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.

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