Teaching with Tech
Move Your Lecture into the Digital Age
Maria Andersen, February 2011
When I was a grad student, one of my hardest classes was on complex analysis. And to compound the problem, the visiting professor was Russian, the course was at 8 a.m., the blackboard was old, and the room was always overheated. The concepts of complex analysis always seemed just at the edge of my grasp. In that class, all I wanted was to read the board clearly and have the magic ability to press Pause and Rewind as needed.
Today, one of the easiest ways to offer our students this ability is to invest in (or convince your department to invest in) a tablet computing device. For math, the most commonly used portable classroom device is a tablet PC. However, if you can get used to writing your mathematics with a finger, a device like an iPad could work. You will also need a room with a projector for your classes.
While it’s true that a lecture is still lecture, here are some ways we can use a tablet computer to improve the student experience.
“Keep Your Eye on the Prize”
I didn’t realize how much a difference facing your students while explaining a concept made until I had to explain concepts on a traditional board again. I realized that every time I turned my back on my students, it was a chance for them to disengage, to become distracted, and to lose focus. Don’t underestimate the power of facing your students.
Clear Writing and Endless Space
Chalkboards can get hard to read after a few classes of use. With whiteboards, the markers run out of ink. With a digital tablet, the projected writing remains bright and clear (assuming your handwriting is legible). In a traditional classroom, do you find yourself squeezing work into the remaining board space? In contrast, at the bottom of your digital board you can always add more space (or another page).
Not All Color Is Equal
First, there was colored chalk. It was great. Then there were colored pens. They were great. I resisted the lure of the tablet PC, telling myself that, after all, color is color. I didn’t know how much I was missing. With a highlighter, I can give key steps and features the focal point of attention. Use the highlighting tools to highlight the u and du of a substitution in different colors (see Figure 1). Use them to highlight the concave up and concave down portions of a curve in different colors (see figure 2). Use them to do the shading of sets in Venn diagrams or the shading for graphs of linear inequalities (see figure 3). (Hint: To overlap of two colors, you must use colors that would actually “mix” in real life, such as yellow + blue makes green.)
Instead of saying “remember last time . . . ,” just pull up the notes from the last class to briefly review concepts.
Share Your Work
You can save or “print” your handwritten “board work” to a PDF file or set of PowerPoint slides to post for your students. No one can ever again say, “But we never went over that in class!”
Fast Forward to Webinar
If you want to hold office hours online in webinar platforms, you’ll want a way to write on the online whiteboard. You can use a mouse, but who wants to write math equations with a mouse? With a tablet PC, pull out your pen and start writing.
If you use a slide deck for lectures, you can activate the pen tools (in PowerPoint, hover your pen over the lower left corner of the active slide) and annotate right on top of the slides. If you don’t want to save the annotations, discard them when you exit from the live presentation (there will be a prompt).
Produce a Screencast
Using a program such as Camtasia Studio or Adobe Captivate, you can record the audio of your lectures together with anything you do on the tablet screen—these are called “screencasts.” These recordings can later be edited, produced, and shared online with your students. It takes extra time, but the payoff is huge: Because students can access your traditional lectures outside of class, you can recapture class time for more valuable activities.
For Help, Hit Record
Students tend to come in one after another, semester after semester, to ask the same questions. I set up a tablet to record (it takes about 10 seconds) and then capture the question-and-answer session with the student (Always ask if it’s okay). Then I post this screencast online to help all the students who might have had that question (including the ones who never find time to stop by for an office hour).
Tool for Tablets
If you’re going to explore using a tablet PC, you’ll want to check out the following programs and functions.
Windows Journal – For a quick help session, this is an easy-to-use tablet program that comes with most new versions of Windows. Unfortunately, there have been some persistent bugs in this program. I wouldn’t recommend doing extensive work with it.
Microsoft OneNote – This is the upgrade for Windows Journal with all the bugs fixed. It also includes organizational tools for managing multiple “boards” of work and sharing pages across computers and users.
Jarnal – a free, open-source note-taking program that is similar to Windows Journal. It will install on Mac, PC, or Linux and comes with a lovely set of tutorials.
PenAttention – a free program written by Kenrick Mock (University of Alaska) that creates a circle of “attention” around the pen tip so that it’s easy for students to see what you’re pointing to with your pen (http://bit.ly/PenAttention).
Handwriting recognition – We are starting to see recognition of handwritten equations in tablet programs, but the recognition is not great. So, although novel, I’m not sure they are really useful at the moment.
The Basic Four
You’ll need to learn four things to achieve basic functionality in the classroom with a tablet PC:
How to change pen tools (including how to erase and use highlighters).
How to extend the page and add new pages to get more space in which to write.
How to import an image or document (so that you can write on top of them).
How to save, print, and export in a format that students can view (such as PDF).
One final piece of advice. Use the tether that your tablet PC comes with to keep the pen attached to the computer!
Ultimately, using a tablet to record and share my lectures gave me more freedom in subsequent semesters. There was no more worry that I would forget an important example during class time—these examples were all available to students outside of class.
Suddenly, I had the freedom to try that extra group activity, play a new calculus game, or explore a concept in depth if students were struggling with it.
This column appeared in the February 2010 / March 2011 issue of MAA FOCUS.
Maria H. Andersen is a Learning Futurist for The LIFT Institute and a Math Professor at Muskegon Community College. She is also president of Edge of Learning LLC (formerly Andersen Algebra Consulting LLC), an educational consulting business. Follow her on Twitter @busynessgirl or visit her official website.