Tag Archives: Technology

Student Engagement In and Out of the Classroom

On November 7, 2014, I attended the ETOM Conference at St. Clair Community College in Port Huron, MI. One of the underlying themes of this year conference was student engagement in and out of the classroom. As an instructor who hasn’t taken classes in quite some time, sometimes I forget how difficult it is to be a student in the 21st century. Between the rising cost of college, the changing nature of technology, and the demands at home, it is often a struggle to engage students in the classroom. This conference helped give me a different perspective of how I can look at my classes in a new way.

The opening session focused on Open Educational Resources and how the cost of textbooks has an impact on which classes students take and how engaged the students are with the college. The statistics are clear that higher textbook costs lead students to take fewer classes and sometimes not to take any classes at all. Although I don’t believe that textbook cost should be the only reason to use an Open Educational Resource, I believe it is an important factor to consider. Besides the cost, the idea of being able to customize the material to include videos and interactive materials to increase student engagement is also appealing.

My favorite session of the day, though, was titled, “Engaging Students With and Without Technology.” In this session, the focus was on classroom response systems. Most teachers have heard of clickers. At my college (Macomb Community College), we have Turning Point technology available for use in the classroom. All of these clickers are nice, except for the cost and the inconvenience of setting up the system correctly. At the ETOM Conference, we were introduced to KahootIT and Plickers as two free alternatives to the traditional classroom clickers. I plan to use KahooIT with my calculus class in the upcoming weeks as a way to engage students with a quick in class assessment.

One of my favorite parts of ETOM Conference was that the online students were not forgotten, either. Engaging students in the online classroom can be extremely challenging, especially with asynchronous courses. One of the sessions that I attended focused in on using individualized quizzes and individualized feedback using podcasts in order to engage students in the online environment. The idea was initially developed as a tool for teacher-to-teacher interaction, it was soon discovered that students benefited from this individualized instruction as well. This helped me to realize that how we engage with each other is often very different than how we engage with our students. If something is working for teacher-to-teacher interaction, it is worth a shot for teacher-to-student interaction as well.

Overall, the ETOM Conference was a very enriching experience and I would highly recommend that others attend future conferences. The amount of information was definitely not overwhelming and I walked away from each session that I attended with at least one idea, principle, or best practice that I could immediately apply in my classroom once I left the conference. Student engagement is a very serious matter and it was refreshing to see so many different perspectives on the idea of how to engage students from all directions. Student engagement starts from before the time students even register for a class, but student engagement needs to extend beyond the classroom as well.

My Experience with Spotify Premium

I was skeptical at first.  My previous experience with Pandora wasn’t the best.  I couldn’t listen to any song that I wanted to, but I could create an artist radio, where without fail, 5 songs in I would be turning off the music because Pandora would be suggesting something absolutely awful.  And why not just skip over the song?  Well, with Pandora you only get so many skips per day.  Then Google Music came along for a while.  I could listen to any song I wanted to, but only once.  That was a weird phase that Google had.  I’m glad it’s gone (or at least I can’t easily find it anymore by simply using Google to search for a song).

When I first heard about Spotify, I couldn’t believe that there was a music service available where I could listen to any song at any time.  But it’s absolutely true.  Spotify carries most songs.  Spotify’s search engine isn’t necessarily the best, so you really need to know exactly what you’re looking for, but it’s there.  With Spotify I could easily get rid of my CD collection from the 2000s if I wanted to.  However, I have a lot of rare CDs from indie bands that Spotify doesn’t necessarily carry as well as a lot of autographed CDs that are irreplaceable.

Why would someone want to listen to any song at any time?  Or better yet, why would someone want to pay $9.99 per month to have this ability?  Well, have you ever had a friend post something about a great song that they just heard about on Facebook?  Now you can listen to these songs without paying for each individual song.  Although, I’m not recommending sharing what you’re listening to on Facebook since to tell you the truth, Spotify has given me the ability to listen to music that I normally wouldn’t want anyone else to know I was listening to.  I really believe that what I listen to in the privacy of my own home shouldn’t be broadcast all over the Internet.  Thus, I turn this feature of Spotify off.  However, I do still have my Spotify account linked to my Facebook account, I just am not sharing every individual song that I am listening to, just the ones that I want to share.  Just a tip.

If you don’t use Facebook, maybe you heard a great song on the radio on the way home from work and want to listen to it again.  Or a great song from the latest TV show or movie that you watched.  Or a song that was recommended to you by a friend, family member, or someone at work.  Or you just wanted to explore additional songs by an artist without buying their entire album.  The list goes on and on of times when you would want to listen to a song here and a song there, right?  Think about it.  If you had the ability to listen to music freely and without limits, wouldn’t you listen to music a lot more often?  By my calculations, if you buy more than 10 songs iTunes per month, it might actually be cheaper to pay for Spotify Premium.  The tip that I have here, though, is to remember that you have Spotify Premium.  For the first month or so, I had to consciously remind myself not to go to iTunes and not to go to Amazon to buy a CD.  After I got used to the fact that Spotify was going to be my sole source for music, things got a little easier.

But what about downloading music?  OK, you can’t really download music from Spotify in the sense that you have a file that you could burn to a CD and take with you wherever you want.  However, Spotify Premium has offline mode.  Offline mode allows me load any song onto any device that I have to listen to when I might not necessarily have Internet access.  This is especially convenient for me to use when I want to listen to music in my car and I don’t want to use my 4G Data Plan.  Or in any spot at work where the wireless Internet signal is not the best.  When using offline mode, though, you must make sure that the songs are loaded onto the specific device that you want to listen to them on.  It would be nice if Spotify could talk between devices (at least when the devices are both connected to the Internet), but unfortunately, it doesn’t.  So, if I’m listening to one of my playlists on my computer at home and  pause the song, I can’t automatically start playing the song on my computer at work without opening the playlist first.

Again, why are you paying for this?  I know you’re not stupid.  You’re right.  I’m not stupid.  I know there are other options available for me to listen to music.  There is a radio station in my area that heavily promotes Rdio.  And I have friends who swear by making music playlists in YouTube.  Again, once I settled on the fact that I didn’t need to buy music ever again if I was paying for Spotify Premium, the whole idea of paying a reasonable monthly fee seemed a lot better.  I highly recommend Spotify Premium.  I’ve been very happy with it so far.

The Search for a New Learning Management System

We use ANGEL at my college and I’m not happy about it.  I bet you’re not happy with your Learning Management System (LMS), either.   I don’t need to give you my list of grievances, but I’m going to anyway:

·         When I log-in to ANGEL, there’s a ‘What’s New’ panel that shows you what is new (e.g., any new posts by students) since the last time you logged in.  This is nice, except they won’t appear in the list the next time you log-in.  What ANGEL really needs is a ‘What’s unread’ panel that lists everything that is still unread, regardless of if it is new since the last time you logged in.  Or even better, it simply needs to list all of the activity (old or not) in a panel when you log in.

·         ANGEL is not very friendly with math.  My IT department even admitted it.  They told me that the best way to do anything with math in ANGEL is to use a pre-made, publisher-provided cartridge.  The problem is that the publisher of the textbook that my college uses doesn’t have any ANGEL resources.  After explaining this to my IT department several times, I simply gave up since they insisted that if I just called the publisher, that most publishers would have something available. Can you say, #Fail?  Although, I don’t know who’s the bigger failure – my IT department for not believing that I did my research on what my publisher provides and doesn’t provide before calling them or my publisher for not providing resources to go along with their textbooks.  In addition, this means I can’t use MAA’s WeBWorK, etc.  Remember, we are living in the 21st Century.

·         ANGEL is not an access-for-everyone platform.  In fact, it is so difficult to learn that my IT department requires students to complete an ANGEL orientation before they can even log-in to their courses for the first time.  If an LMS is so easily broken that students must complete an orientation before even being able to use the thing, then there is something wrong.  We are living in the year 2012, and we deserve to have an LMS that is intuitive to use and in which a person can choose to learn as little or as much about the LMS as they want to learn.

·         The ANGEL Gradebook sucks.  For example, I have a lot of students who miss the first class in which I give an in class assignment.  The ANGEL Gradebook has no easy way for me to exempt that student from the assignment.  I have a lot of special grading recipes, such as dropping a quiz only if another assignment has a grade higher than a specified assignment.  The ANGEL Gradebook cannot accommodate me.  I guess it’s a good thing that I’m a math teacher and that I know how to calculate my student’s grades by hand.  The major problem, though, is keeping students grades accurate throughout the semester when I know that ANGEL is showing my students incorrect grades.  On the positive side, a few students who should have dropped a class did drop when they saw a grade posted in ANGEL that was lower than their actual grade.

·         The ANGEL Communication system is broken.  If a student sends you an internal e-mail through ANGEL, you have to log-in to ANGEL to reply to that student’s internal e-mail.  First of all, it should be set-up so that if you reply to the notification, it would get sent back to the internal e-mail system.  Second of all, ANGEL is not mobile friendly, so you can’t access it easily on your iPad or other mobile device.  So, if a student sends you an internal e-mail, you have to take the time and effort to log back into ANGEL from an actual computer or laptop in order to respond to the student.

·         Students simply don’t like using ANGEL.  It just looks old and outdated.  And about 50% of my students don’t even know how to spell ANGEL.  They spell it A-N-G-L-E.

This brings me to today.  My college was considering switching to a new LMS, but recently decided to stay with ANGEL indefinitely.  I just wasn’t going to take it anymore.  I felt like I was in a trapped room being beaten by ANGEL.  This isn’t one of those friendly ANGELs with a halo like you might meet in heaven. 

Anyway, one day I was told about Instructure Canvas and the fact that instructors can sign-up for their own individual accounts for free.  I started using Canvas with my students during the summer semester and not only do I love it, but my students love it as well.  The majority of the problems that I listed above are no longer and there are other features available that I would have never dreamed of asking for.  For example:

·         The Recent Activity stream lists all of the new activity on the home screen as it comes in so that you don’t have to worry about checking a special panel every time you log-in.  In addition, the communication system is very friendly, as you can respond to discussion posts and internal e-mail all from the Recent Activity stream.

·         If you leave a grade blank, the Canvas Gradebook is smart enough to exempt that student from the assignment.  And the Gradebook knows how to weight grades properly.

·         There’s a Collaborations tab in Canvas in which EtherPad is already integrated with Canvas.  One day I had my students collaborate in class to make documents on resources for operations with integers, ordering of integers, etc.  At first my students didn’t understand the concept that they were all supposed to be working from separate computers simultaneously.  But after they started using EtherPad, they understood how it could be used as a very powerful tool.

·         The Equation Editor is so intuitive to use that I required my students to use it whenever they posted a mathematical expression or equation on the discussion board.  There were actually not any complaints once I showed the students where the Equation Editor is located.  The only problem was that I had to occasionally remind students that they needed to use the Equation Editor.  Having a pop-up window that asks, “Are you sure you don’t want to use the Equation Editor?” might be a nice feature.  But now I know that I’m pushing it.

The long story short is that Canvas is intuitive and easy enough to use that my students were using it all the time to ask me questions, to ask each other questions, and to form study groups.  And all of this occurred without my students having to complete any special ANGEL Certification Training offered by my IT Department.

Of course I didn’t use every feature that Canvas has to offer.  If I were teaching an online course (or a full-semester course rather than a condensed summer course), I might use the Chat and the Conferences features to hold online office hours.  But it was the summer semester and I was already seeing my students in class 4 days a week.

And that is where I am at in the search for a new LMS.  Until my college switches to something other than ANGEL, I’m going to use Instructure Canvas instead.


The Side Effects of Technology Overload

I am co-presenting a presentation on “The Side Effects of Technology Overload” with another participant at Screencast Camp 2012.  Below is a list of some articles on the topic that are meant to spark discussion within the group.  I will share some notes on the discussion once the session is over.

WebMD: When Technology Overtakes Your Life

Consumer Reports: Therapists Sees Signs of ‘Technology Overload’

The Culture Connection: Technology Overload? Five Steps to break Free

Harvard Business Review: Death by Information Overload

Side Effects of the E-Society

Kevin Shaw: Why I Don’t Want To Ever Buy a Smartphone

Reuters: Technology Overload Can Ruin Relationships

Seattle Times: Beware of Digital Overload and Technology Failure

Delta Dental: Technology Overload May Benefit Your Health

Jing and Geogebra

During the Summer 2012 semester, I decided to have my Math for Education students use Jing to send me a diagram of something that they were supposed to do using Geogebra.  If you aren’t familiar with Jing, it is a free screen-capturing and screen-casting tool from the people at Techsmith, located in Okemos, MI.  And if you aren’t familiar with Geogebra, simply put, it is a free alternative to Geometer’s Sketchpad, but it can do lots more.

First off all, I have to say that I had always wanted to use Jing and screen-capturing with my students, but I wasn’t sure from what angle I wanted to approach it.  Many instructors have students create their own screencasts (a fairly well-known example is Mathtrain.tv).  Of course, I already use screen-casting on the instructor end by creating screencasts for my students on topics they are struggling with or by providing video feedback on student assignments.  I just hadn’t ever had my students do the screen-casting.

Frankly, I was worried.  I was worried about how students who didn’t have easy access to a computer would complete the assignment and I was worried about the amount of class time it would take students to learn about Jing (some students insist on writing down every single detail).  And of course, there were a few students who struggled.  For example, A librarian told one of my students that her Geogebra file was damaged, but what actually happened was that they librarian was trying to use Quicktime to open the Geogebra file instead of Geogebra.

Overall, this was a very good exercise for me and my students.  I learned a lot about what my students actually knew about the topic based on the drawings that they submitted and so the next time we worked on something in Geogebra together in class, I was able to clarify a few of the details of what the students needed to do in the computer to get the diagram that they were supposed to get.

And of course, this was a very low-stakes assignment.  I didn’t want to put a lot of points or pressure on students for an assignment in which they could have very well had a friend or relative complete at home without me even knowing.  And I made sure to stress the importance of the fact that this is the type of software they will need to know how to use when they are teachers in the classroom.

If you are interested, here is a link to the Jing Screen Captures taken by my students.


Learning from Ignite

If you don’t know what Ignite is, simply put, it is a format in which speakers are limited to using 20 slides and each of those slides automatically advances every 15 seconds.  Thus, a speaker must get their point across within a maximum of 5 minutes.

I learned about the Ignite format from past conferences that I have attended.  And I have attended several Ignite Events in the Detroit, MI area (they have them all around the country).

This semester, I decided to have my Math for Education students give an Ignite-style talk on the last day of class.  They had two major content goals – they were supposed to summarize what they learned during the semester and they were required to have at least 5 slides on a topic that I pre-assigned to them (e.g., hexagons, pentagons, etc.).  The other catch is that they only had 30 minutes to prepare their slides and presentation.

I learned quite a lot about my students from this activity.  I saw many of them crack under the time pressure of having only 30 minutes to prepare.  Only about half of the students actually had 20 completed slides.  I heard many of them use mathematical terminology incorrectly.  And many of them were not able to talk an entire 15 seconds about each slide and left a lot of dead air time.

Many of my students complained that they are not good at thinking fast on their feet.  Unfortunately, this is a skill that they will need as teachers.  This is a skill that cannot be taught, but I do believe that it can be learned through practice.  I thought that this was a great way for the students to practice this skill in a ‘safe’ setting.

In terms of assessment, I made it a very low pressure situation and students simply got ‘participation’ credit.  But I learned a lot about my students from this activity.  A lot of students surprised me.  Some of the students who know the content well were the worst speakers and some of the students who didn’t know the content as well were the best speakers in the class.  I had the students vote at the end of class on who was the best speaker and the top two vote-getters got prizes (one got a lesson planning book and the other got a school supplies kit).

One of my students graciously agreed to be recorded and her recorded talk and slide deck are below.  Enjoy!





My Search for a New Laptop

This week I bought a new laptop.  My search came down to the final three.  I ended up buying the Toshiba, but I thought it might be helpful to others to post the thoughts that went through my mind while picking between the three, as well as the specs on each of the machines from Best Buy.





·         Low price point; cannot beat the quality for the price.

·         Can do the basic stuff such as use the Internet and create documents for my classes.

·         Had bad experiences the HP in the past, but that was well over 10 – 12 years ago.

·         Sony looked slightly better.


·         Previous Sony Viao held strong for 3 – 4 years; the only reason that I was even looking to replace my laptop is because the battery life was only 15 minutes and the Z-key was broken.

·         Security in knowing exactly what I would be getting from having owned a Sony in the past.

·         When I tried to buy a new battery for my old laptop, I found out that Sony discontinued the battery for my model.

·         Having broken Z-key is very annoying when you want to use ‘Ctrl+Z’.

·         New Sony Model would probably have a low battery life, just like the old model.

·         Sony used to have a Sony Store at the local mall that I could visit in person for more selection and for more personalized service, but it closed without notice.


·         Price was not much more than the price of the Sony.

·         Machine is very lightweight, which makes it very easy for me to take with me wherever it needs to go.

·         Machine has a very long battery-life (at least compared to all of my previous laptops).

·         Machine has a solid state drive; this was a very big pro for me since I have had multiple fan failures with my past laptops.

·         Have never owned a Toshiba in the past so I would have no idea of what to expect from previous experience.

·         Every time I have seen a Toshiba in the stores in the past, they have always been heavy, hot, and on display with an extra cooling fan under it.

·         My personal perception of Toshiba is that it could end up being a lemon, just like the Averatec laptop I had before the Sony.

Download this file


Computer Tips and Tricks

This past week I have had to do a few things on the computer that appear not to be common knowledge.  Here is a brief run-down of computer tips and tricks that I think might be useful to everyone:

Microsoft Excel

The University of Wisconsin-EauClaire has a wonderful summary of functions needed to use Excel as a Gradebook.  My favorite one is the ‘SMALL’ function, which makes it very easy to drop the lowest score, the second lowest score, etc.

This week I also came across a situation where I had to add double quotes around a name and slanted brackets around an e-mail address.  This is very tedious to do for a list of hundreds of names.  But there is hope since there is a very simple formula that can be used to do this.


Turning off CAPS LOCK

This week a friend of mine asked me how to turn off caps lock.  It really is not that hard to do as long as you have the guts to alter the binary code.  Now it is dawning on me that this may have been a good exercise for my Everyday Math class when we studied our chapter on cryptography.


If you don’t want to turn off caps lock permanently, but you still find yourself typing with the caps lock more often than you would like, Convert Case is a very nice web-based tool that will allow you to convert your uppercase text to lowercase text without having to start again and retype it all.


Saving Webpages as PDF Files for Easy Reading

This semester I had my Everyday Math students do presentations on current events in the field of mathematics.  I picked about 35 articles from sources such as The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and Science Daily, and I wanted a way to keep the articles to about 1-page front and back each.   JoliPrint and PrintFriendly were absolutely perfect for this cause.  Once printed, I put all 35 articles up on the board around the classroom and had the students pick the article that interested them the most.  The students read the article at home and presented a summary of the article during the next class.  I found it to be a nice activity for this particular group of students.