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!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I've gone untethered!

If a school's IT infrastructure is amenable, one great thing about tablet-based instruction is that those of us who rely a great deal on PowerPoint presentations (which is, at least, an entire blog's worth of discussion) can do wireless presentations.

Wired presentation is almost always an option with a tablet: if you can plug a desktop or laptop computer into a digital projector, you can also plug your tablet in and project your screen. However, this defeats a major advantage of the tablet: form factor. Tablets are meant to be held and carried; this can be a boon for the classroom because tablet instruction can break the bond that tethers the instructor to the area immediately around her/his lectern. Of all of the excitement I have for teaching with a tablet, this is among the most exciting aspects for me: I like to walk throughout my class as I lead discussions, but I absolutely hate having to quickly retreat to the front of the classroom every time I need to flip to the next slide or write on the white board. I admit that a computer remote, which I have, can solve part of this problem, but it also means one more thing weighing down my pockets during class (presentation remote, LASER pointer, multiple colors of dry-erase markers, among other items). I'll write more about tablets replacing white boards in a future post.

Wireless (or "untethered") presentation in the classroom has been on the minds of most of us as we've prepared for teaching tablet-based courses. Our IT folks on campus have been preparing in a number of ways for tablet classes for a year now. The main concern, as far as I'm aware, has been to expand the number of wireless access points to be able to satisfy the concentrated requirement for wi-fi access that will occur when each student in the classroom is online at the same time. Additionally, though, our IT staff have been working to find a solution (available with necessary security features) that would allow us faculty to perform untethered presentations in class. The solution, for now, is to have AppleTVs installed in every DISCOVERe classroom. Eventually, I think most of the faculty would like a more powerful solution that would allow each student in the classroom to be able to present the content on their tablet (with instructor permission) on demand; hopefully a solution to this will be identified soon.

Because I'm teaching in two days, I stopped by my DISCOVERe classroom today to see whether an AppleTV had been installed - and it had!

For my DISCOVERe colleagues (present and future), here's a cheat sheet for wireless presentation in your Fresno State classroom:

  1. Turn the projector on
  2. Set the projector input from VGA/HDMI/etc. to AppleTV
  3. Turn your iPad on
  4. Access AirPlay (single-finger swipe up from the bottom of your tablet screen)
  5. A menu of AirPlay-accessible devices will appear; your classroom's AppleTV should show up with your room number
  6. Select your AppleTV
  7. Set mirroring to "on"
  8. A dialog box will appear on your iPad asking you to enter a numerical code to pair your device with the AppleTV
  9. Enter the code that is displayed by the projector
  10. Present away!
  11. Remember, when you are done, to unpair your tablet from the AppleTV by returning to AirPlay and selecting "iPad" as the source. If the projector now shows the AppleTV screen saver, you were successful.

Last, Rudy mentioned to me that IT had also installed an AppleTV reset button, in response to the concern that some had voiced about occasionally needing to reboot AppleTV. This button has been added to the standard control panel: not near the AppleTV source button, but closer to the volume:

I wish you all success in your educational endeavors this term; to my DISCOVERe colleagues in particular, I hope you all find that your AppleTVs are ready to go as well!

Dr. Joseph Ross
#fsdiscovere #fsboldtablet #rossgenetics #f14

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Take one tablet...

It is two days before instruction begins again at California State University, Fresno (Fresno State), and change is afoot. Last year, our brand new campus President, Dr. Joseph Castro, boldly decided to take deliberate steps to implement tablet computer-based instruction in a handful of courses.

I'm one of the small number of faculty who were nominated by Deans to join the inaugural cohort of faculty at Fresno State who are launching courses redesigned for tablet instruction two days from now. Tablet instruction has seen mixed results when various institutions have had their hand at introducing tablets to the classroom. A few of the many things that set Fresno State's approach apart from other efforts across the country is that emphasis has been placed on:

  • giving instructors advance training in both tablet usage and on effective pedagogical techniques that can be implemented using tablets
  • allowing the faculty to develop a tablet faculty community for sharing their expertise in tablet-based instruction, and
  • adopting an agnostic perspective on tablet brand/operating system.

This semester, I will blog about being on the front lines of our effort, called DISCOVERe, to take bold strides to improve student success using tablet computers in the university classroom. I'm particularly excited about tablet deployment in our classes for a number of reasons, including some that I'll elaborate upon in future posts:

  1. the opportunity to give authentic experiences to students (including exams incorporating situations we expect our graduates to encounter in the workplace)
  2. the ability for tablet access to facilitate student collaboration both in and outside of the classroom
  3. tablets let us employ modern incarnations of active learning strategies that engage students
  4. tablets can help improve course material accessibility
  5. untethering an instructor from his/her desktop or laptop computer in the classroom can improve student-instructor interaction (yes, remote controls can manage part of this, but tablets offer so much more)
  6. we can now collect anonymous (to other students) and instantaneous feedback on student comprehension during class
Along the way, I'll also dispel some myths and highlight my first-hand best practices in using tablet computers in class. But now, I need to get back to preparing for the first class meetings of my back-to-back "traditional" and "tablet" sections of genetics this Friday!

Dr. Joseph Ross

#fsdiscovere #rossgenetics #f14