to current students. For reasons mentioned earlier: I'm gathering data by tracking viewing habits, and while I would be honored to have you watch those videos as well, I'm afraid you'd skew my data. So, maybe I'll more broadly advertise my current tablet course videos after the term ends!

Happy teaching to you all!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Musings on tablet-based exams

A few days ago, my syllabus indicated that an exam was to be given in my two sections of genetics (one traditional lecture, one tablet-based). The educator in me wanted to give different versions of the exam, so that the tablet students could have an exam that harnessed the full potential of having tablets in class. However, the scientist in me was too curious to see whether there might be a difference in learning by this point in the course, so I gave both sections the same version of this exam.

Distributing the exam
In the traditional section, I provided the exam in paper and students turned it in to me at the end of fifty minutes. In the tablet section, I uploaded a PDF of the exam into our course management system, and at the top of the hour, it became available to the registered students. Having already spent time doing PDF annotation in previous class periods with my students, I was confident that they wouldn't encounter any technological issues completing an exam in this fashion.

However, just in case, I had paper copies of the exam on hand. You know: in case the internet went down. It could happen. I had comforted by students with this information in advance, so they knew paper copies would be available; five of my thirty students opted to take the exam on paper instead of by PDF annotation. Unfortunately, this nullified my earlier claim that tablet courses would be "green" because we wouldn't need to bring paper into the classroom. I am happy to report, though, that for lower-importance assessments (in-class activities and low-point quizzes), I have been using an entirely digital workflow and loving it!

Collecting the exam
At the end of the hour, the link to the exam PDF turned off (although, as noted below, this precaution probably isn't necessary as every student, even ones with excused absences who would be taking make-up exams days later, had access to the exam and the ability to download it during the hour). Students e-mailed their annotated PDFs to me as attachments; my inbox filled up with PDFs. I told the students I would stick around after class for a few minutes if they wanted to verify that I received their e-mail attachments before shutting down their tablets.

As soon as I got back to my office after class, I downloaded each PDF and renamed each file with the last name and first initial of each student. This was partly for record-keeping purposes and mostly because many of the generic filenames given to the PDF by the tablet-based e-mail attachment process were identical. Last, I noticed that some students did not fill in their name at the top of the first page - they might have assumed that because it would be arriving from their e-mail account, they didn't need to. As soon as I downloaded the exam, I opened it to ensure that the PDF wasn't completely void of student entries; I then replied to the student's e-mail to tell them that I had received their exam. This is to alleviate student fears about whether the e-mail attachment and submission process worked.

The following class meeting, one student inquired about how I intended to pass the exams back. I admitted that I hadn't yet considered that aspect of the workflow. By now, I have. Here's what wound up happening and why I am definitely a convert to administering digital exams.

I rarely provide individual feedback on exams, because I provide an answer key and expect students to take the initiative to pursue with me any questions they have about their performance. So, having digital files instead of paper didn't help or hinder me at this point. I opted to use PDF annotation to provide the score each student received on each question. I added each question's score as a "sticky note" annotation and saved the PDF. At this point, I have not yet returned the exams (those students with excused absences have yet to take the make-up exam). However, I have already replied (again) to each of the student submission e-mails and attached the graded version of their exam - these were saved as draft e-mails. Right before the class period where I'll digitally "pass the exams back," I'll go through my Drafts box and send all of the e-mails.

As far as whether the tablet class fared better or worse than their traditional lecture counterparts: those data still need to be crunched.

Now for my Pros and Cons of digital exams.


  • It is better for the environment than using print exams
  • They're lighter to carry than a stack of print exams
  • You can edit the exam up until you administer it (as opposed to having to have a print copy to photocopy at some point prior to the start of the exam)
  • Students don't need to bring a calculator, or a pen, or a bubble sheet and pencil
  • Most importantly, perhaps: exam responses are neater. Students have the ability to type out written responses, which makes it much easier to read; it is also easier for students to edit their written responses as they write, and they never run out of room. I didn't have to read any tiny writing meandering down the right margin, past all of the other questions on the page and then flipping over to the back of the page
  • A big plus for the instructor: you have a digital copy of the student's work as it appeared when they turned it in. There have been many past circumstances where I've wished (after I returned them to students) that I had copies of student exams. That wish has been granted!


  • There have been rare instances of some types of student PDF annotations not "taking" when PDFs are attached to e-mails. Only a couple of students had had issues with this during normal class periods; I've only had one student complain (days after the exam - I'm skeptical) about this.
  • Tablet students accessing a PDF of the exam can distribute the exam to anybody (especially students in other sections of the same course that might not have taken the exam yet)
  • Speaking of the potential for cheating…what about cheating?

I fully realize that opportunities for cheating are rampant when students have access to the internet (Wikipedia. Their class notes. Chat with other students in the class!) And I have little power to detect it. So I gave them The Talk. We're all adults, and my perspective is that they get out of the class what they put into it. It is their responsibility to take advantage of the opportunity they have to demonstrate that they've learned the material. They're cheating themselves if they decide to cheat. Plus, because I don't grade on a curve, the only person that a cheater is impacting by cheating is her/himself.

Future Refinement
What will I do in the future to improve my tablet-based exams?

  • Possibly using Qualtrics (web-based survey design tool) to write and administer exams, with the potential benefit that it isn't a PDF and can't be copied/saved/distributed to others easily, but with the drawback that question types are limited to the types of things you usually see in surveys (matching, multiple-choice, written response, ranking, etc.) When annotation becomes a reality, I'll definitely be on board.
  • To address the potential for cheating, I certainly plan not to let the scientist in me continue to run the show. Instead of administering the traditional exam to the tablet class, my goal is to write tablet exams that obviate the potential for cheating. After all, I'm teaching an upper-division genetics class, and one of my goals for the course is to give students authentic experiences in genetics analysis. As I've told them, geneticists don't (all) work by themselves and certainly not without access to resources (manuscripts, colleagues, the internet, Wikipedia!) So why should I forbid access to notes, or Wikipedia, or fellow students, during an exam? What is required is development of an exam that is cheat-proof: an exam where there is not a single answer to the question; an exam where I could reasonably expect each student to provide a unique response regardless of whether a secret chat session is occurring in the background. Heck, letting students "cheat" in these ways might actually improve student learning and retention! I can proudly boast that I haven't cheated in years, because it is only where grades are involved that cheating normally exists; otherwise, it is called something like "making efficient use of resources." Let's develop exams that would make Woodrow Wilson proud of his famous quote, "I not only use all the brains that I have, but all I can borrow!" Let's make exams that help students synthesize and integrate information and demonstrate the depth of their understanding, rather than exams that can be cheated: ones that test memory and recall. I'll keep you informed of progress along this front as it is made!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Digital Collaboration using Google Sheets

One of the tenets of active learning is to help students construct their own knowledge. To accomplish this, one approach is to have students collaborate during learning. My experience is that fostering an environment in which students are comfortable asking questions (and bringing questions to class) can be difficult, but it can be easier to have students perform small group work both in and out of class.

I like in-class group work for four reasons:
1) doing group work in class forces the instructor to be very clear about goals and the process that might be taken to reach the goal in a discrete amount of time
2) it is perhaps easier to convince students to be more involved in, and thus benefit more from, group work when you're face-to-face with them (they've already decided to attend class that day, so they're often committed to making the most of that investment)
3) the instructor can bring the groups together by the end of the class period to hear groups report out, to help students synthesize, and to help summarize the learning progress that occurs. This process should strengthen understanding of the material
4) having face-to-face discussions, which can be more efficient that electronic communication, can easily occur in class - there is no need to require groups to meet physically after class

Exercise Overview

When I wrote my first group exercise, which I delivered last week, I had one main goal: that it leverage the tablet. I picked a topic, probability and statistics, that I thought would be ideal for a tablet group exercise. We had been talking, in class, about Mendelian genetics, in which alleles of genes inherited from two parents combine randomly to produce variation in the subsequent generation. I wanted students to generate their own genotype data set that would digitally mimic the processes of meiosis (gamete production) and fertilization and then to compare their digital observation to the expected values that we can calculate from Mendel's two laws. This comparison takes the form of performing a chi-square analysis of the expected and observed data.


Each group of five students was (digitally) given a set of instructions for the exercise. In advance, I had asked all of the students to download a free coin-flipping app (there are many available for all platforms).

Day 1

I walked the students through the analogy of flipping a coin (50% heads, 50% tails expectation) to what happens during meiosis in an A/a heterozygote (Mendel's First Law - segregation: we have a 50% chance of a gamete carrying one allele; 50% chance of the other). Thus, two students represent the two alleles of one gene. In each round of the exercise, both flip their digital coins: heads and heads = A/A, heads and tails = A/a, and tails/tails = a/a. Mendelian genetics suggests that these genotypes should occur in a 1:2:1 ratio.

To extend the analogy to Mendel's Second Law (independent assortment), two other students represent the alleles of a second gene (B) also brought together from two different gametes at fertilization. heads/heads = B/B, heads/tails = B/b, and tails/tails = b/b. Considering all possible combinations of alleles at both genes (1:2:1 ratio independently derived of another 1:2:1 ratio), one expects to see two-locus genotype results of the product of the two ratios (the 1:2:1:2:4:2:1:2:1 genotype ratio of a dihybrid cross).

What is the fifth group member doing while the other four are coin-flipping? The fifth member is the scribe: s/he is recording the results in a Google Sheets spreadsheet that will later be used by the group to analyze their data (the real reason for doing this exercise on tablets instead of on paper).

Tangent: Pre-set-up and Google Sheets

What did I have to do before class to set up this exercise? In addition to writing out the instructions for the coin-flipping process (although next time I will probably have students devise their own method for a way to obtain random one- and two-locus genotypes; I expect many of them will still arrive at coin-flipping as a good proxy), I also did some basic formatting of a Google Sheets template. The biggest issue was how to distribute the template to all of the students, while a) ensuring that only group members had access to each one, and b) not requiring me to manually "Share" each Google Sheet with each group member by adding their e-mail address via what might be called the "normal" process of sharing a Google Sheet:

1) click the blue "Share" button

2) enter e-mail addresses (preferably addresses) of those you want to share with

Instead, I received some great advice from a colleague, who suggested that I deploy the Google Sheet template via our learning management system (LMS; in this case, Blackboard). Here's the way that process worked:

A) I created the master Google Sheets template

B) I made a copy of that Google Sheet (and renamed each) for each group

C) In Blackboard, I created the number of student groups (group set) I wanted to have, and then enabled student self-enrollment (I didn't want to pick who was in each group).

D) After setting up the Groups, I returned to each Group's Google Sheet and selected the blue "Share" button. I opted to change the security settings to those seen below, where the only people who can access this file have to 1) be logged in to Google Apps via a gmail address (because Fresno State has a relationship with Google) and 2) have the link to the file. Note that I've also set the option that those who satisfy the above two requirements can edit (not just view, in which case they won't be able to modify the template - which is the point of doing this!)
E) Then I copied the URL for each group's file and pasted it into an initial thread that I created in each Group Discussion Board. Now, only the members of each Group can see that Group's file.

Day 1 (still) - face-to-face collaboration

Again, the scribe has the Group's spreadsheet open, and is recording coin flip results from four other students. After recording 16 rounds of four flips, the data generation phase is complete.

Post-class collaboration

This concluding the first class session, I asked each group to, after class, collaboratively count the number of "heads" (H) and "tails" (T) flips for each round and tally the number of occurrences of each of the sixteen possible combinations: HHHH, HHHT, HHTH, HHTT, etc. Then, each group converted the heads/tails nomenclature to genotype nomenclature (e.g. A/a; b/b). The great part about using Google Docs (or Sheets) is that these files are truly collaborative: all group members, if accessing the Google Sheet at the same time, can edit the document simultaneously, regardless of where the students and their tablets are located.

Day 2

In the next class meeting, I first walked the class through an example chi-square analysis: how to use formulae entered into the Google Sheet to calculate the chi-square test statistic value for each comparison of observation with expectation. We then discussed how to identify the number of degrees of freedom and the p value associated with the chi-square test statistic value. Then, I once again asked the students, in their Groups, to perform the chi-square test on their data.

We then walked through an analysis of the data, interpreting p values and determining whether any group's data were significantly different than the Mendelian expectation. Because I am the owner of all of the group Sheets, I opened each one and could display for the entire class the formula that each group member had entered to calculate chi-square values. Then, by copy-pasting, I created a new spreadsheet on the fly, in which I combined all of the individual group data into one total data set. Performing the chi-square analysis on these data allowed us to compare how an increased number of observations converged more exactly on the expected ratio. Doing all of this in class, with the instructor and students together, is a safe environment for students to explore and ask questions about p values (what they indicate, how to interpret p < 0.05, what "reject the null hypothesis" means, etc.)


While the set-up of this class was a bit tedious (creating eight different groups and the associated template files), I think that the effect on the students was strong, especially because it represented an authentic experience in genetics: tabulating data in a spreadsheet and using the spreadsheet to perform a statistical analysis. This is definitely an exercise we would not have done (or at least would not have as intimately involved each student in active learning) had each student not had a tablet computer in class.

Up next on Tablet Pedagogy

My approach for tackling common student mistakes made during chi-square analysis!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Anatomy of a tablet class (I) - preconceptions

I imagine that many of you have the same question that I still have: what should/does a "tablet class" look like? How does it operate? How is it different from what I now refer to as a "traditional class?" What does it mean to "teach with a tablet?" I'll get to all of these in due time, but first, a more fundamental question deserved our attention:

Student Expectations
What expectations exist when one mentions tablet-based instruction to an undergraduate? I'm almost twice as old as some, so I daren't try to guess. My own preliminary data from class surveys seems to suggest that students had perhaps four general preconceptions of how they'd be using tablets in class (in no particular order):
1) to interact with the instructor and peers (collaboration and feedback)
2) to take notes
3) to access information online
4) to follow along with the instructor's digital lecture materials in class

I'm not going to say much about point 4, because I'm not convinced that this requires a tablet to achieve.

Accessing online information
Regarding point three, I have definite plans (which I started incorporating in class today - post to come soon) to ensure that my students have authentic experiences in modern genetic analysis, particularly as it pertains to doing in-class exercises, and perhaps incorporating exam questions, that focus on information literacy skills and using online resources (databases and tools) that I regularly use in research.

I did spend a very brief period of time in class one day discussing note-taking with my tablet students. My approach was simple: I asked students what they had been doing to take notes, and asked them to share aloud with the class what apps they had found to be useful so far. I also pointed out a few potentially useful apps (Google Docs for typewritten notes, Adobe Reader for PDF annotation) that students already had installed because they're part of the Fresno State "core apps" (which means that they're free and they're available for all three DISCOVERe-approved platforms: Windows, Android, and iOS). I also suggested Evernote to students. One app that some students are using, which isn't free (but is very inexpensive) is iAnnotate PDF (instead of Adobe Reader).

One potential concern, related to note-taking, is not over-using the tablet to try to do too many things during a class period. I notice a number of students typing notes as we discuss genetics in class, or drawing notes on the PDFs of my slides that I upload the night before class. However, when I ask students to switch to another app to perform a collaborative assignment, or look something up on the internet, or access our course management system (Blackboard), I'm taking them out of their note-taking app. Coupled with the fact that it does take a while to switch between apps, do an exercise, and then return to a favorite note-taking app, I'm now making more conscious decisions about how I structure "tablet activities" during class. I either build the ability to take notes into the exercise (e.g. a PDF annotation exercise) or try to cluster the activities back-to-back.

Interacting with the Instructor and Peers
Also too large a topic to address fully at the moment, but this is where I and many of my colleagues are focusing a great deal of effort. Suffice it to say that a huge benefit of not only requiring the students to have tablets, but also having provided them with data plans, means that instructors can request that students continue collaborating after they leave the classroom. I've just started venturing into this realm, and I'll report on that soon.

Others' Expectations

As I've mentioned, the main concern I've heard from colleagues is that the students receive the necessary content despite the fact that they're holding a tablet. I'm looking forward to helping set tablet classroom expectations by being an example!

The official word from campus administration is that there is no minimum set of things we need to do with tablets in the classroom. It is nice to have that sort of carte blanche, and I think our administration recognizes that creativity and innovation in the classroom might be stifled if tablet instruction is heavily regimented.

Reading between the lines, there is at least one goal I've set for myself as a result of how our President has advertised the DISCOVERe initiative. One reason that tablets are the focus is because some public schools are using them and because some professions might expect college graduates to be skilled at using tablets. Thus, although I'm teaching a genetics class, I have accepted the idea that there is a necessity to set aside some extra time in class each day to be a technology instructor (to ensure that all of the students are keeping up with me as I move from app to app, that all three tablet platforms are able to accomplish the same tasks, etc.) I'm definitely becoming more proficient with tablet technology, and I'm sure my students are, too, even though that's not the focus of the class.

How little tablet use is too little?
I haven't found out yet. At present, in my class, I think that (aside from tablet-based note-taking), we're actively using the tablet for fifteen minutes in a fifty-minute class. This is partly because my teaching style is pretty heavily Socratic, so I spent a lot of time talking with my class and asking them questions, fostering critical thinking and stimulating discussion and interpretation (things I haven't yet ported into the digital realm). I personally feel that this is a good balance of tablet use, but I'll find out the student perspective at the end of the term. If this question of how much the tablet needs to be used in class to make it worth the effort (and cost) is troubling you, then I would suggest that it is critically important to set student expectations early (in the syllabus and in a classroom discussion on the first day). The students should be able to buy in to the tablet instruction concept by having some idea of why tablet instruction might be beneficial to them and of the types of activities that might occur over the term.

Those are my current (limited) insights into the student perspective of tablet instruction. However, as the instructor, I'm certainly making heavy use of my tablet during class. Primarily, as I've mentioned, I use it in the classroom for projecting digital images (slides, photos, etc.) I use ExplainEverything for this, because it lets me record the classroom audio and the annotations I make on the slides. I'm still (now starting the third week of the term) recording every class meeting this way and posting it on YouTube. Future posts will delve into much more detail about the myriad ways I'm using the tablets to collect student feedback, have students collaborate, practice completing exercises, and exercise their creativity in developing their understanding of genetics.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Six traits of highly effective tablet teachers

Biography of a tablet fellow

I'm in my mid-30s and just starting my third year as an assistant professor of biology at Fresno State. One of the reasons I chose to accept a position here is because of the California State University (CSU) system's balanced approach to the faculty workload. Of the three "pillars" of tenure (research, teaching, and service), research and teaching are fairly evenly balanced in the CSU system. Because I really enjoy training students in how to conduct research, and because I enjoy teaching and helping students develop their understanding of the living world, I felt that I would be a good fit as a faculty member in the CSU.

I have no formal training in education (which is, unfortunately, fairly common among scientist-academics). I have taken loads of courses as a student (4 years as an undergraduate; a few years worth of courses as a graduate student). As a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant for one academic quarter (ten weeks). As a post-doctoral scientist, my formal teaching experience comprised guest-lecturing twice in one faculty member's class, helping teach a course in bioethics, and participating in one webinar on blended learning). Fortunately, partly because of my upbringing (my father has been a college biology teacher for more than the last 45 years, and is retired but still teaching), I enjoy thinking deeply about how I can be more effective at teaching. I can only assume that my thoughtfully-crafted teaching statement is what landed me the tenure-track position interviews I had at several colleges (and relatively few universities). It certainly wasn't my extensive track record of teaching!

Is being an academic scientist at odds with being an effective teacher?

One internal struggle that I have as a professional educator (aside from a lack of formal training in teaching) is that the reason I wanted to earn my Ph.D. degree is diametrically opposed to what I now know about effective teaching. Partly through my own exploration and partly because of exposure I've had in training as a tablet faculty member, I've learned that effective instruction, which ideally provides students with deep (long-lasting) understandings of content and often its application in "the real world," requires teachers to be a "guide on the side" and not a "sage on the stage" in the classroom. What these clever phrases mean is that faculty should not teach in the manner in which we were taught (50 minutes of faculty lecture: professor talking, students madly scribbling notes on paper) but rather as a facilitator, tasked with finding the best way for each individual student to build their own framework/understanding of the material.

This conflicts with my desire to be the world's expert in something. That's a big reason I wanted to earn a Ph.D.: not for the self-important, big-headed reason that it sounds like, but because I find it very intellectually satisfying to be a resource that others can draw on and because I like helping others. Earning a doctoral degree was also a perfect fit for me because I enjoy esoteria: I'm a very objective and quantitative person (probably a little OCD, although I like to think this stands for objective-compulsive disorder, as this blog is titled) and am energized by understand the finest details of how things work. To me, living things are more interesting, so biology (and not physics, engineering, etc.) is a great fit for me. My doctoral dissertation made me the world's expert in the evolution of sex chromosomes of the threespine stickleback fish (and close relatives). Definitely esoteric, and definitely a topic in which I became the world expert and have reveled in understanding the finest details of how evolutionary forces shape DNA.

So, I love helping others, and I love to be an expert. Being a faculty member, to me, seemed like the end-all and be-all of career destinations: I'd establish myself as an expert in genetics (which I am, to a reasonable extent) and tell as many students as I could as many cool things and interesting stories and real-world applications of genetics as I could! The perfect job (and it has been so far!)

Tablets provide an opportunity for professional growth

Recently, however, I'm re-imagining my role as a professor. Just because I have all of the discipline-specific knowledge I've amassed over the last 18 years I've been a biologist in higher education (as a student, research technician, post-doctoral scientist, and faculty member) does not mean I need to inundate my class with all of it. Just because I was taught in almost entirely lecture-style courses does not mean that this is how I should teach (as the "sage on the stage.")

Deciding to teach one section of my genetics course with tablet computers has given me the motivation and resources to put more effort in becoming a more effective instructor. For me, being part of this exciting initiative is personally rewarding and, I think, a good career move for an untenured faculty member in the CSU system, where excellent (not just sufficient) teaching is mandatory.

Should you consider teaching a course with tablet computers? What's in it for you?

Is your campus going to support you with the time it will take to revamp/redesign your class? If not, are you willing to foot the effort bill on your own? I am not currently receiving assigned time for course redesign from CSU Fresno, and I am spending a lot of additional time preparing my tablet class this term. However, I'm motivated in part by the thought that the time I'm spending now in recording advance lectures for students to watch online in advance of class ("flipping the classroom") and in developing in-class activities is going to save me time in future semesters by reducing the effort it will take to prepare to reteach this course. Heck, maybe I'll be well positioned to push into the online-only course realm, if it becomes apparent that my campus would smile upon efforts to do so, or at least to be able to offer the same course to more students than our typical enrollment limit (I often have many more students than can be accommodated clamoring to get into a genetics course). Beyond that, I'm confident that my redesign efforts are helping me be a more effective teacher. This itself is deeply (inherently) valuable to me (and to my students, who will recognize this eventually if they don't already), but whether the extra investment on my part has value to anybody else is still an unanswered question.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned that computer proficiency is a pre-requisite for teaching with a tablet. I'd like to dispel a myth: you do not have to be tech-savvy to be a tablet professor! I had never touched a tablet computer before President Castro handed mine to me at our tablet faculty fellow investiture ceremony in January.

What does it take to be a tablet teacher?

Here are my reflections (now two weeks into the term) about what it means to be a tablet faculty fellow. I think that what is really critical for success is to embody the following six characteristics:

  • excited to learn something new
  • blessed with a number of colleagues who are available to build a supportive faculty community together! These folks don't even have to be on your campus (hey, we're in the digital age!)
  • committed to helping students succeed
  • motivated to reflect on teaching and make improvement
  • willing to think deeply about the core knowledge students in your discipline need and then to swap out some content in order to incorporate active learning in the classroom?
  • willing to try something new in front of a class of students, to fail, to make a change, and to try again


Some of my colleagues have expressed concerns to me about whether teaching with tablets means compromising professional/academic quality or integrity. I suspect that this somewhat visceral response might come from a couple of different perspectives: 1) that things potentially perceived as "trendy" (or that might yet be lacking rigorous evidence of validity?) should be tried out elsewhere first, or 2) that the addition of anything else to the syllabus of a course already stuffed full of content will somehow diminish its ability to ensure the production of thoroughly-educated students. As a scientist, to those who argue the former: I'm more than happy to try new things to try to keep my students more engaged (and hopefully to increase four-year graduation rates for my campus) instead of maintaining a status quo.

To the latter, I say: don't fall for the fallacy that bigger is better and that more content means better retention or better-prepared students! Having being forced to reflect (even more than I already had) on the really, truly fundamental concepts I need to help students learn is helping me help students develop deeper (longer-lasting) understandings of those core topics that they can build on in subsequent years. I am now regularly and consciously reminding myself that it has taken me twenty years since I first heard about meiosis to really (REALLY) feel like I understand its purpose and importance. Only in the last couple of years have I really come to appreciate the mathematical beauty of how meiosis produced Gregor Mendel's observations of trait segregation in his pea plants. Now my mission is to conjure ways to help students most efficiently arrive at the same point. Employing active learning (which I can do with a tablet) is one tool to help me get there. We are not spending every minute of class time using tablets - we employ them in a thoughtful manner, when using a tablet to enhance student learning makes sense.

From this faculty member's perspective, being a tablet faculty member is a win-win situation: done properly, it is beneficial to the students as well as to the faculty. If you get the opportunity, I suggest taking it!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My favorite (so far) app

Socrative. It is easy to use and very powerful - it is able to be deployed in a number of ways. The Swiss army knife of apps? Not quite (I'll reserve that post for digital whiteboard apps, perhaps), but it certainly is a multi-tasker.

Socrative is, essentially, polling software. It turns a tablet into a clicker on steroids. Here are a few reasons to like it love it:

  • It is available for iOS, Chrome and Windows
  • It runs on smartphones as well (at least iOS - I haven't tested others), so you don't even have to be teaching a tablet class to use this app - you just need students with smartphones
  • It is free

Clickers vs. Socrative
For those of you who, like me, have never used a clicker or perhaps don't know what a clicker is, it is a piece of technology a little smaller than a TV remote control, and it has some buttons with letters on it. The professor asks the class a multiple-choice question (takes a poll), and everybody "clicks" the button corresponding to their answer. The professor sees the results appear in real time on her/his computer screen.

Why use clickers? This is a great way to perform formative assessment of your students: every two to five minutes or so during a lecture, the professor displays a slide on the screen with the multiple-choice question, everybody clicks, and the teacher gets a snapshot of the class' current understanding of the topic being discussed.

So, why use clickers? Why not just ask students to raise their hands when taking a poll? We know that's been going on in classrooms for decades (at least). But we all also know what happens when you vote in public: the timid among us hesitate for a second, glance around to see what the herd opinion is, and then join in. Clickers are the great equalizer. The ability to obtain anonymous, and so supposedly honest, feedback from the class in a rapid manner is a great technique that we all should employ.

Why use Socrative instead of a clicker? It is free! And if students already have smartphones or tablets, then they don't also have to purchase a clicker. Both the Socrative student and teacher interfaces can also be accessed via the web on a personal computer.

Collecting Student Feedback with Socrative
Another reason to use Socrative: you're not just limited to collecting multiple-choice feedback from students! There are four main modes in which Socrative can be applied:

  1. You can run an "Exit Ticket," where each student is sent a standard set of three questions, asking the student to rate how well they think they understood the day's material, to state what they think they learned that day, and an empty question that can be specific by the instructor.
  2. In "Quick Question" mode, you select whether you want to ask a single multiple-choice, true/false, or short answer question (this is where Socrative is most like a clicker, although clickers can't collect responses to short answer questions!)
  3. "Space Race" is an in-class game in which students are grouped into teams and try to answer as many questions correctly as possible to move their spaceship across the screen faster than the other student groups
  4. Last, the instructor can develop and deploy, using a very user-friendly interface, a quiz in the "Quiz" mode. Again, question options include true/false, multiple-choice, and short answer. In quizzes, the instructor is also able to input the correct answer (so that Socrative can do your grading for you!) You also have the option, for every question, whether to reveal the correct answer or other relevant information afterward. An essential component: Socrative also allows you to upload an image to accompany any question.

For all of these assessments, Socrative provides a downloadable report containing all of the self-reported student names (which they are prompted for at the start of each exercise) and their answers. The report is Excel friendly (of course).

What's missing from Socrative?
Well, nothing is perfect. But, then, when it is also free, how can one complain?

  • One limitation of Socrative is that there is a fifty student maximum "attendance" per digital "room" (session).
  • The most important thing that the Socrative folks could give me in the future is the ability to collect free-form (drawn) student responses that they would make on their touchscreen: either a drawing of their own, or manual corrections/additions/annotation of an image I provide.

Best practices

  • Want to take roll? Use a Socrative Quick Question and you get the answer to whatever question you ask plus the names of all of the students in attendance
  • There are two versions of Socrative: "Socrative Teacher" and "Socrative Student." Tell your students to download the latter. It doesn't impact anything if they also (or accidentally) download the Teacher version, but they'll need the Student version to answer your questions.


  1. Assuming the teacher has created an account, and all of the students have accounts, the teacher announces to the class "launch Socrative Student."
  2. The next step depends on whether the teacher wants the students to see the real-time responses or statistics. If not (because you want responses to remain anonymous), then do not use whatever computer is currently projecting in the classroom to initiate the Socrative activity (or turn off the projector). In my class, my tablet computer would be projecting, so I would use either my laptop or smartphone to open the Socrative Teacher app, login, and either start a pre-constructed quiz or to assign a Quick Question on the fly.
  3. When you login, your Socrative-assigned "room number" will be displayed to you. You provide this number to the students. All they need to do to access your digital poll is to enter that room number as they login. Then your activity shows up on their device, and they answer the question(s).
  4. At the end of the activity, you are given several options of how/when to receive the report containing all of the student responses

Friday, August 22, 2014

First day of class, first glitch

In its predictable way, the best laid schemes of Mus and Homo went awry today. Well, not so much the mice, since I was using a tablet computer and not a desktop computer...but my plan for the first day of tablet class went mostly (not entirely) according to my initial vision.

The main glitch was wireless ("untethered") presentation. There I was, doing my best to make the syllabus, displayed from my tablet onto the digital projector, seem like the most exciting thing I'd ever seen, when the connection between my tablet and the AppleTV (receiver) dropped. So, instead, the students were looking at the AppleTV screen saver. After this happened three times in fairly rapid succession, I dug into my already ever-expanding bag of tech goodies that I tote with me (more on that another day) and pulled out:

the iPad-VGA adapter, and plugged my tablet right into the good-ol' trusty VGA cable connected to the projector. Tethered again, but guaranteed no more dropped video, we were on our way again! Back to the syllabus.

It was about this time when, according to the syllabus, I was due to play the video message from our President addressing the inaugural classes of DISCOVERe students, but I had forgotten, when moving to the VGA cable, to insert the 1/8" audio plug into the audio jack on my tablet (when in untethered mode, both the audio and video get transmitted wirelessly to the in-class A/V system, so I don't normally need to do anything extra to get the audio to work). The students did see the video, but only heard the audio from my tablet speaker.

Very special thanks to my DISCOVERe Guide (student assistants present in all of the DISCOVERe classes during the first two weeks of instruction; trained by the university to help troubleshoot any student tablet issues) for pointing out to me after class how to get wired audio + video in the future. So, sorry @JosephICastro, but I didn't play the video in class like you had suggested (I did one better and assigned it as homework!)

I'll give untethered presentation another try or two before I consider abandoning it, because I really (really!) value the ability to move about in the classroom while still controlling a digital presentation. My thoughts so far on what might be the issue: it might have been that the connection was dropping during periods of inactivity on the tablet. I'm pretty sure it wasn't an issue dealing with range of the connection, since I hadn't moved more than ten feet from the AppleTV when the video gave out the first time.

The Tablet Syllabus

Requiring students to have (more: to use!) computers during class might be fraught with peril. Adding certain language to your syllabus is strongly suggested. I'd like to acknowledge the work of my DISCOVERe faculty fellow colleagues who spearheaded the effort to draft related language earlier this year. Some things to consider:

  • Power. Students should bring their tablet fully charged each class period (unless you want your classroom to be full of wall-huggers, but even then: unless you're teaching in a laboratory, you probably don't have enough power points to satisfy all of your students)
  • Wireless. The first thing that will scuttle your plans for a class period is if some students are unable to connect to the internet while most of the class can. Our IT folks have suggested that we make it very clear that off-task use of the wi-fi access (i.e. the student in the back of the class streaming a video) could take up much of the bandwidth available to the class and ruin the experience of others. Related…
  • Staying on task. I really despised feeling like I should put this in my syllabus (because really: we're all adults), but I did. Something to the effect of: "Please don't text, e-mail, check Facebook during class unless the instructor requires it."
  • Recording. I already had a section requiring that students obtain instructor permission to record lectures (audio or video), but now that everybody has a tablet capable of doing both, you might spend extra time considering the potential issues that might arise and place a policy in the syllabus.
  • Tablet. Do you want to have certain minimum requirements? Brand, version, model, amount of memory, screen size, for example? Are smartphones acceptable alternatives? Many apps have versions that install on both a smartphone and a tablet, but the smartphone version is not always identical in capability to the tablet version, so spend time checking this out.
  • Apps. At least provide the names of some of the apps you expect students to use. However, a word of caution: most apps you will want to use are not available on every tablet platform. So this is a good place to demonstrate flexibility. If you know you have students with iOS, Windows, and Android devices, try to find equivalent apps available on each before you want the students to install and use them.
  • Accessibility. One of the nice things about tablets is that they have extreme potential to improve course material accessibility for students with disabilities. However, there are some issues as well. It will behoove you to provide information about who on campus students should contact if they have need for accessibility accommodations.
  • Support services. What resources can you point students to when they have questions or issues with using their tablet, or apps? Your campus help desk, for example? (You might want to check with them first before putting their number on your syllabus...)
How did students use their tablets on day one?

I ignored one of the cardinal rules of teaching today: I asked the class a question, "So, your tablets all came with the 'core apps' pre-installed, right?"

Core apps are the tablet apps that the tablet faculty have decided would be at least almost universally used in classes across campus (and at least most of them are available on all three tablet platforms acceptable in DISCOVERe).

Nobody said anything; a few heads nodded slightly, so I assumed that silence was affirmative. I asked the students to launch their Blackboard (course management system) apps and follow along with me as I demonstrated how to access the course site, and how to find the web link to my introductory screencast video. After class, in our DISCOVERe Google+ hangout, other faculty had said that the core apps had not, after all, been pre-loaded on the student tablets that had been purchased through our bookstore. So, in our next class period, I will ensure that I am more fastidious about ensuring that each student is able to follow along and isn't just suffering in silence. Rule for tablet instruction: go slowly, and plan for a lot of in-class time spent making sure everybody is up to speed with the technology. I knew this - but, of course, knowing it and doing it are two different things. Theoretically, the up-front investment in time should pay off in the end.

The other way we used tablets in class today is simple: I asked the students to take selfies! It is a fun way to ensure that all of the students at least know, or can figure out, how to take a picture with their tablet. We'll use this capability in the future, but this is a good introduction to tablet-based activities. I demonstrated how I take a selfie with an iPad:

ooh, that's a bad angle

and then I asked them all to take a selfie and to e-mail it to me (another simple but critical task to know how to perform) with their name on the subject line. Ok, so this isn't just a fun way to use tablets in the classroom:
  • This is a great way to take roll on day one
  • This is an outstanding way to know what all of your students look like! I'm horrible (clinically so, actually) at recognizing faces, so it is going to be fantastic to have photos of my students that are matched to their names. This assignment was not my brainchild, unfortunately: I borrowed it. I think it came from Mary-Pat Stein at CSU Northridge.

Final reflection

Teaching two sections of genetics, back-to-back, in two different modes is going to make my head spin in a week or two. Although excellent for assessment of the success of tablet-based instruction (yet another future post), I'll give much deeper thought to any future suggestion of doing lecture-based and tablet-based instruction of the same class in the same term.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

'Twas the night before the first lecture…

…and all through the house, every Apple product was charging (save the wireless mouse).

I've spent much of the day today preparing my courses in the usual digital fashion: uploading files to our content management system (Blackboard), connecting my Blackboard sites to my textbook publisher's website, submitting my headshot, e-mail address, and office number and office hours to all of those locations. A few new things happened today, however, due to the advent of DISCOVERe, Fresno State's nascent tablet-based instruction initiative.

First, I made a screencast of my first lecture for my DISCOVERe course (genetics), uploaded it to YouTube, and placed a link to the movie in Blackboard - where tomorrow I'll show students how to access these lectures. I intend to provide at least one screencast lecture for every textbook chapter. This term, for both sections (traditional and tablet) of genetics, I am working toward a blended learning ("flipped classroom") approach where students are required to read/watch content in advance of class. In class, we will spend our more valuable face-to-face time dealing with content issues/questions and practicing applying the content with exercises and collaborative work and discussion (and only doing very little content delivery in class). What I imagine will become a typical workflow is:

  • I voiceover a screencast of my lecture slides (using one of my new favorite apps, Explain Everything) and assign students to watch it, as well as to read certain textbook chapter sections, before the first course meeting where that material is discussed
  • I then have a pop quiz (using another new favorite app, Socrative) every class period to reinforce the need for students to be vigilant at accessing the video and textbook before class

Other things I did for the first time today, in preparation for a class, comprise my new to-do list:

Preparing to enter the classroom with a tablet

  • Lock the auto-rotation of the tablet screen. It can be disconcerting for students to watch a video projection of a tablet screen rotating from landscape to portrait and back as one carries a tablet around in a classroom. For our iPads, rotation lock is accomplished by a swipe up from the bottom of the screen (accessing the Control Center) and selecting the lock rotation button.
  • Turn off auto-lock (or make it a longer delay): Settings: Passcode. Once projecting video, students will see your numerical passcode as you enter it, so you don't want your tablet locking during class.
  • Depending on whether you're deliberately using audio in class, consider muting your tablet
  • Most importantly, hide alert and banner notifications! Settings: Notification Center. For each app that has alerts (those listed under Include), the safest bet is to have only Badges. Set Alert Style to None (this interactive dialog box isn't very effective - you'll know you've selected "None" when there is an oval around the word). This is important is because you don't necessarily want your students to see the banner preview of that tweet your kid just sent out, or the e-mail preview of that "male enhancement" junk mail (or, worse yet, student e-mail that contains confidential information) that just hit your inbox, or the calendar event that your spouse just added.
  • [8/22 edit] Login to any websites you plan on visiting during class before you begin projecting! For me (and for the types of activities my students will be doing), that would possibly include twitter, Blackboard, and e-mail.

Tomorrow's report will, of course, focus on the events of the first day of class, including what considerations to make when preparing a syllabus for a tablet course!