How the technology works in Calculus 2

May 7, 2012, 8:58 pm

Today we started the spring term, 6-week Calculus 2 class that I’ve been writing about for the last few days. We had a good time today, getting comfortable with each other and doing some review of the basics of the definite integral. Before we get too far into the term, I wanted to outline the technology infrastructure of the course.

For a long time, I’d used the learning management system (LMS) of my institution as the basic technology for the course, and everything else kind of fit around the LMS. At GVSU the default LMS is Blackboard. But I decided after used Blackboard this past year that we have irreconcilable differences. I don’t ask much from my LMS; I mainly use it to archive files, provide a link to a central calendar, post grades, and to make announcements. I don’t need all the dozens of other features Blackboard offers, and the profusion of features in Blackboard tends to make it a mile wide and an inch deep, with the basic functions needed for a class (email, file hosting, gradebook) kludgy and difficult. So I decided to make a break with Blackboard and strike out on my own.

Instead of Blackboard, the class is using a blog, I’m retaining the blog feel to the website by using blog postings to recap what happened in class, make announcements, and answer end-of-class questions. But the blog is also a portal to a number of other places where other features can be accessed. blogs are free, suffer very few technical problems, and have nice features such as native LaTeX compiling. (Casting Out Nines was formerly hosted at for several years before moving here to the Chronicle, and I cannot remember a single minute of downtime in that period.) blogs have a feature where the layout automatically changes to a nice, clean mobile view if accessed via a smartphone or tablet device. And I did mention it’s free, right?

The simplicity of the course blog allows me to attach other features I want from an LMS, using pre-existing web services that are simpler and better than analogous features in an LMS.

For file hosting, we have a public Dropbox folder for the class that is linked to the course blog. This is much easier to deal with than Blackboard’s file management system, mainly because Dropbox functions as just another folder on my Mac. If I need to move a bunch of files into the folder, I just Control-click them, then drag and drop. Very simple. I briefly considered using Google Drive instead of Dropbox, but I’ve been using Dropbox for a long time and am very comfortable with it.

For the gradebook, I’m perfectly happy with having no gradebook at all and just having students keep their own records. But students find online gradebooks helpful, so I’m trying out a free online gradebook service called LearnBoost. It seems primarily geared toward K-12 education, but it works for any class. I haven’t given any graded work yet, but I like the look of LearnBoost — it’s clean, fast, and doesn’t seem to get in the way of what I want to do.

One of the design features of the class was small/early/often assessment model. Part of that assessment is nightly homework on mechanical tasks. For this, we are using WeBWorK, a free online homework system developed by the MAA. I’ve been using WeBWorK for some years now, and it’s great for situations like this where you’re assessing procedural knowledge. (For conceptual knowledge, not so much, but that’s what peer instruction is for.) I assign about 10 problems a night for online homework and these are graded automatically by the server. I can look in on student progress in more-or-less real time, and if there are any problems where a lot of people have made multiple attempts and are stuck, I don’t have to wait for their questions about that problem — I can bring it up in class or post something to the class blog, or both.

Another thing that LMS’s are used for is communication, but this can be done very easily without an LMS. For email we use… regular email. For everything else — instant messaging, video chat — we use Skype. For our calendar, I just made a Google calendar and linked it to an empty page on the blog. No need to reinvent the wheel here.

Finally, the course blog also serves as a portal to other tools we use in the course. There’s a link to the Desmos graphing calculator and Wolfram|Alpha and the playlist of Maple screencasts I did last August.

The only other technology to mention here is Learning Catalytics, which we are using as our classroom response system. But there’s so much to this tool that it will need its own post.

My hope here is that the course blog gives students a simple way to manage the information coming at them and free their cognitive space up to focus on the work at hand instead. Blackboard was actually adding to their cognitive load rather than reducing it, and I’m pretty happy to have stumbled upon something simpler. For those interested in decoupling your classes from Blackboard or some other LMS — it can be done!

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