Friday, August 18, 2017

Effective Course Augmentation with Technology

Given that Fresno State's first day of the semester was yesterday, and instruction begins next week, this seems an appropriate time to summarize, and expand upon, some musings about effective Course Augmentation with Technology (CAT). Before you finish the spit-shine on your syllabus and course schedule and send them out to your new students, here are a few key points to consider that should help your courses run more smoothly and be more effective:

Focus on Pedagogy and Outcomes

CAT is never "technology for the sake of technology." Promote the use of technology when it enriches the learning experience.


I use Google Classroom to facilitate obtaining formative feedback from students, during class. The objectives here are:

  • Get real-time data on student understanding so that I can modify lesson plans according to student needs
  • Provide anonymous feedback to students on their understanding

In brief, I distribute a PDF file of a class exercise to all students through Google Classroom during class. They use their devices to annotate the PDF (often drawing responses to prompts) and then return those documents to me through Google Classroom. I can then display them immediately on my tablet (anonymously, if I want - which I usually do) and provide feedback on quality and extent of understanding.

Student Access

I only require mobile device use when I know my students all have relatively equal access to such technology. Because we have laptop and tablet loaner programs, I usually feel comfortable doing so. If this isn't true where you teach, it is often possible to form student groups including at least one student per group who does have the technology.

It is also a really good idea to ask students to use apps that are available for free on any mobile device (smartphone; tablet; laptop). Not many apps do this, but it keeps the playing field level and makes tech support easier on the faculty (and/or campus staff).

Faculty Buy-In

I can report from personal experience that students can tell when faculty interest in and/or use of technology wanes over the semester. I have plenty of evidence from student course evaluations in the first semesters when I began CAT. The solution is to make one or a few small changes per term that you have every expectation you will be able to sustain throughout the term.

Faculty Boldness

Fear of failure is an often-cited reason why many of my colleagues don't want to pursue active learning with technology, or other tech-enhanced teaching strategies. They don't want to have tech problems during class, so they never try. Or, they tried once, failed, and gave up. Please remember three important things:

  • FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning. Practice makes perfect; things can always go "wrong" in class - regardless of what technology you use (projector lamps can go out even if you're projecting from a laptop; your dry erase marker can run out of ink…). Choose to enter your class with a growth mindset
  • Students need to see you model how one has to leave their comfort zone to learn and to grow. Honestly, nothing worth doing ever came easily; the same is true for effective instruction. Students prize (again, I have course evaluation evidence) instructors who make it clear that they are pushing the envelope to benefit their students. Sometimes the best pedagogical innovations come from having to make on-the-spot adjustments to class plans.
  • Build a support group. Have peers (like me) to discuss issues both before and after class. In other words, discuss intended approaches beforehand and practice what you might do (as back-up plans); then discuss successes and failures. You'll find, not surprisingly, that we all have good and bad days in the classroom, with or without technology.

Student Buy-In (the most important component)

When my students show up on the first day of class (I assume yours are similar), they expect more of the same: lecture. Sitting passively, maybe occasionally not paying attention, listening to lecture. At the end of each semester, I always distribute my own course evaluation survey, in which I solicit student feedback on a number of CAT-related questions. I regularly hear from students (although usually a minority of them) that they prefer the lecture-only experience.

So, more and more, I have been dedicating time during the entire first week of instruction (and repeatedly throughout the term) explaining to students (and later reminding them) why I have designed the class the way I have. I try to make it very clear why the use of the flipped classroom approach, active learning, and CAT, will help them with future coursework and, afterward, in a career. I've included much of this material in pages 8-10 (including a video linked from page 8) in the following Introduction chapter of a course manual I just wrote for my genetics class. Please download this chapter for examples of how I justify the course design to students and try to make it obvious to them why their participation in class is critical:

Support for CAT

If you are at Fresno State, you have several resources to draw on. I'll highlight two here. First, the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) - our instructional designers and associated faculty liaisons, including DISCOVERe (tablet-based instruction) experts Mary Paul and Martin Shapiro, are fantastic to work with if you need to brainstorm, practice, troubleshoot, and/or be inspired with new ideas and solutions to problems you present to them.

Second, I am always willing to meet to accomplish the same: to give you feedback on effective pedagogical ways to accomplish your goals with your courses. I am always happy to meet, and particularly to visit one of your class sessions to give friendly feedback on ways you might consider Course Augmentation with Technology to enhance your class. E-mail me at! I'll be part of your support group team.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Clips: Spreadsheet Basics

The problem

Quantitative reasoning (the basis of evidence-based decision-making) is a skill that benefits every person. Scientist educators strive to develop this in their students. "Number sense" is notoriously difficult to develop, perhaps in part because of student math anxiety and a fixed mindset ("math is hard," "I'm not mathematically inclined," etc.).

So, I've been working to incorporate mathematical analysis exercises in my classes. The way I see it, the best way to do this is to use spreadsheets. They're relatively easy to use (compared to command-line programs like R or GUI-ish Mathematica or SPSS), free (e.g. Google Sheets, Apple's Numbers) or nearly free to students (e.g. Microsoft Excel).

I grew up using Excel, and can't imagine life without it. Heck, I use it to understand how quickly my Thanksgiving turkeys cook so that, given the mass of this year's turkey, I can predict when to put the stuffing and roast potatoes in the oven and have everything come out perfectly done at the same time:

Evidence of the extent of my nerd cred.

Of course, I had to learn to use Excel somewhere. When I entered college, I had a pretty good grasp. As I recall, I knew how to enter calculations, fill-down calculations, format cells, and so forth. I don't recall where I picked this up…probably from a high school science class. But, of course, not everybody gets this exposure in high school. In college, my fantastic honors general chemistry lab instructor, a well-known and recognized (and non-tenure-track) instructor, invested huge amounts of time teaching us analytical skills using Excel (significant figures, error propagation; the whole nine yards). And then I took an "Advanced Excel" class offered by the business school.

And so, about twenty years on, it has been a shock to me, when I teach upper-division biology, that students don't already inherently know how to use a spreadsheet. That's my myopia.

What to do about it?

Apple's Clips app. This semester, I will intentionally involve students, during class, in more spreadsheet-based data analysis than I have undertaken before. And I need to scaffold instruction in using spreadsheets along with their use.

Having just been through (very little, but intense) training and exploration in using Clips at the Apple Distinguished Educator academy, I thought, "Here is a great tool for making a series of microlectures on using Google Sheets." I started with the basics: the structure of a spreadsheet, the types of information spreadsheets can contain, and how to perform simple calculations.


I plan to follow this up with additional Clips, to produce a video microlecture series. Sure, these tutorials exist elsewhere - and they are probably more professionally done. But, I think (and students tell me) that there is tremendous value in their teacher having made the videos - that makes them tailored to the particular scenarios and case studies employed in the specific class. It also indicates our dedication to the class and to the education of the students.

Basic Clips Workflow and Best Practices

Here's a brief overview of how I made the above 2:30 Clip.

Record a screencast of using Google Sheets. I plugged my iPad into my MacBook using the charging cable, and used Quicktime Player (File: New Movie Recording, and then choose your iPad, or even iPhone, as the video source) to record me (without audio) as I navigated my iPad to launch Google Sheets and then perform several tasks in Sheets. I saved the video on my laptop and imported it into my Photos reel so that it would be available on my mobile devices.

The next step was voiceover. I used Apple's Clips app: this plays the video as it imports into Clips. While importing (in real time), I used Clips to record a voiceover annotation of what I was doing through the entire video. I recorded the voiceovers in sections to produce a series of short "clips" that comprise the entire video above. Here I can highlight one of Clips' key features: live captioning. Clips uses the Siri voice recognition engine to process your voice as you speak and translate it into captions: on the fly! Of course, no voice recognition is perfect, so I use Clips' built-in transcript editing tool to make small changes (usually the addition of punctuation marks) to perfect my captions.

Having made this series of short, individual video clips, I interspersed (again, using Clips) the still, text frames (called "Posters") in between each clip. I use these to summarize information from the previous video and/or to introducing upcoming information.

Then, onto the various clips (videos and posters), I added some animated graphics (emojis, arrowheads, etc.) to emphasize particular parts of each video component.

Finally, I added a background soundtrack (just for fun). I exported the movie (to my camera roll, where I exported it to my laptop as a .mov file) and then uploaded it to YouTube to share with the world (i.e. my class).

At the end of the clip (as is my wont during classes), I added an "extension" piece, so that students who cruise through the video and quickly grasp the content have a new exercise to work on before our next class meeting.


That's one way to use Clips to help your students learn skills that can help them become more effective quantitative reasoners.

Next up

I'll be recording Clips for chi-square analysis and for graphing using Sheets.

Monday, August 14, 2017

This project e-Clips-ed my summer

Call me a lunatic, but once again I've allowed a "side project" to eclipse my summer! Of course, it is only because I enjoy working on such projects, and I see tremendous value in them, that I let this happen. I spent the better part of my "free time" assembling a class manual, curating the digital materials I have developed for genetics (BIOL 102) over my many semesters of course augmentation with technology. In the waning days of summer, I sit down for the first time in a long time to update you on my perspectives and progress.


Related to my side project, I was recognized this year with the honor of becoming an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE). This was much to my surprise, because, although I am an Apple advocate, Fresno State's 1:1 tablet program is not an Apple program. More on that soon…

To become an ADE, one has to participate in a summer academy - which I just recently completed. Each academy has a project that the participants focus much of their attention on; this year, that focus was placed squarely on the use of one of Apple's newest apps, called Clips, in education. Our task, in short, was to develop best practices for using Clips in education (K-12 and higher ed).

Although this post, like many, is couched in a discipline-specific context (and this time, necessarily, a device-specific context), I'm still striving to distill course-, grade-, and technology-agnostic principles for you to use. Please read on with an open mind!


Clips is a mobile-device-friendly (i.e. low-frills, low CPU-usage, low-memory usage) program. Its main role is as a video editing and social-media-posting app. A brief summary of its utility: with Clips, you can capture new still images and video using a phone or tablet camera. You can also import stills and video from the device's camera roll. Clips allows simple editing, like:

  • ordering various media items into a specified order
  • adding animated icons and text "posters" in between those media
  • adding a soundtrack

Most notably to many of us, one of the most novel (powerful?) aspects of Clips is its "Live Captions" function. In essence, when using Clips, the device uses speech recognition to perform on-the-fly captioning of videos. This is, as an understatement, HUGE in improving video accessibility without having to undergo a separate process of captioning videos.

For example, here is the Clips video I produced during the ADE summer academy:

Please watch the Clip in the link above so that you can tell me what you think I did wrong in my first Clip!

Clips in Education

My colleagues and I have brainstormed potential classroom uses of Clips, and here are a summary of potential pros and cons:

  • This seems an ideal app for students to use to summarize content and to provide instructors with feedback or reflections
  • We might have some fear about the glitz and "social media-ness" that Clips provides - will this seem to "sophomoric" for higher ed?
  • It isn't equitable to ask students to use Clips if not all students have Apple products (this is perhaps the biggest issue; perhaps solvable by having students work in groups containing at least one iPhone or iPad)
  • Clips isn't the only video-recording app, especially on the iPhone/iPad; we wondered: "What are the Apple-independent principles of the use of short videos by students and/or by faculty?"

To see more examples of the use of Clips for higher education, search Twitter with #classroomclips

Probable Best Practices for using Clips (or any video app)

  • Student use is probably more powerful than faculty use
  • Clips should be just that: clips. Not full-length feature films. This is, probably not arguably, one of my missteps in my first Clip (URL above): a 3:17 video, although relatively short, is probably too long to make the point it makes. How short should a Clip be? It is certainly up to you. How long do you think a student will watch? I'll guess a minute, maximum. Thirty seconds would be better.

My approach for using Clips

This summer, as I was producing my course manual, I decided that I would produce a "trailer" (a movie trailer: a preview) of the topic for each class meeting. Not counting the first day of class, or review sessions or exam days, I will have 23 class meetings this coming semester. So, I have created 23 brief trailers, "A Genetics Class Trailer" (or AGCT - for you geneticists and others in-the-know), for the semester. I have embedded these videos at the start of each "Chapter" of my course manual (one chapter per class meeting). Here is a YouTube playlist of all 23 of these trailers, the longest of which is exactly one minute long:

Why trailers?

My intentions with these Clips, to be rolled out one week from today, when I begin fall semester instruction, are to:

  • Introduce content in bite-size packages
  • Stimulate student interest
  • Demonstrate relevance of content to be covered each class
  • Give students a "hook" that will help make pre-class reading/video content more meaningful

Given the amount of effort I put into developing these Clips and my course manual, I'm very much looking forward to reporting back to you, at the end of this semester! I will let you know:

  • what the student response has been
  • revisions to best practices
  • whether the effort is worth it!

I'm sure my answer to the latter will be, "Yes!" As always, innovating in education has kept me engaged and enthused, and that might be the most important and engaging result!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A new blog is born!

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

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

(link to if you like)

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

Twitter users: please follow me @eduproffer - thanks!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Just Joe's" Top Tips for Fantastic Flips

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two main challenges might explain this reluctance

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

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

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

I have three recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Benefits of active participation in pedagogical reform

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

The DISCOVERe Program

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

Concluding Perspective

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Decibel Analysis for Research in Teaching (DART)

Something exciting happened this morning - I learned about a hot-off-the-presses, easy-to-use, and free, web-based tool that addresses a long-standing deficit widely lamented among my STEM educator, assessment, and ed-tech colleagues.

The title, the first thing I read (h/t Mary-Pat Stein, @cellstein on Twitter, from CSU Fullerton), gave me that hopeful heartbeat-skip:

"Classroom sound can be used to classify teaching practices in college science courses."

Owens et al. PNAS (2017) Online advance []

Here's the summary of the abstract: using audio recordings from full classroom sessions, Owens et al. (a LOT of et al.; research from Kimberly Tanner's group at San Francisco State U.) reasoned that they could use an algorithm to classify what is happening in the classroom at each point in time.

The program is called DART: Decibel Analysis for Research in Teaching. You can find it here, register to use it for free, and be drag-and-dropping your audio or video files for analysis in three minutes or less! The web tool extracts the audio and analyses an hour's worth of audio in a couple of minutes (for me, this morning).


As Owens' manuscript suggests, this brings opportunity for institution-wide, automated analysis of teaching practices without having to have person-time in the classroom or watching (and coding) course videos. This is a game-changer. Read the manuscript for more potential benefits.

The reason I was so excited about DART this morning is because I pride myself on incorporating active learning in my courses at Fresno State. Plus (the BIG plus), I have years of lecture capture recordings that I could be analyzing RIGHT NOW! So, before getting ready for work this morning, I threw a few of my .mp4 file exports from ExplainEverything at DART.

Thus, a key benefit is those of us with stockpiles of audio can get straight to analysis. Today.

Further, with audio recording devices being dead cheap (ranging from dedicated digital audio recorders to cell phones, laptops, tablets…), everybody can (and should!) start analyzing their teaching style using this technique. Today. Except…


There is one really critical…I hesitate to say "shortcoming," perhapscaveat with DART (and Owens et al. acknowledge this). It only codes audio into three different types (and mainly two, at that): 1) when a single voice is speaking, and 2) when multiple voices are speaking at once. As always, the devil is in the details. How you interpret this information is up to you! The gist is that multiple voices probably indicates active learning (in one sense): "students talking to each other in groups," while a single voice is possibly "lecture." The third type is 3) nobody talking (e.g. students might be working on reflective writing), although the authors note that DART rarely codes audio in this manner, perhaps because this is rarely encountered in courses.

However, we all know that there is not a simple dichotomy between "lecture" and "active learning." Thus, just because your classroom is noisy does not mean you're using proven pedagogical practices to improve student learning! Not shocking, right?

What I found in my initial analyses of my own lectures did not actually surprise me. First, evidence suggests that faculty are not great at accurately self-reporting what they spend time doing in class (refer to the development of COPUS and RTOP for evidence and substantiation of the need for trained third-party observers to code classroom activities). I am no different. From my last week of upper-division genetics courses, DART suggested that 100% of class time was single-voice. Wait. I swear I had some active-learning taking place in those classes!

I'm concerned, and I'm not. Yes, I do probably over-exaggerate the amount of time I spend facilitate small-group work in class. However, this does not mean that I don't teach using active learning (as I understand the phrase). I do a lot of question-asking and -answering, and formative assessment using polling software (e.g. Socrative). To some, this is active learning, but it isn't physically (or vocally) active. Thus, DART doesn't give me any information about the times during class that help me distinguish when I'm "lecturing" (single voice: me) vs. when a student is asking a question (single voice: student, indicating engagement) vs. when I am answering that question.

I immediately realized, especially after looking over the DART reports for some of my classes where I know I incorporated small-group activities and discussion, that I have made my lecture capture workflow too efficient to be useful with DART. Whenever we have "audible active learning," like small-group discussions, I have routinely turned off the lecture capture recording. The reason is simple: then I don't have to spend time after class trimming out those non-useful parts of the video before uploading the video for my students to access.

So, it turns out I can't have my cake and eat it, too.

The future

How does DART immediately impact me, and what I do in the classroom? Today, I performed a little experiment, suggested on the DART website, re: how to obtain quality audio for analysis. As usual, I carried my iPad around the classroom with me during class, recording audio with screen capture. I also planted my phone on a podium at the front of the classroom, and recorded all fifty minutes of audio from that position.

I just finished analyzing both recordings. As I knew would happen, when I switched apps from Explain Everything (my app for presentation + lecture capture) into Google Sheets, which we used for our in-class activity today, Explain Everything stops recording. Thus, once again, tablet-based screen capture isn't the optimal approach for analysis of teaching using DART. However, the phone-recorded audio worked as promised. Below are the graphics from the DART report:

The first thirty minutes of class were spent mostly in lecture mode. I was doing most of the talking:

  • lecture
  • solving practice problems
  • answering students questions

See for yourself here: my lecture capture video from today.

And, about 32 minutes into the recording, the students were working on using Google Sheets to calculate chi-square values (multiple voices).

So, DART works! If I continue using dart, then I'll keep using my phone (or, more likely, another tablet computer) to record audio. In fact, the most likely solution will be that I'll set up a tablet to record live audio + video, so that my entire class is captured, regardless of what I'm doing on my instructor tablet.

To close, my advice is to use DART with a specific purpose, and with the caveats above, in mind. It has limited usefulness beyond discriminating a noisy classroom from one where a single voice dominates, and how those data should be interpreted requires more evidence, in my opinion. Although it is a tool that could be used for institutional-scale research, I will advocate its use simply for formative assessment for individual instructors. At least now we have a solid tool for analysis of lecture capture, addressing that concern I hinted at the top of this post: how to efficiently get a broad sense for instructor classroom activities.

It was certainly eye-opening to look at some of my own DART analyses, but whether I will change my teaching style is unclear. I like the diversity of activities normally performed in my classes, regardless of whether the majority are of the "audible active learning" type. There are clear values to incorporating audible active learning (e.g. think-pair-share and small-group exercises, where peer discussion and teaching occur), and at the very least, the publication of DART has made me stop and reflect on what the right balance is for me and for my courses. How about for you? I hope you'll give DART a try and see what you discover!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Videoconferencing with students

Two challenges I've faced as a faculty member have been

  1. How to provide students equal access to me outside of class
  2. How to ensure that students also have equal access to information other students obtain from me outside of class

I've written extensively about how lecture capture can help all students (those who attended a class session and those who didn't) by providing a resource for catching up with missed work and for reviewing course material.

In the last half-year, I have learned some incredibly useful things that I'm using to address both problems.

First, I learned that Fresno State, like many other CSU campuses and other campuses, has institutional support for Zoom. Zoom, like Skype and other platforms, is a way to teleconference/video conference using mobile devices and computers - anything with a microphone and/or camera and the ability to launch the Zoom app. I've used Zoom on an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook, for example - but it isn't limited to Apple products.

Zoom is easy to use and has some very useful built-in features, like:

  • Recording Zoom meetings (allows "office-hour capture")
  • A shared, collaborative whiteboard that all meeting participants can edit at the same time

This semester, I've adopted a dual approach to using Zoom with my students. This has let me at least partially address my two initial challenges:

  1. I let students join my in-person office hours from Zoom, in case they're not physically able to make it to my office when I happen to have scheduled my office hours. I also give students the option of scheduling Zoom meetings with me at other (non-office-hour) times in some special situations.
  2. I record the office hour Zoom session and post it online (e.g. at YouTube) for other students to benefit from.

Here are a few quick best practices for using Zoom during office hours

With students gathered in my office, and online, Zoom offers the ability for all of us to interact with the same digital whiteboard. If somebody asks about how to analyze a particular pedigree, for example, I could draw an example on my tablet, and the rest of the students (in person and online) can all interact with my pedigree sketch simultaneously, each seeing the others' additions. Thus, I encourage all of the students who physically attend office hours also to bring a mobile device and sign into the videoconference. This is mainly because they can then collaborate on that shared whiteboard. An important detail here is to make sure that each student uses the button in the Zoom app to mute their device microphones (otherwise feedback abounds!)

As the initiator ("Host") of the Zoom meeting, I sign in from my laptop, and have the laptop camera generally aimed across my office, so that students not physically present can get one "big picture" view of who else is present as the laptop records the meeting.

Because I find it a little awkward to use some of the whiteboard annotation tools (e.g. a pen tool) using my laptop trackpad, I prefer also to log into my own Zoom meeting from my tablet - then I use the tablet for making whiteboard annotations while my laptop is recording the contents of the meeting. This is another benefit of using a "real" computer to start the Zoom meeting: when you're done recording the meeting, then the video is exported to a local file (as opposed to exported to "the cloud") that you can edit, if you want, and later upload to YouTube or other hosting site.

It was relatively straightforward to write the above, but here's a supplementary video that I hope will give you a better idea of what it is like to use Zoom and inspire to use it (especially if you have institutional access to Zoom!)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Mobile Tech and Pedagogical Innovation

Yesterday, I was afforded the opportunity, as recipient of the Fresno State Provost's Award for Innovation, to provide remarks to my colleagues. A video of my talk is available at:

Disclaimer: As is often the case, technical difficulties occurred, so I was not able to play intended videos during my talk, and the "lecture capture" from ExplainEverything (the app I'm using to present these images) did not work this time (unknown issue). So, I'm making use of my rule always to have a backup plan, and posting the video I took, using another tablet computer, of the projection screen.

The slides can be downloaded as a PDF from:

A handout (activity, with my contact information) can be downloaded as a PDF from:

The structure of my presentation was to explicitly provide the half-hour worth of remarks in the same format and structure that I use in my technology-augmented classes

The life cycle of my classes, starting at ten minutes prior to class and moving through the end of class (top); then moving into what students do outside of class (below) and how this provides me with feedback to design the following class.

Thus, I had asked participants, before attending the event, to watch an instructional video (21 minutes) with background information on innovation:

At the end of the "pre-lecture" video, as I normally do in classes, I asked a question for viewers to consider. In this case, to make a point, I specifically told viewers that I would be having a quiz during my presentation, and that it would ask them to identify the topic I was discussing at the two-minute mark in the video. The goal of this was to be able to demonstrate how the YouTube Audience Retention analytics report can be used by instructors.

Formative Assessment via YouTube Analytics

However, because my internet connection from my laptop was not functioning during my talk, I wasn't able to make that point then. So, I make it here! (Always have a backup plan…)

Audience retention graph of my innovation talk "pre-lecture" video.

Look! There is a small peak just at the two-minute mark, suggesting that the audience was specifically targeting that segment of the video to watch (and perhaps re-watch), just as students will do if they are unclear on a topic in a video and feel the need to re-watch it.

During the event yesterday, as I do in my classes, I also conducted entry and exit surveys of the attendees using Socrative. In class, the entry quiz is based on content of the pre-class readings and/or video.

Results of my Socrative entry survey on Innovation

Of 13 attendees who completed the entry survey, 9 were instructional faculty; 4 were administrators. Almost all indicated that they wanted to hear more about student collaborative work during my talk. Very few had watched the video (based my assessment on the accuracy of responses to the question about what I had been discussing at the two-minute mark in the video), which indicated to me that I should spend a little more time than I might otherwise spend during our in-person time together reviewing the contents of the video the audience was to have watched in advance.

Goal of the Innovation Talk

For each attendee to obtain some immediately applicable information, approach, or insight that would help them address an immediate need.

Main Points of the Innovation Talk

To me, the most important message I delivered was a call to stop using fixed sets of lecture slides that are instructor-generated. As I describe in the movie of my remarks, I like creating lecture slides for two reasons:
  1. They provide me with an outline of my talk (reminding me what topics to touch on as I move through the slides). In other words, they're my crutch and make me feel safe.
  2. I give the PDF file of the slides to my students in advance, so that they can take notes on them and know what content we'll cover in class (I have loads of positive student comments from previous course evaluations that they very much appreciate having slides in advance as a resource)

However, my recent observations with trying to implement the blended learning (flipped classroom) approach suggest that making lecture slides in advance might be counter-productive to the flipped classroom approach.

Stop Preening your Lecture Slides

First, because of the temptation to throw lots of interesting (and well-produced) photographs, diagrams, charts, and published data (which we're supposed to be doing, right? Helping students learn quantitative analysis and critical thinking, by exposing them to real data?) into slides, I might further reduce the dynamic nature that an engaging class would require. I recall, as an undergraduate, that I preferred it when an instructor drew out a process, from start to finish, rather than just presenting a static figure with all of the details, all at once. Why? Because learning about processes (including how to solve problems, how to think through problems, and how series of events occur) is really difficult to do when a process is represented by a static image! This is true for lectures and for flipped classes. So this paragraph was more like a rant about effective teaching. However, back to the point about how lecture slides are probably bad for flipped classes:

Second, and much more critically, providing students with lecture slides before class might (according to some anecdotal information I've heard) stifle the students' willingness to ask questions! They might see how many slides you've carefully prepared, and then feel like they shouldn't interrupt with questions during class. "Look at all of this material the instructor intends to cover during class," students might be thinking to themselves. This is absolutely diametrically opposed to the atmosphere we should be fostering in the classroom.

What I think is preferable, especially for creating a flipped class from a "traditional" (lecture) class, and what I'm now doing, is:
  • In the pre-lecture video, create the structure (work from an outline; make sure you cover all of the important points that need to be made). Incorporate questions during the video that students should try to answer before coming to class. This way, you've pre-loaded some questions to help students answer during class, if they've had problems doing so (which you'll assess in your entry quiz, in which you ask students to provide the answers to the questions asked in the pre-class video)
  • Create a stock folder of useful visuals (graphs, charts, diagrams, movies, animations), from material you've used in the past to teach the content. If a student asks a question that would benefit from your displaying one of these visuals, then bring it onto the video projector. Combining all of the visual resources into one folder for each class meeting just makes it more efficient to grab one image when it is needed.
This approach neglects the students that value having lecture slides in advance. This is why lecture capture is critical.

Last on this point, what do my "lecture slides" look like now? Approximately four slides, distributed to students as a PDF in advance of class.
  1. The first slide has the class name and date, and the instructions for accessing the Socrative entry quiz.
  2. The middle slides will have typed questions (and/or relevant screen shots) from the pre-lecture video and from the entry quiz. We start class by discussing how to answer those two sets of questions.
  3. Following those re-statements of the questions, I have blank slides, where I add any necessary drawn responses (or existing graphics, from my folder of visuals) to student questions that follow. On days where I'm providing in-class active learning exercises, I'll also include screen shots of those exercises, to facilitate discussion and annotation of how to complete the exercises.
  4. The last slide reminds students what to do to prepare for the following class: usually a new question to think about, what to read, and which video to watch.

Other key points from my Innovation remarks included:
  • We need to develop structures to help faculty feel more at ease using technology in the classroom (e.g. opportunities for collaboration and discussion with like-minded colleagues about how to address common classroom problems using technology; time to practice approaches before introducing them to students)
  • Failure is OK (and maybe even beneficial). This is why it is important to have a back-up plan. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to innnovate/adopt too many new approaches at once. Take small, purposeful steps that you justify in advance to your students, and leave plenty of time for helping students practice the use of new technologies in low-stakes ways.

Summary of questions and comments from during and after my talk

  • How to employ mobile technology in a large-class setting? Best practices are still being developed, but include small-group work, and small-group discussions facilitated by learning assistants (e.g. TAs).
  • How to prevent students from being distracted by technology? My opinion is that this is addressed on an instructor-by-instructor basis, because philosophies differ. I'm OK with students being distracted in class, as long as they aren't actively distracting other students around them. If so, then I ask students to put the technology down, or to leave the classroom. Ultimately, students are paying for the opportunity to be in class, and if they don't want to capitalize on that investment, I don't feel that it is my place (or even entirely within my capability) to correct that behavior.

It was also mentioned by an attendee that the flipped classroom approach, augmented with technology (e.g. lecture capture, pre-lecture videos, active learning with technology, formative assessments by clickers/polling) focuses on students learning basic, factual information by themselves, and then spending in-class time practicing using/applying that information. This is the direction Universities must realize is the future of higher education.

As Jose Bowen has remarked, the value of the professoriate is no longer that we are the only source of "advanced" information - it is mostly available on the internet now. Our value now is our ability to help students understand that information, applying it to solving problems, and understanding how the information relates to their lives and to society. In other words, our jobs are helping students learn how to become self-teachers. We don't (can't) do that by lecturing.

Results of my Socrative exit survey - did I succeed?

At the end of my remarks, half of the attendees agreed that they would invite me to attend one of their classes to get advice how to incorporate technology and/or to attend one of my classes to observe how I use mobile technology. Because these surveys were conducted anonymously, I don't know, but suspect, that it was the administrators in attendance who did not agree to both of these questions.

Based on my claim (in this video) that an effective pedagogical mindset is that failing in front of class is a great way to teach, I purposefully asked the attendees of this talk to watch a 21+ minute video in advance - which is way too long for most students in a "flipped classroom" approach. My post-seminar survey revealed that six attendees felt the length was "just right"; only one responded "too short," and four brave souls indicated that this video was "too long." I failed at producing a pre-talk video that was a useful length for almost all "students" (attendees), and this is a great lesson for those who are planning to flip the classroom.

Critically, I found that I did achieve the goal for my presentation. Many attendees responded afterward that they did learn something new. The majority of respondents tended to indicate that:

  • they had no idea that YouTube video analytics existed
  • analytics could be so useful for formative feedback to instructors
  • the ease of lecture capture, especially using the Socrative app, was a new discovery for them

Even more importantly, the depth and variety of responses to the final post-remarks survey question, "What topics are you now interested in learning more about?" ranged greatly. Examples include:

  • how to use a YouTube channel
  • using Zoom for conducting office hours
  • types of in-class activities to perform using mobile devices
  • how to get away from using pre-designed, static lecture slides in class

It looks like I have my faculty professional development work (in helping others augment classes with mobile technology) cut out for me!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Digital classroom and lecture improv

My multifaceted love-hate relationship with "lecture slides"

First, as I'm deliberately trying to move away from "lecturing" (i.e. spewing forth factual information at students), this phrase doesn't fit my course.

However, I like the idea of providing students with material they'll interact with during class before they arrive. It seems to be more efficient (and green) to distribute electronic material before class, as opposed to during class in electronic or print format.

On the other hand, I want students to be in class: only because I think they'll benefit from hearing my answers to questions their peers raise (not because I have any notion that their merely being present, especially if they don't want to be present, will improve their education at all). I have long wondered whether students get a false sense of security from knowing that they have all of my "lecture slides," as well as the laundry list of textbook chapters/sections to read, and the screencast videos of all of my lectures. Like they'll magically have enough time and inclination to study it all right before exams…

In reality, in my style, a full set of "lecture slides" mostly comprised images and only some bulleted text lists anyway:
Example slides from one of my classes: mostly images, a little supporting text
So, the only way for a student to access the important (to me) details was to be in class to know what specific concepts and details I emphasized. I test mainly on in-class content, which is content I find to be most valuable for my students to understand. In the last few years, of course, given that I post screencast lectures immediately after class, students are now able to hear what I say, and see the notations I write on/around the images that normally populate my lecture slides. For example, visit my lecture capture video for the above still images of lecture slides to see what audio and annotation accompanied those slides.


Should "lecture slides" only provide the visual media (photographs, data from primary literature) that support classroom activities
- or -
Should slides contain all of the details necessary for a student to learn on her/his own?

I'd love to read your ideas and comments, if you will post them below.

This semester, I'm trying something new, and it is amazingly liberating! It has re-energized me, and I think the students as well. You see: at the start of every semester in recent memory, I've explicitly told the students that the flipped classroom approach means that students need to access the course material in advance of class, and bring questions to discuss during class; that I'll also provide in-class exercises for them to practice applying their knowledge and testing their understanding.

However, in past semesters, when I start class (routinely) by asking, "Does anybody have any questions about class content?", I get no response from my 90 students. Then, I obediently launch into my 50 minutes of prepared material.

Wait! Why do I have prepared material, if the concept of blended learning is that I reserve class time to answer student questions? The comfortable answer is: I'm a professional, and it would be unprofessional of me to show up looking unprepared. The Boy Scout in me, clamoring to take charge, demands that, in case nobody asks a question, I still have fifty minutes worth of quality educational material (yes, including active learning exercises) to share.

The uncomfortable answer is that either I haven't asked students the right questions, pitched at their level of understanding, to stimulate additional conversations and questions (i.e. I've overwhelmed them from the start), or they have obediently downloaded and looked at the lecture slides, and realize that I have content that I intend to cover during our 50 minutes. As this is what they have come to expect from the classroom educational experience, could it be that my advance preparation actually inhibits students from interacting with me in class?

The uncomfortable (but probably accurate) conclusion follows:

By virtue of preparing for class, it could be that I'm stifling my ability to support students by meeting them where they're (educationally) at. Put another (equally uncomfortable) way: am I being academically lazy by preparing and carefully grooming lecture slides for my class? Am I regressing into lecture mode, instead of investing the effort in devising ways to engage the students, so as to motivate them to want to ask questions and/or to feel comfortable asking questions?

I'm overwhelmingly happy to report that I've made a subtle change to my approach this semester, and student question-asking in class seems to be on the rise! Here's what I did:

I stopped preparing lecture slides to post in advance of class. Instead, I create a folder containing the images I would normally use on a topic to cover during one class period. I make a "shell" set of slides (one to display while students are entering the classroom, usually just

  • Slide 1
    • class meeting title (e.g. "BIOL 102: Mutation")
    • perhaps an image or joke related to the content
    • a reminder to start taking the daily Socrative entry quiz
  • Slide 2
    • To-do list to prepare for the next class period (reading assignment, videos to watch, exercises to complete)
    • reminder to take the Socrative exit quiz (if any)

I export this as a PDF file (2 pages) and upload it to our course management system for students to download before class.

Then, when class starts, I open that PDF in ExplainEverything (as I've detailed before), and use that app to navigate through the pages, adding drawn annotations as I go using my tablet computer. All of this is recorded, exported as a video, and posted to YouTube after class. Same as always.

The main difference here is that, between Slide 1 and Slide 2, I dynamically add new blank slides (and images from that one folder of images that I think I might need during each class period) as needed. When I say, "as needed," I mean either when a student asks a question that I want to include a drawn image as a response to, or when I want to cover a specific topic that I intend to discuss in class (this latter option is when I use that curated folder of images).

The critical change here: students can't tell in advance, by looking at the slides, what is planned and what is improvised! My bet is that the appearance of my improvisation is showing the class that I'm OK with answering their questions on the fly (although I am careful not to let tangential questions lead us completely off-topic). This, in turn, creates an atmosphere that lets student engagement, sharing questions and opinions, flourish.


  • I feel less pressure (which was only pressure I was self-applying, anyway) to "finish the content" I had planned for the day, because I no longer feel that students might be expecting me eventually to cover content that they had seen me include in slides that we never quite were able to get to in a single class period. Similarly, I don't feel as much like I've wasted my own time preparing material that I'm never able to get to, when I'm not constantly preening my slides.
  • I feel like I'm more flexible in following the (I realize now that I've seen it) often dynamic course of conversation flow that occurs in a truly engaged discussion with students. In the back of my mind, I'm no longer trying to figure out how to guide the conversation back to what I know is the topic of "the next slide." There is no next slide! Class is more dynamic, and it is entirely liberating.

But, there are always potential


The only one I've imagined so far is that students don't the complete set of images I use to take notes on during class. I do not have the data to support or refute this. Because, as many of you know, I teach DISCOVERe (tablet computer-based instruction) courses at California State University, Fresno, all of my students have mobile devices in their hands during class. I've never inquired about the distribution of how many students take notes on my slides using their devices, vs. takes separate notes (without the slides), vs. don't take notes at all and rely entirely on my lecture capture videos. Regardless, I still feel somewhat secure in knowing that all of the students still have those videos (including all of the images I add during class) that they can access for study purposes.


The next time you spend hours (as I have) massaging those lecture slides, consider whether spending the same time (or less) just throwing all of the image files into a folder, and drawing them out if needed, would be a better use of your time and also be more engaging for your students. Being dynamic is always invigorating for the audience as well as the presenter, especially when the audience is engaged with the presenter (think: improv comedy vs. stand-up routines).

Students will thank you for being prepared for class and for not creating a rigid daily syllabus that could be precluding you, as it did for me, from feeling free to answer questions that are critical for their growth.