Posts tagged paperless

Teaching Technology: Triumphing over Tedious Turn-in Troubles

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip. This one is, perhaps, particularly our-setup-specific (My Classes, Handins, Returns, etc.), but I think that the core ideas are worth sharing to the world.

One of the real challenges that we confront when teaching in a digital classroom is that there are a tremendous number of documents, spread across a tremendous number of computers, often in tremendously varying states of completion. A team of faculty is coalescing around digital portfolios this spring, and file management is the single greatest challenge that we’re looking at initially.

With that in mind, it seems timely to suggest some best practices for working with files in the My Classes folder on FirstClass:

  • Email attachments hurt. If students are turning in their work an email attachments, it counts against their disk quota (which is pretty slim by this point in the year). And you have to open each and every single message to download the attachment so that you can read it. That’s a recipe for frustration. Instead, have your students upload their files directly to the Handins folder — they can just drag them from their computer desktop into the FirstClass folder (or choose Upload… from the File menu in FirstClass). Files in the My Classes folder do not count against anyone’s disk quota. The best part: you can now select a group of files in your Handins folder and drag them to your computer desktop to download all of them all at once (no more opening every individual email).
  • File names matter. Ask your students to include both the name of the assignment and their name in the name of the file that they’re uploading. If the students don’t put their name on their files, it’s a hassle to figure out who turned in what. And likewise, if they don’t put the assignment on the file, you’ve got to open the file to find out. The file names don’t need to be Homeric epics: “Feb. 18 Essay – Seth B.doc” works great as a file name.
  • Students can’t cheat from the Handins folder. They aren’t able to open other people’s work (or even their own), nor can they remove their work once it’s turned in (so no coming back with an “improved” version after the fact). In fact, the only person who can open the files in the Handins folder is… the teacher.
  • Students need to be told about the Returns folder. Every class has a Returns folder that has an individual folder for each student in the class. You can drag files you are returning to those students directly into those folders (from, say, your computer desktop). Only the student whose folder it is can open the folder and read the files (and they can’t change them). Plus, now you don’t have student files cluttering up your inbox and counting against your disk quota as email attachments!
  • Be clear, but firm. You’re teaching technical skills, and your students won’t get it right at first. Help them to turn in their files correctly (i.e. in a way that is easy for you to work with), rather than fixing their mistakes. Every mistake you fix will end up being a mistake you have to fix every time.

Obviously, the list goes on, but these five best practices should help cut through some of the chaos and confusion accompanied by the proliferation of documents produced by a digital classroom!

Math on the Web

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Shelly Blake-Pock just posted a question on his blog about teaching math in a paperless environment (in fact, since I started gearing up to respond, he’s posted some follow-ups as well).

Last year, wearing my math teacher hat (nominally given to me as a member of the Math & Computer Science department — normally only worn on the most formal occasions), I got involved in a project with my department trying to work with our students to develop a mathematical Wikipedia. The idea was that kids would write up their mathematical knowledge for the younger students and their classmates, creating a review site focused on what the students thought was important to know about the material we were covering in class.

The big idea was that this would push the students to both reflect on what they knew (as they worked to articulate it for less experienced students) and take part in some independent learning (as they researched their topics to figure out how to write them up). It wasn’t really a rousing success, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the kids were assigned topics (rather than selecting their own) and ended up mostly parroting their textbook into the wiki. There wasn’t any real collaboration or peer-review going on, at least not in a really critical sense (“Why did you explain it the way the text book does? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now… do you get it?”)

However, Brian Lester and I got excited about the idea of how one would pursue this project from a mechanical standpoint: how would you post mathematics in an editable, readable and shareable way on the web? We went through a number of permutations, but the solution that I think contains all of the desired mechanical qualities is this: use MathML. There’s a handy [take-a-deep-breath-this-is-about-to-be-a-lot-of-jargon] Javascript ASCII-to-MathML translator library online from Peter Jipsen at Chapman University. It works really well: you type in text as you would on a calculator and it gets typeset as you would see it in a professionally printed text. And you can go back and edit it.

MathML requires a plug-in for Internet Explorer 7 (no idea about 8, but I’ll bet it still needs the plug-in), but Firefox can read and parse MathML natively. Peter Jipsen has links to some helpful fonts to download to make it all look a little nicer, but they’re truly optional. Once it’s set up on your server, you just include a magic incantation at the beginning of the page to invoke the translator, type in your calculator equations, and whamm-o: pretty equations!

Now, this only handles equations on the web. We didn’t get to graphs or diagrams in our experiments last year. But I can tell you where I would look for graphs — Google has an embeddable chart generator that might work. I hope there are other similar tools.

Again, all this is with the stated goal of readable, editable, shareable mathematics online. This doesn’t address doing the exploratory work: this is the write-up and reflection after the exploration. Without a tablet, I’m not convinced that one can do general mathematical work on a computer. And with a tablet, I’d add FluidMath (still in beta, I think) to the list of must-have applications.

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