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!