Phone Cameras Handle Information in a Snap!

Jun 23, 2012 by

This “Teaching with Tech” column was originally published for MAA Focus but is no longer available on the MAA website. This is a republish of the original column.

Recently, I found myself writing a College Algebra test in an airport lounge. Ideally, I write tests from the comfort of my office, with many alternative textbooks within an arm’s reach to use as a reference to find good test problems. But there I was in an airport, and although I didn’t have a shelf full of alternative texts with me (talk about an overweight suitcase), I did have the problems from those books. That’s when I realized I realized that I should share how I use my phone camera to make my professional life easier.  In this instance, before I left my office, I had taken a few minutes to use my phone camera to photograph a few pages of the problem sections of textbooks I typically use as reference.  I was carrying all those candidate test problems with me on my phone. [NOTE: While I could also use something like Coursesmart to access alternative texts, I could not rely on finding dependable or free Internet access in airports.]

Procrastinating now, I began scrolling through the 1000+ photos on my phone and I realized that at least half of those photos were related to my job responsibilities.  The camera on my phone has become almost as valuable to me as my computer, and I think it can be for you too.  Here are some suggestions for how you might get better use of that camera-phone you’re carrying around (or perhaps decide that it’s time to buy one of those smartphones after all).

Transfer an application problem from a text to the classroom projector:  If you’re in a classroom that has no document camera OR if you want to make sure that the application problem you’re about to go over is visible to a recorded screencast on the computer, you can transfer the problem to the computer in about 60 seconds (do it while the students are working on another problem).  Take a photo of the problem, email it to yourself, and bring it up on the screen (or as an alternative to email, use Bluetooth to do the transfer).

Carry the problem sections of many different textbooks with you for test/assignment creation:  Take 5-10 minutes and page through the problem sections of several older textbooks.  Take photos of the problems that you might consider putting on the assignment.  Now when you go home, or leave on that trip, the texts that were in your office can come along without all the extra weight.

Share your lecture notes from class: If you’re in a low-tech classroom, you can easily share the lecture notes with the class digitally (or keep a copy to remind yourself what you covered).  Simply take a photo of every board before you erase.  The photos can be shared in the online course shell – most everyone can open a jpg image or they could be pasted into a document, but that’s more work!  I should note that my students also use their phones to take photos of the problems that they work on the boards (so that they can later print them if they want to see the steps).

Keep a copy of the notes from a research or planning meeting: When our department is planning a schedule for a new semester or I get together with others to plan a big research project, we often take over several whiteboards as we try to make sense of the big picture.  At the end of the meeting, I always take photos of all the boards and share the photos with everyone at the meeting.  If you meet with graduate students about their research and you write down suggestions for research paths, photograph these notes before sending the student off with them.

Get a copy of that agenda/handout from a meeting:  If you’re in a meeting where there are too many participants and not enough handouts, just ask to borrow a handout from someone else and take a photo.  Now you have a copy to refer to as well.

Share students’ work for discussion about good critical thinking or nuse of notation: When you’re grading papers, you sometimes see an outstanding example of student work or alternately, you see the same error over and over.  Rather than talk about generalities in class, take out that phone and snap a picture of the student work before you begin to mark it up (without the students’ name of course).  Now you can share that work in the next class period to talk about why it is particularly excellent, or why the error is so egregious.  It is particularly powerful to take several photos of the same error made by different students in slightly different ways, or several great examples of student work so that you can discuss the good points of many different approaches.  I think this could be particularly powerful in a class involving lots of proofs, as students find it difficult to understand what makes up a good proof.  Seeing many student proofs side-by-side could help students to begin distinguishing the good from the bad.

Share a hint about a mathematical solution: If a student or colleague emails about a particular mathematical question, consider writing out a few steps on paper, taking a photo, and then emailing the photo for a prompt on what to do next.  This can often be faster than trying to formulate a response in an email program, especially since you can include annotation easily (arrows, circles, highlighting, etc).

Tips for Conferences

  • Slides: If you’re at a talk on unpublished work and the slides are flying by too fast to take notes, try snapping pictures of each slide instead. Try to sit off to the side so that you’re not too distracting, and don’t use a flash.

  • Receipts: If you go out to eat in a group and the restaurant will not give you individual receipts, just take a photo of the group receipt for your records. For that matter, you can take a photo of all your receipts for your own records before you submit them.
  • Name Badges: If you meet someone you want to remember and they don’t have a business card, photograph their name badge instead. I usually take a photo of my own name badge too, in case I show up for a session and have forgotten my badge in my hotel room.
  • Buy it later: If you find a book you want, but don’t want to carry it in your luggage, take a photo of it instead of writing it down. This works for articles you mean to read later too (capture the title & authors with a picture).
  • As a copier: Remember that your phone can act as a copier (of sorts) on the road. If you need to share a handwritten document with others, you don’t need a copy machine.  For example, I needed to share the handwritten exam solutions I wrote on the plane with the exam proctor.  I photographed the solutions and emailed them to her.

  • Logistics: When you park in the airport parking before the event, take a picture of where your car is (then when you arrive home tired and jet-lagged, you’ll be able to find your car again). Take a photo of your luggage tag from the airlines before your luggage is sent off to the cargo hold.  Now if your luggage is lost, you have all the information that was on that original tag AND a photo of the luggage.  If you rent a car, take a photo of the license plate to make it easier to register the car at the hotel.

Most of us did not grow up with an ever-present phone in our pockets and It involves a paradigm shift to stop treating photos as an expensive resource. Challenge yourself to take more photos to streamline your workflow, improve your teaching, and help your students learn more.  It’s a snap!

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Collecting Learning Notebooks in an Online Course

Jun 4, 2012 by

In a prior post, I discussed how I’m using Learning Notebooks to encourage students to carefully think through the mathematical steps and notation for solving problems.

I promised that I would explain how students complete this assignment in an online course, so today I’ve made a video, Collecting Learning Notebooks in an Online Course to show you the process I’m using inside of Instructure Canvas.  The process should be similar for other Learning Management Systems (though it may not be quite this easy).

Here’s the process.  Students still complete their Learning Notebook exactly how they do in a traditional class. I encourage them to keep a Table of Contents so that they can quickly find their assignments and make sure they are complete. Again, this was discussed in a prior post. The turning in part is a bit different for an online course.

I want to collect ten random problems from the students. So first, I create a Question Bank (or test bank) of 18-20 problems.  The problems look something like this:

Example problem from the Question Bank. [click on image to enlarge]

In the actual assignment, I tell the Quiz to pull ten problems at random from the Question Bank.  This is a timed assignment, and I figure that 45 minutes should be plenty of time to take 10 photos or scans and upload them, even on cruddy Internet like mine.

How do students take their photos?

  • Digital cameras
  • Webcams (I required them for this course)
  • Scanners
  • Multi-function printer/scanners
  • Cell phone cameras

How do they get the image to the quiz?  They have to get the image to their computer screen and then use Jing to create a URL for the page they want to share.

Here are a few examples [click on the images to enlarge]:

Handwritten student work shared with a camera.


Handwritten student work scanned and shared with Jing.


Handwritten work shared with a webcam and Jing. (permission granted by student to share photo)

Then I grade the quizzes. Done!

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Analysis of Online Whiteboard Tools

May 30, 2012 by

NOTE: This post was revised considerably on 5/31/12 after a followup use with Dabbleboard proved to be awful.  Given this new development, I have to recommend Scribblar and I will plan to have a “backup” whiteboard handy in case the chosen system is “having a bad day.”

When I meet students online for office hours, it’s vitally important that we have an shared online whiteboard to use as a space to do problems.  These online whiteboard tools tend to come and go, so don’t shoot the messenger when one of the tools in the list below disappears. The good news is that these types of tools seem to pop up on the Internet all the time, so where one disappears, three others take its place.

Solving a problem in DabbleBoard

Solving a problem in Scribblar

I’ve been on a search for my “perfect” online whiteboard this week, so I thought I would run through several of the available options, and do my “math teacher analysis” for each.  I use the Chat interface in Canvas to see and hear my students, so I’m really only concerned with finding the “perfect” drawing space.  I paste the URL for the whiteboard in the text chat window, and we can all view the drawing screen from that link.

Here are some of the features I find important in an interactive whiteboard:

  • Large writing space
  • Ability to quickly clear the screen
  • Ability to add more space to the whiteboard or go quickly to a 2nd screen
  • Responsiveness of the pen with freehand drawing
  • Colored ink
  • Highlighting tools
  • Easy ability to share the board with students (ex: by pasting a URL into a chat window)
  • Ability to add a graphing grid or image

This morning I took a look at the following online whiteboard tools:

For the record, none of these tools will work on an iPad.  They all run using Flash and/or Java plugins.  The native Canvas Chat is actually Tinychat, and there is a whiteboard plugin included. However, it’s Flockdraw, and of all the tools I tested this morning, it is in the bottom two in terms of performance (toss up between Flockdraw and Google Draw for worst tool).  Here’s my detailed analysis of the six online whiteboard tools.

Analysis of Online Interactive Whiteboards (click on image to enlarge)

In the “War of the Online Whiteboards” I was torn between Dabbleboard and Scribblar.  I listed Dabbleboard as my top choice on Wednesday, but then its performance on Thursday was so horrid I’ve reversed my decision.  Scribblar has a couple of advantages: highlighter pens (the only tool I looked at that included this option for drawing) and if you do splurge for a Pro account there is a built-in WolframAlpha button which pastes the output of a WolframAlpha search directly to your screen.  The only downside of Scribblar is that students are prompted to “login” when they follow the URL to the whiteboard.  They don’t really have to login, they just have to provide a username for the board, but you will probably have to explain this to every single student that follows the link (sigh).

Guide to Dabbleboard (click on image to enlarge)


Guide to Scribblar (click on image to enlarge)

My recommendation for math teachers using the Instructure Canvas Chat: Ditch the Flockdraw whiteboard and create a “permanent space” in Scribblar or Dabbleboard (both will require you to create a free account for a permanent room) where you can keep a collection of all the pages you’ve used for a given class.  Create a different space for each class.  Then paste (or re-paste) the URL to the room URL  into the text chat whenever a new student arrives in Canvas Chat (since they don’t see the past history of the chat).

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Learning Notebooks for Online Math Homework

May 28, 2012 by

After teaching math at a community college for 10 years (and using online homework for at least 7 of those), I have noticed that my online math students don’t seem to have the same grasp on notation and the steps to “prove” the solution to a problem as when they did old-fashioned paper & pencil homework.  I have also found that the students who use online homework have become much more unorganized, and are unable to find the work for the problems they have questions on.


Example of student work in a Learning Notebook

This last year, I’ve been experimenting with what I call a “Learning Notebook” – where students keep an organized notebook of the handwritten work for selected problems from the online homework system. In these Learning Notebooks, the students have to show the steps required to complete the required problems (including all necessary graphs and proper notation).  They don’t have to keep a record of every problem, since some questions can be answered by inspection alone. For the Learning Notebook, I typically choose problems that would require me to show steps in order to complete it with a reasonable confidence in my answer.   The online homework, graded on accuracy, is worth 20 points per unit.  The Learning Notebook, showing sound mathematical thinking and notation for required problems, is worth an equal weight of 20 points.

The student is responsible for keeping the notebook organized, including a Table of Contents and page numbers (these help me to find assignments when I go to grade the notebooks).  While this may seem like busywork, keeping a notebook has several benefits to the student:

  • When studying for an exam, the student can find the work associated with each problem quickly.
  • When there’s a question on a specific problem, the student can quickly find their version of the problem and what they tried.
  • Repetition of the use of proper notation leads to better outcomes on the exams (since they don’t “forget” to include the notation there when they are required to have it in their notebooks).
  • Thoughtful reflection on the problem steps may be more likely when they slow down to write the steps down instead of trying to do too much in their head.
  • Students get points for showing their work, which can act as a slight padding of their grade when the tests are hard (which they inevitably are).
One of the additional benefits of the Learning Notebooks is that it gives me a “place” to collect additional assignments that can’t easily be covered by online homework.  For example:
  • Sketching the graph of a function given a list of properties
  • Explaining the transformations of a graph in multiple steps
  • Proving that a series converges or diverges
  • Explaining all the properties of a rational function

A collection of Learning Notebooks on exam day.

For my traditional classes (that include an in-person meeting) I grade the Learning Notebooks while the students give the exam. I select ten problems at random to check for completion, notation, and supporting steps.  I typically give a 2-hour exam, and I can grade the notebooks for 15-25 students by the end of that time.  This is when it becomes vitally important to me that the students include a Table of Contents and numbered pages.  Without those, I would spend a lot of extra time searching for assignments.  I use a 0-1-2 point scale for each of the ten problems.

  • 0 points = the problem cannot be found, there was only a problem and answer,  or there was no reasonable attempt to solve the problem
  • 1 point = some reasonable attempt to solve the problem, but details missing or problem is incomplete
  • 2 points = problem is completely solved, with all appropriate details included
After I have worked through all 10 problems, I give the student a score out of 20.
To help you understand the process a little better, I asked a few students to let me share their notebooks and the grading process.  They agreed, so here’s a little video explanation of how the process works.

Video: Learning Notebooks for Online Math Homework

Here is a Sample Table of Contents and Sample Notebook Check for the Learning Notebooks.

Because they have to keep a Learning Notebook, students know that they shouldn’t cut corners when they work through problems.  At first, many will try, rushing through the online homework (probably with the aid of calculators and WolframAlpha) with the belief that they will just “take a few minutes to go back and write up the steps.”  For this reason, you shouldn’t be surprised if the grades for the first set of Notebooks are pretty bipolar (half will be great, half will be awful).  It turns out that to actually think through and write the math takes time, time that some of these students have been cutting corners on ever since online homework was first introduced.

I’ve been using these notebooks in Math for Elementary Teachers, College Algebra, Calculus I, and Calculus II over the last year, and have seen an improvement in mathematical thinking, use of notation, and study habits for those students that keep good notebooks.  I don’t have any scientific evidence, but overall, I feel like these Learning Notebooks are helping improve my students’ success.

NOTE: In about a week, I will share how I’m using the same strategy in my online classes.  I want to get all the way through the process of collection once before I write about it.  Hint: It involves webcams and cell phone cameras.

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Seamless SAVI Chat in Instructure Canvas

May 22, 2012 by

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the video chat service provided in Canvas was turned off in Fall 2012. It has now been replaced with a Text Chat that is built in to Canvas, but no video.

Can your LMS do this? What did student have to do to join me? Click on the Chat button, then click to share their webcam. Seamless. This is what I love about Instructure Canvas. There are no extra accounts to set up, no appointments to schedule, and I don’t have to be tech support to get the technology working. Some of my students were using the built-in webcams on their computers for the very first time. The look of surprise when the technology just started working was priceless (it does ask them before activating the camera).

You can click on the image to see a larger view.

Four of us meet in the Tinychat plugin to Instructure Canvas for an online help session in Online Calculus.

By the way, SAVI = Synchronous Audio Visual Interaction (a term we coined at LAK 2012).

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Getting Graphs to Instructure Canvas Discussions

May 21, 2012 by

It’s not too hard to get graphs (or any kind of image that you can grab off your screen) into Instructure Canvas. From the instructor side, you can upload an image, which is easy enough, but what about from the student side?

An example of a student post that includes a graph (copied from Wolfram Alpha using Jing)

The trick seems to be copying and pasting from a stable URL. For example, in our first attempt, we tried to just copy and paste an image from WolframAlpha. Initially it looked like it worked. The image appeared on the discussion board as expected, and it seemed to save when the post went live. However, as soon as I visited the post from a different computer, the images copied directly from WolframAlpha were gone.

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