Tragedy

Last Updated: 05/30/2013

A hard drive died today. I've realized just how handicapped I am without my tablet. I started using it in the classroom last year, and I will never return to a chalkboard. I got lucky today, because my data is backed up and safe, and I had already cancelled class due to an evening exam, but it made me realize just how vulnerable I am to electronics failure. A new drive is on order, and I've found a temporary spare, but I can't quite imagine what I would do without it in the classroom. What I like best about the technology is the seamless connection between concept (clicker) questions and annotation. In my mind, the two cannot be linked using PowerPoint slides and a chalkboard alone. It has completely revolutionized my teaching style, and I don't believe I could function nearly as effectively without it. I have taught courses without the technology, using only blackboards or whiteboards, but although it was only two semesters ago, the use of boards seems archaic to me.

In a sense, what I found in my tablet was a solution in need of a problem. It seemed a bit gimmicky at first, flashy and unnecessary. However, it has now become to me an absolute necessity. When I think about embracing technology in the classroom, this is what I hope to find -- something that effortlessly makes a profound impact on my teaching style.

I have been trying to envision what my next major personal revolution will look like in the classroom. Two years ago I would have been hard pressed to believe anybody using a stylus and digital paper would do particularly well in the classroom.

Here is an assortment of strengths and improvements, which may help me identify another turning point in my teaching style:

Strengths:
1. The ability to quickly zoom and negotiate space on the screen
2. Text and figures can be quickly selected and re-positioned
3. Concept (clicker) questions are integrated seamlessly into the content
4. I can quickly write new concept questions in real time
5. I can prepare my notes soon before class, copy the page and quickly delete comments and solutions that I don't wish to display to the class
6. I can post my full set of revised notes online, including answers to concept questions at the very end to help students revisit the material
7. Instead of working example problems or complicated and tedious derivations in class, I can simply record them at home, pausing when necessary to take a break or fix a mistake

Drawbacks:
1. I wish I had more space on the projected screen. The projected area in some rooms is small, limiting the amount of material that students can see at one time. Chalkboard space is much larger than projector screen space in most rooms.
2. As I did today, I sometimes feel completely dependent on a functioning machine to deliver class effectively. I am searching for more redundancy to help prevent this problem.
3. I would love to move my tablet around the classroom. I do walk around a lot and use a laser pointer to highlight key material while doing so, but during those times I don't have access to the screen.
4. Although they are by far the most rapid and significant form of feedback that I receive in the classroom, clicker questions are still only multiple choice.
5. Instead of drawing it themselves, students must point and describe parts of diagrams or images for clarification (the screen is often high overhead and less accessible than a chalkboard).

Some ideas that come to mind:
- A wireless interface between tablet and the screen. I can walk around the classroom, and at times, students can write on the tablet directly, displaying their thoughts and perhaps making them feel empowered (and perhaps waking up students around them).
- Multiple displays. I would love to have access to an additional screen, perhaps one for myself and a second for one or more students who could interface that display using personal smart devices.