Thursday, December 8, 2011

What did I do with my Acer?

Answer: Not a whole lot.

It was a great e-reader and Web access device, certainly. I didn't see much potential for using a single tablet in my beginning Spanish classes, so I pretty much played with the machine in my capacity as a computer nerd.

As a language teacher, though, I have been giving a lot of thought to how tablets might be used in language classrooms, and several possible uses have occurred to me.

One of the activity types most likely to fit well with tablets is the "information gap" activity. One popular language learning/teaching website defines an information gap activity as "... an activity where learners are missing the information they need to complete a task and need to talk to each other to find it. " (

The tablets seem to be a great way to provide information to individuals or small groups interactively. For example, one student (or small group) might get a tablet loaded with (or directed via the Web to) information that a travel agent would typically have. The other student(s) would have questions or checklists that help them collect travel information they need to make a decision on vacation plans.

There are many such activities throughout language teaching, at all levels of skill. Tablets seem ideally suited to supporting learners' needs during those activities. Such support could take a variety of forms:

  • presenting what students need to know to carry out their part of an activity and what they need to find out from others taking different roles in the activity (please note that while this is also easily done on paper in a relatively straightforward way, an app or web page delivered via tablet could selectively, and algorithmically, present the information over time and/or as discrete steps while the activity is in progress)
  • recording students findings during an activity
  • providing language support during activities via dictionaries and links within the activities to useful vocabulary and language structures
In addition to information gap activities, students could record (audio only or audio-video) their interactions for later review by the students themselves, by classmates, and/or by the instructor. In classrooms in which every student had a tablet (or similar device, such as a smart phone), quick mini-quizzes could be given and instantly evaluated, much as instructors do now with iClickers and similar clicker systems.

Perhaps a bit more pie-in-the-sky, but still possible and definitely useful, would be the use of augmented reality (see Wikipedia entry). Foreign language "treasure hunts" might require students to get up and move around the classroom, or even parts of the campus, as part of their information collecting tasks. I can imagine a variety of real-world tasks that would work, for example, understanding and following directions (e.g., "go to the end of the hall, then turn right"). Instructions and other signposts could be displayed virtually on the tablet, allowing instructors to create multiple activities that would not require taping up signs in the real world, for example.

Of course, I'm assuming that departments or programs will have access to a set of tablets and dependable wireless access in their classrooms. I don't think we're at the point where we can require students to have a tablet or a smartphone as part of our course's required materials. I do think that a Spanish 101 or 102 class with eighteen students and six or seven tablets (not counting the instructor's) could make good use of them. Doing so would require strong technical support (especially dependable and relatively fast wireless access in the classroom) and perhaps some custom programming of apps and/or websites to support the activities.

I'm tempted to flesh my thoughts out further and submit an Innovation Fund proposal next semester. To that end, any questions and/or feedback on what I've posted would be greatly appreciated.

Best End-of-Semester Wishes and Happy Holidays.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Some mini-app ideas

For chemistry:

  1. An interactive periodic table that would allow you to view physical and chemical properties of any element by touching its chemical symbol.
  2. A graphical tool for visualizing the kinetics of chemical reactions.
  3. An app that allows the user to set the dissociation constant of an acid or base to see how that acid/base would look in solution (the higher the constant, the more molecules are dissociated). Could also have a concentration slider control and a pH display.

For biology/physiology:

  1. An osmosis simulator with controls for setting concentrations and degree of permeability. May have graphical displays showing the change in concentration on both sides of membrane.
  2. A simulator for studying electrical and concentration gradients across a membrane.
  3. An interactive biological cell. Tapping on an organelle would give you information about its function, associated pathologies, etc.

I could come up with dozens of more ideas, but that would be a nice start!

- Dave

Sunday, December 4, 2011

my android tablet experience

a couple of years ago, i checked out an ipad from the library to test it out and hated the experience. the device was slow and unresponsive, heavier than i anticipated and couldn't do much in the area of productivity and communication. i could browse the internet, but couldn't see any sites with flash. e-commerce sites were out due to the cumbersome on-screen keyboard (i could make a purchase at least twice as fast using a laptop). email was out as well since typing was a chore. so what's left? games? not for me. e-book reading? no comparison to my kindle, which was lighter and easier on the eyes (no glare). so i returned the device rather disappointed.

after testing the acer android tablet, i feel exactly the same way. the acer was slightly faster than the ipad, but so what? it did have a USB port, so i was able to transfer a movie from my laptop to the acer. but i had to convert the DVD to MPEG before i could watch it on the acer (which took more time than you can imagine). and the quality of the image was not nearly as good as on my laptop. so once again, i ask myself: why bother?

next, i went hunting for apps that could have educational value for graphic designers or visual artists. the shopping experience was not a pleasant one as many of the free apps i tried were amateur creations. also, many apps are designed for phones (with small screens) not tablets. and it wasn't clear in the market place which is which, so i wasted a lot time downloading useless stuff.

"white board" was one such app. at first glance, it looks like an excellent sketchbook app, but it was obviously designed for phones. i never could figure out how to expand the menu area without exiting the application. of course, there was no instructions to help me out.

next i tried "sketch notes", a simple sketch book with 3 paper choices plus the ability to save sketches. but the icons were impossible to "click" on and changing tools was painful. once again, no instructions to help out.

"tab notes" has some possibilities. it's a simple sketch book that seems to function quite well, but there was no option for blank paper (only paper with lines). i also couldn't figure out how to delete or organize saved pages. of course the trial version has "trial version" in big bold type across the app, which prevented full enjoyment of the experience.

"color buddy" is a color harmony selector app with ability to save palettes. it's a nice idea, but with a very clumsy interface and no interactivity (as in adjusting base color with a slider). color harmony rules could have been designed with visual examples instead of labels to make learning color theory easier.

i would not recommended any of these apps to any of my students.

as for possible projects for dave bock's class, i would like to see a simple color harmony app created with a visual interface. it would be the same general idea as "color buddy" but less complicated than adobe's "kuler" which is a desktop app built into adobe illustrator (there is an android version but it costs $10). the entire goal would be to help beginner artists choose harmonious color schemes using pre-programmed rules. color theory needs to be taught visually and through trial and error, so an interactive digital color wheel with sliders seems like the obvious choice.