Friday, September 9, 2011

It Just Works

Why do we use so much paper? Trying very hard not to use paper in our course has helped me answer this question. Paper has a lot of benefits. It is easy to use, it doesn't need charged, you don't have to reboot it, it doesn't require an internet connection and you can read it in bright sunlight. It is light, portable and cheap. Well at least it seams cheap on the surface. Knowing our department's printing budget, I can say that paper and printing can get pretty expensive. But probably the biggest reason is it just works. I've often heard Apple fans describing Apple products the same way, but even my iPad needs rebooted sometimes and once in awhile the battery is dead at an inopportune time. However, if you want to be innovative you must be willing to deal with less than perfect execution. Airplanes use some of the oldest engine technology available today, because the tolerance for failure is virtually zero. Since innovation often brings uncertainty, airplane manufactures stay with the tried and true. Many instructors treat classroom instruction in much the same way, but fortunately several are willing to take a risk. Of course I do have my paper parachute just in case.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What this project is all about

We realized that there is nothing up here about this project in general.  Now I feel a little caught up, and can take a moment to describe the project overall, so you know what you are reading about.

Last semester, a group of staff and faculty at Parkland hatched an idea. The idea started in several places:
1) Distance and Virtual Learning wanted to give a handful of tablet mobile devices to faculty to see how they work, if Parkland can support them (as they are showing up in students' hands more often), and if Angel, Parkland's current course management system, works on them.
2) Faculty in Computer Sciences and Information Technology (CSIT) Department wanted to create a course that would have students writing apps for ipad and/or android mobile devices, with faculty and staff suggesting possible apps.
3) In order to bring computers into the classroom and lab, faculty in Natural Sciences (Nat Sci) Department wanted to give each student in a science course a mobile device. The department teaches many online science courses that use a lot of technology, but the on campus science classes are low-tech.  Requiring devices for each student would bring technology into the classroom, reduce the amount of paper we use in sustainability classes, and see whether or not using mobile technology would encourage a seamless interaction between students' daily lives and the classroom.
4) Campus Tech wanted to obtain some devices to work on the support requirements so both students and Parkland staff and faculty could use them unhindered on campus.

These groups banded together to write a modest proposal for Parkland's annual Innovation Fund awards, and were awarded the money. We spent several weeks looking at netbooks vs mobile devices vs tablet computers, weighing the pros and cons of ipads vs android devices, and slogging through reviews of mobile devices.  We finally decided upon the Acer Iconia A500 for the CSIT and Nat Sci classrooms, and a combination of the Acer and iPad 2 for the faculty pilot and support work.

This blog is mainly meant to record the experience of using the devices in a classroom setting to remind us of the joys and challenges of this semester, and to help others who might be attempting to use mobile devices in their classrooms.

I will describe the class, which even without the technology, is a pilot. Curtis Shoaf (Physics) and I (Biology) both teach sustainability-oriented lab science courses. He teaches a course called "How Things Work" which focuses on energy and energy sources.  I teach Environmental Biology. We decided to link these two courses into a hybrid learning community that is simultaneously team-taught by both of us. Students must enroll for both courses, which will fulfill both their life and physical science courses in one semester. For all the reasons listed above, and to attempt to "go paperless", each student is loaned an Acer device. No textbooks are required, but there are readings and many assignments using the device. Students meet for six hours a week in the classroom in which we plan to lecture and have discussions, do some hands-on labs, and go on field trips. The online portion of the course includes "lectures", discussion postings using Google+, and labs.  We will also be having the students do a service learning project that involves a local Childrens' Science Museum energy exhibit. We have a good plan for the linked course that meets all of the objectives for each of our courses, but removes the redundancy and merges the content nicely.

So, that is what we are doing. A big pilot class. The students, Curtis, DVL, Campus Tech, and I are all learning together how to make these devices work in the classroom!

6th day; student comments!

Today, we are going to let the students comment on their experiences with the tablets. "Roses" are good things, and "Thorns" are the challenges.  See the comments to this post.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Spreadsheets work better on a tablet!

I used a google spreadsheet that Curtis made for the linked class in my regular class today, but instead of using the acer tablets, I used our department HP tablet computers (a windows os computer). For an in-class data submission, the spreadsheet worked better on the tablets than on the computer. On the tablets, the cells containing a formula were locked so students couldn't accidentally enter a number in the wrong cell.

In the linked class with 12 students, it was crazy having students moving back and forth between instructions, spreadsheets, and calculators. The added chaos of 12 more students and devices in a typical class of 24 is daunting. I wonder if we can ever go completely paperless?

Getting Caught Up

We are two weeks into this project, and are behind in the blog postings for various reasons. Let me make a first post without much formality. 

Curtis and I were able to get our tablets a month early, and we played a lot. We looked for apps that we thought we might want to use, tried to figure out how to access settings, wifi, pdf readers... all the important things we could think that we wanted for class. I don't think I was prepared for the reality of using the tablets in class even after having them for a month!

The first day of class went very well.  Campus Tech had outfitted our classroom with our own wireless access point, and we felt ready!  We gave a general overview of the class, and were surprised that some students didn't know that they were going to be loaned a tablet, and some students didn't know this was a paperless/ textbookless class.

Halfway through the first class, we went to the Parkland Library to allow students to check out the tablets. This process went extremely smoothly thanks to DVL and the Library Staff.  Students got their tablets (and signed away their transcripts and ability to register for more Parkland classes if they lost, destroyed, or damaged their tablet and did not pay for it), and gingerly carried them to the classroom.

The tablets immediately equalized the class and created a working community.  Curtis and I were prepared for class, but it was obvious we were still learning and needed the students to be flexible and creative throughout. I think this really empowered them to be part of a learning community, not just sit and be lectured at.  I had to remind myself several times (as I was embarrassed I couldn't explain how to find the settings again) that learning how to use the tablets was one of the objectives of the course.  Unlike most other classes I've taught or been a student in, it was okay to use the tablet in this class, which is no more than a glorified smart phone. At one point, I started laughing because all 14 of us were glued to our tablets not speaking.

The second day of class proved that this was going to be a great group to work with. We didn't mandate that they put down the tablets and focus on the movie we showed, but the students all did. They were going to be an interested, and interesting group... perfect to work with on this project!

Last week, we finally got some important details worked out as to how we were going to communicate and assign homework for the class. Angel is much more clunky than we had anticipated, so we've migrated to google.  We had the students make a google account on their tablets, and have utilized many of the google features because they work nicely on the tablets and sync everywhere. We have created a google calendar with assignment due dates on it, and we require students to use google+ to communicate with each other outside of the classroom. We have also been using google docs for presentations, documents, and lab spreadsheets.  We are constantly trying different apps, but the google features work well as long as wifi is available.

So, this week, I am feeling like we have made it through a lot of the simple tech issues we've had trying to find apps that work for general things.  For example, I didn't even consider that reading an instruction sheet that I made in MS Word would be difficult on the tablet, or that students wouldn't be able to see a powerpoint presentation. We are trying to use free apps, and that makes some of these things a bit tricky.

Today, I was thinking that we should make coming to class with a charged tablet mandatory, and we should look at all the machines at the beginning of the second week to make sure everyone has the apps on their tablets we've asked for them to download.