Archive for March 16, 2012

Interactive Learning Startup Top Hat Monocle Wants To Turn Your Homework Into A Tournament

This article about a company that produces classroom engagement technologies such as in-class polls, discussion forums, and homework tournaments is making my head spin. I can get behind the value of in-class polls or quizzes, where students get immediate feedback, and professors get an immediate sense of what they sank in or not. But this:

Top Hat offers an SMS-based response system, while all others access its platform through the web. Students can ask questions during lectures without interrupting teachers and get instant feedback from other students.

Why would we even bother all getting together in the same room, if the discussion is just going to be taken on-line, and away from the professor? And, given my experiences with students having side-conversations to clarify issues in class, at least half the time it seems that these discussions lead students to miss my giving exactly the explanation that they are looking for. This sounds like it turns class into a backdrop that students may tune in and out of, like a television program, while they do other things in parallel.

And then there is this feature of the system:

Professors set up a question bank and a tournament question bank, and leading up the tournament (let’s say at the end of the week), students practice questions from the first set and receive practice scores. On the day of the tournament, students log in and are automatically paired with other students at their level of ability, proceeding through rounds of problem solving, until there’s a winner. The top five are publicly displayed. While this may irk some, the idea is that knowing that they will be publicly competing with winners to be displayed on a class scoreboard incentivizes students to actually practice problem sets and learn the material.

Indeed, I believe this would “irk some”. I am sure that it motivates some students – but I’m concerned about who it would demotivate. Particularly in a course where students enter with a diversity of prior knowledge and skills, a student who has improved more than anybody else in the course could still be faced with a constant reminder that they just don’t measure up, in a very public manner. But beyond that, how much time is being spent coming up with two complete question sets to enable this process? And how interesting can these questions be, if they are automatically scored by a system (I can’t imagine how this would be tractable if there are actual professors or TAs doing this grading behind the scenes)? I cannot think of a single assignment I give that could be translated into this setting without losing depth.

In the end, I come back to what I usually come back to when I read these articles and my mind starts to boggle – these systems aren’t meant for a classroom with twenty students and where the amount of “lecture” taking place is minimal, as compared to group discussion and problem solving. These are attempts to use technology to recreate the level of engagement of a small class where everybody knows each other, in a room of potentially a hundred students or more. So I’ll feel free to continue preferring that my students direct their questions about course content to the entire class, rather than texting the friend sitting next to them.

Conversation on Non-Coding Contributions to Open Source

An interesting but common discussion over on Slashdot of how to get started working on open source projects, particularly if you’re fairly novice, evolved into some even more interesting discussion of the merits of getting started by helping with documentation, what that even means, and some firsthand accounts of people’s problems with trying to get a foot in by volunteering to do documentation. Some chat about the same issue but with UI design as well. A pretty good read for students who want to build up more of a portfolio than just their coursework but want some practical advice on whether to go the open source route.

Tablets for all

I’ve been thinking a lot about tablet computing in educational settings, partially because of some research I’m doing, and partially because of the splash of Apple’s announcement of iTunes U back in January which doesn’t seem to have been followed up by much. My gut reaction is that tablet computers are awesome, but for certain purposes. I absolutely love mine when I’m not working – vacations, weekends, messing around online in the evening. But when it comes to my teaching, I’ve yet to find ways that it really supports or helps me, and it makes me suspect that it isn’t the be-all-end-all learning tool either.

Thinking about eBooks in particular, I have never been able to bring myself to read one. I’ve started them, but there’s too much else going on on my tablet, and I have to make an effort to focus just on the text. For me, even having the clock at the bottom of the screen makes it hard for me to focus – I find myself checking the time as I “turn pages” and aware of how much time I am spending reading as much as what I am reading. It is not as emersive for me, a point this recent NYTimes article makes as well. Perhaps a Kindle would solve that problem, except the Kindle seems to be trending towards an integrated browser and such as well.

That’s mostly for fiction – when I think about course texts, I have different concerns beyond the lack of emmersion. I have a much stronger physical memory of content in textbooks than in narrative works, and I worry I would lose that with a digital text. I use a number of texts with full-page diagrams, or worse two full-page figures/tables/psuedocode, and I don’t see how that translates to a smaller screen. And, I am suspicious that learning really does happen better when it involves a moderate amount of mental struggle, because it requires mental engagement, and that eBook texts will further encourage skimming and searching for key terms over prolonged engagement. Will the increased engagement reported continue when the tablet stop being novel? And what will the long-term learning and retention look like?

Finally, I give all of my exams open book, but that doesn’t mean I want to give them open-internet, particularly when that means the door is open for communication between students in the course and in fact individuals worldwide. Unless I’m willing to give up the idea of exams, or assessing students based on entirely independent work, I’m concerned with how to accomodate eBooks in my courses, and I’m not the only faculty member I’ve talked to with these concerns. I’ve seen a lot of links to this article about how one person sets up iPads for secure testing, but it assumes you have the MAC addresses of the relevant devices and that those devices don’t have cellular connections, or the ability to connect to alternate wireless networks. Also, that you have the staffing to block and unblock individual devices on wireless networks for each test that might take place throughout the semester. The article is an interesting discussion of what can be done, but it seems very time intensive to scale up to an entire school. This slashdot discussion of how to allow testing that uses the internet but minimizes cheating touches on similar issues but also gets caught up in questions of what a test should be, whether testing without collaboration makes sense given that the real world involves collaboration, etc.

Overall, I don’t have good answers to these questions yet, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

A lot of people linked to Franzen’s concerns about eBooks eroding our relationship with literature. I’m not sure I go so far as that, but with the real world examples of eBooks being revoked on people’s devices, his sentiment that “the fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring” resonates with me. This article considering how iPads would work in high schools versus colleges further riffs on the permanence issue, raising a good question of, if schools buy the iPads and the texts in order to make them available to all students, how will students maintain a complete set of notes – throughout school and into the years after (yes, I actually did pull out my high school calculus and physics notes when I was in college). Even if most students don’t, by making it impossible aren’t we communicating that notes are just for studying for tests or writing one paper, and not a long-term resource?

For schools going all-tablet, I wonder if this will limit options for available texts, and what they will find their incidence of breakage or loss will be? I’m also curious if they will be having young children signing up for the necessary internet accounts to make these devices work effectively, or if they will be wrangling the devices through administratively controlled accounts. How are the frequent updates that these devices seem to require going to be handled without disrupting the classroom? Not that these are insolveable problems, but there’s definitely more planning to be done than (1) buy devices, (2) hand them to students. The test cases are reported to be working well, but they’re also on small groups and often small groups of high-achieving students.